When Should You Worry About Your Child’s Picky Eating?


March 16, 2023
Worried that your kiddo’s picky palate is more than just stubbornness? As a parent, it can be tough to know when something’s a typical part of childhood development and when it’s cause for concern. And when it comes to mealtimes, picky eating can cause emotions to run high – for everyone involved. Fortunately, you’re not alone. As adventurous of an eater as you might be, your kids may feel differently about the mysterious green stuff on their plates. And sometimes, that trepidation might actually signal something deeper than a power struggle. Not sure when to keep pushing and when to call in reinforcements? Let’s talk about picky eating and when it becomes a problem. Disclaimer: this is for information only and should not be used to diagnose or treat any medical or mental health condition, including pediatric concerns. Talk to a doctor if you have concerns about your or your child’s health.

Defining “Picky Eating”

Sure, everyone likes different foods to different degrees. You may prefer lasagna to pork chops, for example. Like adults, kids have preferences. But “picky eating” goes beyond preference. It’s actually part of a range of feeding difficulties. There’s no single definition, but it does have some common features:
  • Unwillingness to try new foods
  • Reluctance to eat familiar foods
  • Strong food preferences
If you struggle to get your child to eat classic childhood staples, like hot dogs, pizza or PB&Js, then you might be dealing with a picky eater. Vegetables? Forget it about it. This is the world of picky eating, in which your kids hesitate to eat typical foods and outright refuse new foods altogether.

When to Call the Doctor

Picky (or fussy) eating is common among toddlers and younger children, but it tends to resolve itself by the time kids reach school age. If your 6-year-old still refuses to even consider a bite of spaghetti, for instance, then it’s worth mentioning to your pediatrician. Let’s be clear: there may be nothing “wrong” here. Your kid might outgrow her aversion to mashed potatoes in another year or two. Or maybe mashed potatoes will never grace her plate, even in adulthood. But because picky eating can lead to other problems if left unchecked, talk to your child’s doctor about it. Doctors can help parents find resources to address any problems, overcome feeding issues and encourage kids to develop more well-rounded eating habits.

Picky Eating Problems

We mentioned above that picky eating can lead to problems. Just what kind of problems? Physical, mental and emotional, as it turns out. Here are just a few:
  • Frustration at meal times (for the whole family)
  • Undernourishment or even malnourishment
  • Low intake of essential nutrients, like iron and fiber
  • Weight problems
  • Trouble with attention and energy
  • Weakened immune systems
Kids who consistently eat a selective diet could miss out on key nutrients, like fiber, which would lead to constipation. Low iron levels might mean less energy. And for kids who eat a lot of sweets as preferred foods, dental health can also suffer. Fortunately, most kids grow out of extreme picky eating, well before there are serious health problems. For kids who don’t, take heart: you don’t have to watch your kids struggle at mealtimes for the rest of their lives.

How to Get a Picky Eater to Eat

Kids might be stubborn, but they are – for the most part – adaptable, too. Helping your picky eaters eat requires creativity, consistency and lots of patience.
  • Model good eating. Kids copy behavior, so model good eating yourself. Don’t discount positive peer pressure, either, by having siblings demonstrate good eating, too.
  • Serve family-style meals. Instead of plating meals individually, set out foods on the table and let the whole family serve themselves. Yep, even your toddlers. This not only encourages better eating but can also help your kids learn when “enough” is for them.
  • Let your kids help make meals. Getting kids involved in the making of meals may help them appreciate what goes into it. They may also want to eat a meal if they had a hand in making it.
  • Offer a range of options. Try including a few different types of foods at mealtimes, such as more than one vegetable. Serve both, and let your kid decide which one she wants to try. Along the same lines, offer sauces and dips with the veggies to see if it boosts the appeal.
  • Pair nonpreferred foods with preferred foods. If your kiddo loves pancakes but won’t touch any form of cheese, try serving pancakes for dinner with spreadable cream cheese as a topping. Kids tend to like “doctoring” their food, so offer ways to make mealtimes more fun by pairing foods they already like with ones they haven’t tried.
Don’t despair if none of these approaches works. It might take more than 10 tries before a kid likes a food, so a one-time rejection isn’t a big deal. Just introduce new foods slowly and with care, respecting your kids’ boundaries while pushing them (gently) to discover new foods.

How Not to Help Your Picky Eater

While you’re helping your kids to develop a more adventurous palate, keep in mind that there are lots of right ways – and one wrong one: pressure. Avoid pressuring your kids to try new things or finish their plates. Pressuring kids to eat can lead to:
  • More selectiveness, not less. Contrary to what you might think, forcing, coaxing, pleading and bribing your kid to eat foods they initially refuse can actually make them even pickier. Pressuring your kids to eat may turn the whole experience into a negative one, and it could end up making them resist certain foods well into adulthood.
  • Not liking certain foods. When you think about foods you don’t like, what comes to mind? Chances are that you associate some kind of negative memory or experience with the food. If you get food poisoning from eating turkey deli meat, for example, then it may be a while before you eat it again – if ever. Kids are the same. If they associate, say, broccoli, with stress and anxiety at the dinner table, then they may not ever try it.
  • Overeating and weight gain. You might mean well when you tell your kid to finish his plate. Food waste can be a real problem. But consistently telling kids to “clean their plates” ignores their natural hunger cues. And over time, this can actually make kids eat more than they should. Children need to learn what fullness feels like, so start with smaller portions and go from there.

In other words? Keep your cool, parents.

Picky eating can be draining and overwhelming for you and your kiddos. But an aggressive approach doesn’t help. And sometimes, it can make it even worse. If you’ve tried the above tips without much success, or you have concerns about nutrition and development, reach out to your child’s pediatrician. You may need to explore other kinds of treatments, like occupational therapy or mental health therapy, that can help your child develop better eating skills and overcome anxiety about trying new foods. In any case, know that you’re not alone. Picky eating is common, if frustrating, and there are ways to deal with it, one meal at a time.