What Causes Picky Eating

What Causes Picky Eating

Posted on February 21, 2023. Last updated on February 21, 2023
Alyssa a registered dietitian
Written by Alyssa

How to identify and reverse your child’s selective eating habits

Your toddler used to eat anything you offered and now they won’t touch a thing. Meal times were peaceful and now they’re stressful. Sound familiar? You may be thinking “why now” or “what happened”. 

There are dozens of reasons picky eating occurs! Some of them are in our control and some are not. It may just be a phase, but without intervention, your child may get stuck in a vicious cycle of picky eating behaviors. 

While it can be stressful to suddenly have a picky eater at your table, understanding the reason behind it may be the key to solving it once and for all.

Natural Occurrence

Having a child that suddenly becomes picky doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong or that there’s anything wrong with your child!

Picky eating is a biological reaction to children gaining more autonomy. When they’re starting to toddle around, between the ages of 18-36 months, they start developing a natural drive for self-preservation. 

This means they’re learning it is no longer safe to put everything in their mouths, and while that’s certainly a great thing, unfortunately, it can lead to picky eating.

Expression of Autonomy

Our little ones are growing, developing, and becoming their own tiny person. It’s an exciting time in parenthood!

With these newfound abilities and desire to be their own person, they now feel emboldened to make their own choices–including at the dinner table.

Physiological Challenges

Studies have shown that genetics can actually play a role in picky eating! For example, some people have a gene that makes cilantro taste like soap.

Medical issues, birth complications (i.e. tube feedings), physical limitations, and processing issues can also be the cause of food aversions in your child.

While there is no magic fix or cure for these causes that are out of our control, there are ways we can put them in a favorable environment and help tee them up for success.

Environmental Experiences

This is probably the area where we have the most control. What does their environment look like? 

What foods are on the plate, who is sitting (or not sitting) with them at the table, what is said about the food, what is expected, how they are encouraged to eat or try new things etc etc.

Every eating experience they’ve had in their past affects whether or not they’re going to eat something today. And before you let that be overwhelming remember that also means each eating experience is a new opportunity to foster a positive experience with foods!

As I teach inside my picky eating course we can set them up for success every time a meal or snack comes around – this is GOOD news!

Capitalize on the Flavor Window

Before your child hits the picky eating phase, work on building their flavor profile as big as you possibly can.

Present them with tons of flavors, textures, and temperatures to help build a large flavor arsenal to help get them through their toddler years.

The more exposure they have early on, the less likely they are to develop picky eating habits.

Offer Lots of Variety

Even if your child is already picky, continue offering a large variety of options at every meal.

The only way you can guarantee they won’t eat something is to not give it at all! You never know when one day they may try and like something they’ve previously rejected.

What we don’t want to do is encourage their behavior by only serving them what they like.

If they’re used to having a waffle for breakfast every day, there are small changes you can make to give them opportunities to expand their palette–serve it with butter, yogurt, almond, or peanut butter as a way to switch it up!

Don’t Use Pressure Tactics

By applying pressure to get our children to eat, we are inadvertently creating a food hierarchy that applies value to foods based on the amount of pressure they receive to eat them.

Tactics like bribing, begging, guilting, and praising may work in the short term, but they are not long-term solutions. You’ll likely dig yourself into a hole that will be harder to come back from.

Finding a Solution

To solve picky eating once and for all, you first need to figure out the why, then figure out the how.

Each child is unique. Tailoring a solution to their specific challenges is the key to success.
If you need help navigating your child’s eating patterns or finding the right solution, enroll in  my Table Talk Course. I will help you figure out the “why” behind your child’s picky eating habits and the strategies to use to reverse picky eating once and for all.

Alyssa Miller picky eating dietitian
Hi there! My name is Alyssa

I'm a registered dietitian and picky eating specialist with nearly a decade of experience, mom of three, and the founder of Nutrition for Littles. I'm dedicated to making mealtimes enjoyable and nutritious for families.

Do you need more help with your picky eater? I want to invite you to my free class to reverse picky eating!

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