You’re so proud, because it seems your baby will eat anything. You think you’ve prevented picky eating and then BAM! Your child stops eating many of the foods they used to love. Sound familiar?
Some level of food preference is expected. There are probably some foods that you prefer and others that you don’t. It’s the same with kids. We all have varying tastes.
There are some levels of picky eating that go beyond normal and should be addressed, but for the most part, expecting a picky eating phase can help you get through it without too much stress.
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When do kids get picky?
Food preferences generally start to develop around 12-18 months, although some will develop before or after this range. It is usually at its worst around age 3 and has improved around age 5 (1). There is a wide range of “normal”, so if your child is outside of this range, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is a problem.
Factors Outside Your Control
Energy Needs Decrease
After age 1, kids don’t need as much energy to grow as they did when they were babies (relative to their size). This shows up in a big decrease in appetite. If a kid isn’t as hungry for foods in general, they may be more likely to just eat the foods they are comfortable with.
Around toddler age, kids start becoming way more mobile. It is theorized that this hesitance to try new foods is actually a biological precaution. If a toddler was roaming around in the wild without their parent, we wouldn’t want them eating whatever they came across. We would want them to choose what they know is safe.
Now this isn’t as relevant in today’s society, but our biology may not know that yet. What was once a life-saving protection is now just a frustrating situation for parents.
There has actually been some research looking into some of the possible genetic components of picky eating (2). While the research is still new, there does seem to be some genetic component to picky eating. The good news is that there seems to be some ways to counteract genetics with feeding responsiveness, so if you are a picky eater, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child will be one as well (3).
There are certain diagnoses that are associated with increased picky eating. It is common with many sensory processing diagnoses as well as the diagnosis of food allergies.
Factors (Somewhat) Within Your Control
Delayed Introduction of Textures
Introducing textures other than purees after 9 months is associated with increased picky eating tendencies. There are many reasons why parents may want or need to delay the introduction of other textures, but if you are able to advance past purees by 9 months, I would recommend it. You can continue serving purees with non-pureed foods. My Starting Solids Made Easy Course outlines many ways to safely serve foods. If foods are served safely, there is no increased risk of choking.
Lack of Exposure to New Foods
It can be very easy to continue to offer the same foods over and over, especially if you know your child will eat them, however variety has been shown to decrease picky eating. This is especially important in those first 6 months of starting solids, when your baby is still willing to try new foods.
If you’re past that window, keep exposing your child to new foods or serve the same foods in new ways. Your child can never try a food they’re not exposed to. Start with a small portion until they’re ready to try more. Food exposure doesn’t need to be at the table. Playing with food is another great way to expose kids to food in a no-pressure way. Check out these other tips for helping a picky eater or my Family Meals Made Easy Course for even more information.
Lack of a Feeding Schedule
If your child likes to snack throughout the day, they may show up to the table not very hungry. While we don’t want our kids to be starving at mealtimes, a little hunger may make them more likely to try new foods. Always serve a food that your child usually likes at a meal along with new foods, because the old advice of “if they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat” does NOT work. Sometimes, though, once a child starts eating their preferred food, they are also willing to try a new food too (sometimes they just eat the food they know they like, and that’s ok too).
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.