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Picky Eaters 101

Many people start the New Year wanting to change their eating habits and/or diet. Perhaps this gets you thinking about what your child does or does not eat. If you have one or more picky eaters, making these changes might be a bit more challenging and here’s why.

Eating food is a sensory experience. We see, smell, touch and taste food. While it may not seem like a big deal to you, eating can be overwhelming for your child for a number of reasons. In addition to the sensory experience, there are other environmental factors that can lead to children becoming picky eaters. Here are a few possibilities:

(1) Oral sensory issues. Children may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to various textures, tastes and smells.

  • Children with oral hypersensitivities (also known as oral defensiveness) may dislike having their teeth brushed/face washed, gag while eating and/or have a limited food repertoire.
  • Children with oral hyposensitivies may crave intense flavors (such as spicy or sour foods), be extremely messy while eating and/or pocket foods during mealtime. Some of these children do not chew food thoroughly and then are at risk for choking. The negative experiences they have with food (or other objects that come in contact with their face/mouth) may develop negative experiences with feeding and resist eating as a result. 

(2) Parents are afraid to say no. Saying “no” isn’t always easy, but it is necessary if your children are going to listen to you. This is true in all scenarios, not just at mealtime. Setting boundaries is important, and if your children think they can get whatever they want, they will!

(3) Children are not exposed to new foods enough times. It often takes 10-15 exposures of new foods for children to really want to try or like something different. An exposure to food does not necessarily mean taking bites. An exposure could be touching the food, smelling it, or even licking it. It’s important to remember that it can take time for children to simply tolerate the food on his/her plate, let alone taste it!

(4) Parents reward trying/eating new foods with another food. If you are trying to get your child to try something new, do NOT reward them with dessert (or another desired food). When you say, “If you finish your ____, you can have dessert,” you are suggesting that the reason we eat food is so that we can have dessert.

(5) The child’s physiology. When children experience discomfort or pain, it can easily be correlated with eating. These children might stop eating certain foods altogether because of the negative experience he/she has had. Think about this, when you get food poisoning, the last thing you want to eat is whatever made you sick, right? It’s the same for kids!

Now you might be asking, “What can I do to help?” Here are a few suggestions to try:

(1) Make sure your child is hungry at meal times. It’s simple. No one wants to eat when they are not hungry. It’s important to remember that even if your child is hungry, he/she still may not eat because being hungry will not necessarily force a child to overcome fears about eating foods he/she does not like.

(2) Keep the non-preferred foods out of the home. If you do not want your children eating cookies, candy, ice cream, etc., do not keep them in your house! Or, if you want to have them at times, put them somewhere that is not easily accessible to them. This way, he/she won’t know if chocolate chip cookies are an option.  

(3) Do not force food! It is your job to provide a variety of foods (a number of times) and it is your child’s job to make choices about what he/she will eat.  Remember, it often takes 10-15 exposures of new foods for children to really want to try or like something different.

(4) Play with food! One of my best recommendations is to set up time to play with non-preferred foods between meals. I always suggest setting up this playtime at a table that is not associated with mealtime. There should be no pressure to eat the food during this time.

  • Build a tower with crackers, create a garden with broccoli or make crazy hair with noodles. Our first goal is for the child to be comfortable touching the food. Once they can touch the food, the next step would be to smell the food. Whatever it is that do, keep it fun! If they happen to eat the food while they are playing, that’s just an added bonus!
  • Try a cooking class: A cooking class designed for children allows them to truly become acquainted with a new ingredient or food. They develop fine motor skills while shredding, squeezing or rolling! Bubbles Academy’s head chef Miss Lina finds that her toddler students are much more willing to try food that they themselves helped to prepare. Check out how Taste Buddies’ mini chefs tackled recipes from the rainbow!

(5) Get professional help. Give us a call! There are other reasons why your child or children might be picky eaters, and it can often be challenging to figure out why. We will work with you and your child to figure out why he/she is resistant to eating certain foods. Let us help your child expand his/her food repertoire. 

Contact Tanya Lotzof at Chicago Speech Spot by calling (312) 600-7231 or emailing [email protected].

What questions do have when it comes to trouble at meal times? What have you tried to engage your picky eaters with their food. Share below and tweet @BubblesAcademy @SpeechSpot.


Tanya Lotzof

Tanya Lotzof is a licensed speech-language pathologist who is devoted to making a difference in children’s lives. Her primary areas of expertise include expressive/receptive language delays and disorders, articulation and phonological disorders, feeding disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorders and Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS). Tanya received a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Michigan and a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology from Northwestern University.