Navigating the Food Fight with Your Picky Eater
Family Health
November 11, 2021
Navigating the Food Fight with Your Picky Eater
Little boy staring at his food

Is your child a picky eater? Does it feel like every day there’s a new food added to their list of foods they *absolutely* will not eat? While a daily food fight might just be part of growing pains, in some cases his or her eating preferences could be a sign of an underlying issue.

Selective eating (SE), or “picky eating,” is common in young children. Until recently, picky eating wasn’t viewed as a problem or an indication of something more. Today, however, some researchers believe picky eating might be related to a more serious issue.

Picky Eating Problems

2015 study published in Pediatrics found that children with SE were twice as likely to have or develop depression or social anxiety. Furthermore, the study’s findings suggested that the term SE is outdated. Rather, choosy eating patterns may be more appropriately indicative of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) — a feeding disorder that can develop at any point in one’s life.

“Many of us who are parents are used to having a child reject the foods we ask them to eat. It’s easy to normalize it as a part of childhood and a phase that they will grow out of. While that is true for many, there is a subset of kids who need some attention in this area. About 20 percent of picky eaters fall into the ARFID category. They are at heightened risk for developing depression, anxiety or ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder). Anxiety, in particular, seems to have a relationship with picky eating. There is some evidence that the fear that drives the anxiety in some circumstances also drives the avoidance when it comes to food.”

Perhaps the problem will resolve itself in time. However, in the time it takes to overcome this issue, problems can surface at home — causing disruptions for both the child and family. It can be beneficial to seek help if your child is an extremely picky eater.

Yummy in My Tummy

When looking for strategies to help your child try new foods, it is best to avoid the following:

  • Bribing them to eat certain foods
  • Catering to your child’s food choices
  • Punishing or rewarding them for eating specific foods

“You want to be sure that you don’t send the wrong message when it comes to your child’s relationship with food. If a food requires a bribe to eat, what does that say about eating that food? If you find yourself punishing your child around eating specific foods, the punishment is what sticks with the child more than the value of the food.”

However, there are some helpful — even fun — steps parents can take to help their picky eaters.

“Role-modeling is one of the best ways for us to teach our kids. Take part in eating the foods with your child. Let them see you enjoying the food you’re eating. Be interactive in conversation with them about what you like about it. Socialization can be a key element to helping children and adults try new foods. For kids, one helpful approach can be to involve them in preparation of the meals. When they are invested in that process, it drives their curiosity about the food.”

Down in the Dumps

Only during the last 20 years or so have health care professionals considered depression in children to be a serious issue. Determining if a child is struggling with depression, anxiety, attention disorders and other psychological disorders can be difficult because each developmental stage has its own set of “normal” behaviors. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests parents seek help from their pediatrician if their child experiences prolonged signs of depression.

“Pediatricians are often the first health care professional to pick up on depression and anxiety in children. They have multiple screening practices available that help them decide what treatment and resources are needed for your child. Whether a pediatrician, child psychiatrist or therapist, there are a variety of helpful and effective treatment options available in our area if needed.”

To find a pediatrician for your child, visit

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