What to Do When Your Child Is More Than Just a ‘Picky’ Eater

What to Do When Your Child Is More Than Just a ‘Picky’ Eater
Photo: Photographee.eu, Shutterstock

Little kids are picky eaters — that’s both common and normal. However, there are a few signs that your young child might be more than merely picky. If you think your child’s pickiness has gone to the extreme, but you’re not exactly sure why, you might want to seek assistance. You may worry that your child could develop an eating disorder when they’re older or have concerns about an underlying medical condition. Here’s what to watch out for and consider.

Signs that your child is more than just a “picky eater”

While small children may have particularities when it comes to their favourite foods, even to the point of big tantrums when you serve off-brand chicken nuggies or tiny oranges that are too “dry,” there are some tip-offs that there is something else at play besides the developmentally appropriate fussiness that most small kids phase through.

Some things to look out for include:

  • Gastrointestinal issues: stomach aches, bloat, diarrhoea, or constipation
  • Vomiting after eating or vomiting when trying new foods
  • Frequent choking episodes
  • Fear of choking or vomiting, sometimes leading them to be too afraid to eat
  • Significant weight loss or frequently being “below the curve” on weight charts at check ups
  • Refusing to eat, even though they logically should be hungry
  • Avoiding entire categories of food (all combined foods, all non-packaged foods, all foods of one texture)
  • Very slow eating
  • Inability to eat in front of others

You may be worried about a nutritional deficiency due to the selectivity of your child’s diet, and the inability to eat a meal as a family might be causing tension. Your child might be irritable or have low energy because they are not getting enough nutritive food.

What to do next

The first step is not to try to force your kid to eat, even though, as a parent, you might feel like it’s your most basic job to keep your kid alive through sustenance. Make an appointment with your doctor — they will want to do an examination to rule out any illnesses or medical conditions that might go away on their own or require medication.

They will also make sure there are no chronic or other medical issues contributing. Some, but not all medical conditions that might affect a child’s ability to eat normally might include:

  • Diabetes
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Tongue tie
  • Cancer
  • Food allergy or intolerance

You may be referred out to rule out any of these conditions. If anything comes up, your medical provider will guide you on how to manage or treat from there.

If your doctor determines there is no medical cause for your child’s feeding issues, they may move on to a developmental or mental cause. Many children have sensory issues with food, which may or may not lead to a diagnosis of a mental health condition, such as anxiety, autism, sensory processing disorder, or Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), a mental condition similar to anorexia that does not include body image issues.

If your child has a mental health condition that impedes their ability to eat, you may be referred to different types of specialists. Feeding specialists are specific types of therapists who help families manage these kinds of issues. For kids with sensory issues or autism, an occupational therapist is often trained in feeding therapy and can help your child get used to different textures and types of foods. For children with anxiety regarding food, a therapist who can talk to them or play with them as they work through some of their fears around food might be helpful.

It helps to reframe your own mindset, too

Our adult world is drenched in diet culture that can be hard to avoid, even when thinking about our little kids and their growing bodies. However, your providers will help you frame your thinking and use words to help your child best incorporate food back into their lives in a healthy and holistic way, without fear or shame.

Keep in mind that, while it can be hard to make dinner for your family only to have one kid literally throw up with disgust, they’re not doing it to make you mad. Changing what “family dinnertime” looks like for now in order to help your child will create life-long healthy food habits and help change the culture around food and mental illness, setting your kids up for a happier, more balanced relationship with food as they grow.

Log in to comment on this story!