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Picky Eaters: Understanding the Root Cause

July 18, 2017

Health and wellness contributor and holistic health counselor April Reigart shares her expertise to help us figure out the root cause(s) of kids’ picky eating.


I’m not a fan of the term “picky eater”, but you know it if you’ve got one in your home.  What I am even less a fan of is the blame-game.  I hear from other parents all the time, things like:  “If you eat healthfully, so will your kids”, or “They should eat whatever you put in front of them”, or “Children learn their eating habits from their parents”.   I will acquiesce—to a degree.

My child has never had a soda, nor has he ever eaten at McDonald’s, and that is because I’ve never offered that to him—it’s not part of my vernacular.  So, to that degree, he does eat what I eat.  I agree with keeping unhealthy foods away from your home.  However, just because my child doesn’t eat the things I don’t give him does not mean that he does eat the things I do give him.  Not all, anyhow.  Life’s just not ever black and white.

He eats his broccoli, he eats his peas & carrots, he’ll eat fish if it’s battered and fried…  But, at almost 7 years old, his life is not spiced with variety.  Can you relate?  Instead of blaming yourself for all the ways in which you’ve failed at getting your child to eat anything and everything, let’s take a look at how we can move on.

Firstly, let me say, I think there are two types of parents out there:  Parents of extremely agreeable (we’ll call them “easy-going”) children, and then, those of us who endlessly struggle with our extremely spirited children.  If you have a selective eater, you’re not (necessarily) doing anything wrong.  If you are catering to your child’s every whim, or allowing them to dictate their diet—that is wrong (for lack of a gentler way to put it).  However, there is a lot more at play regarding your child’s eating preferences than conventional wisdom tells us.

Conventional guides tell us things like:  Be a great role-model for your children’s eating habits; don’t bring junk food in to the home; have your kids just taste one new food per day/week; teach your kids about healthy foods; get your kids involved with shopping, growing and cooking; don’t make dessert a reward; make vegetables fun; don’t cook separate “kid dinners”, etc.  However, what if, like me, you can say check, check, and check to every suggestion on this conventional list, but you still deal with a selective eater?  There may be some other things to take in to consideration.

Genetics and behavior can be contributing factors to a child’s eating habits.  Scientists have managed to isolate and identify actual DNA traits that cause a child to reject bitter tastes more voraciously than other children might react to bitter tastes.   These children are biologically programmed to reject bitterness, which long ago was a beneficial trait in the interest of survival.  Often, bitter foods were toxic, as the plants use their bitter chemistry for self-preservation.  For an ancient baby finding a poisonous plant in the wilderness, this innate rejection was life-preserving.  Today, we know what to eat and have created a relatively safe environment, and we want our children to eat green vegetables—which are extremely and unpleasantly bitter to these super tasters!

Additional contributing factors to the preferences of a picky/selective eater are behavior and sensory issues, as well as psychological factors.  For example, psychologically speaking, if you use food as bribery, reward or punishment—you are teaching your child that food is other than nourishment.  You may be teaching them that food is a tool, and this will create a struggle around eating.  You never want to use food as a reward or bribery.

Children are more likely to become “picky eaters” when there is emotional struggle created around food. They may also go on to become emotional eaters as adults.  It is generally not a good idea to use food as a reward.  It is one thing to tell a child that your family will go out to dinner to celebrate an accomplishment, but a completely other thing to offer a cookie for acing a test, or a lollipop for peeing on the potty.  Just try to be mindful of how you are using food.  If a reward involves a cake—make sure it is more about the familial celebration than the actual eating of cake.

However, if you can rule this out, too, you may be facing more behavioral or sensory issues.  Behaviorally, children with sensory processing disorders or ADHD may seem fussy about the foods they eat because tastes, smells and textures can pose a very real challenge to them.  A child with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information they receive through their senses, not limited to but including food—specifically, trying new foods!

Typically, if your child eats 30 or more foods, including fruits and vegetables, they may be a “picky eater”, but are probably doing all right—nutritionally speaking.  You can work on increasing their repertoire by using strategies like:  hiding pureed vegetables in foods they already like, in increasing volume (e.g. adding pureed zucchini and/or cauliflower to pasta or pizza sauce, a few spinach leaves into their fruit smoothie, a dollop of mashed sweet potato in to their mac’n’cheese, etc); allow them to use condiments (my child will eat a lot of things if we put ketchup on it. Yay, for ketchup!);  teach them that it is okay to not like something if they at least try one bite, and realize that it can take up to 15 tries before they decide to like it; offer foods they do like prepared in a new way and let them try it (e.g. If they like ketchup, have them try tomato soup, then maybe roasted tomatoes.  If they like peas, try offering a light pea soup.); do have family sit-down dinners regularly, as children do learn their eating habits at home, and the family table puts you in the best position to influence and discuss.

If your child eats fewer than 20 foods, and especially does not like fruits or vegetables, you may be facing nutritional deficiencies.  In this case, it will really benefit all of you to seek professional help from a pediatrician, who can guide you to a specialist, or an occupational therapist.  Either way, take heart—there is help and guidance for whatever situation you are dealing with.  It is easy to be frustrated and blame yourself, but remember, with sensory issues, autism and ADHD on a steep rise, it is not necessarily your parenting style which has created your selective eater.  If any of this rings true for you, it may be worth your while to seek further guidance.


April Dawn Reigart is an Integrative Nutrition Certified Holistic Health Coach with over 20 years of holistic and macrobiotic cooking experience. She has also published articles on topics such as Fair Trade and GMOs. April is passionate about changing the way we eat and empowering people to take charge of their health.