Picky Eating: Why it Happens and What You Can Do to Help
Skip to content

Picky eating: Why it happens and how to help

If your kid is a picky eater, you’re not alone. What’s behind picky eating? And should we even be calling it that? 

In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Gretchen Vierstra dig into picky eating with Keri Wilmot, a pediatric occupational therapist. Keri shares constructive ways to talk about picky eating — and how to find out what’s behind it.

Listen in to get tips for introducing new foods to kids, including a trick for encouraging more bites. Find out how to rein in expectations about what kids will eat. And learn what Keri uses as a surprising “gateway” vegetable. 

Related resources

And check out Keri’s book, Wired Differently: A Teacher’s Guide to Understanding Sensory Processing Challenges

Episode transcript

Amanda: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It." On this podcast, we offer perspective, stories, and advice for and from people who have challenges with reading, math, focus, and other types of learning differences. We talk to parents, caregivers, experts, teachers, and sometimes even kids. I'm Amanda Morin.

Gretchen: And I'm Gretchen Vierstra.

Amanda: Today we're talking about picky eaters, which is a label, Gretchen, I really, really hate, especially because people apply it to me, too.

Gretchen: Yes, me too. What does your picky eating look like, Amanda?

Amanda: Well, it's not really picky eating. It's — I have a sensitive palate, right? Like, I don't like certain textures. I don't like certain smells. I don't like certain things mixed together. So people think it's picky, but it's really a sensory thing for me. What about you, Gretchen? Tell me about your relationship to picky eating.

Gretchen: Well, I also was called a picky eater, and to this day, some people still do. Mine is all about texture as well. And I was born basically a vegetarian, I think, because I don't like the texture of meat. I don't like the texture of anything spongy, like mushrooms and eggplant. And I, to this day, still will not eat those things.

Amanda: Yeah. So today's episode, we're going to dig into what might be behind your child's so-called picky eating — and also figure out more constructive ways to talk about it and deal with it.

Gretchen: To do that, we're joined today by Keri Wilmot. Keri is a pediatric occupational therapist based in Texas. We're so glad to have her with us. Keri, welcome to "In It."

Keri: Thanks, everybody.

Amanda: Keri, I know that as an occupational therapist, you sometimes work with kids who won't eat certain foods. And I'm guessing you don't call those kids picky eaters.

Keri: Yeah. Instead of saying kids are picky eaters, we might say that they have oral hypersensitivity. Or maybe there's different kinds of tactile aversions or smell hypersensitivity. So, you know, picky eating to an occupational therapist who works with kids that have sensory processing disorder means that maybe one of those sensory systems just isn't working correctly. And so it's not just about not eating food and being picky. It's more about what is it about that eating experience that makes it a challenge for kids? Maybe it's the way something smells. Maybe it's the way something looks. Maybe it is the way something tastes. But there's a whole sensory experience that goes on before anybody picks up a food and actually even puts it in their mouth.

Gretchen: So if we can generalize and just say for now that, you know, we're talking about kids who may be sensitive eaters, can you give us a few examples of what might be very specific issues or challenges kids have with food and where where might those come from? And just some examples to ground us in the conversation would be great.

Keri: Yeah, lots of kids have aversions to the smell of food or different kinds of smells of food at once. So sort of like when you're going into a restaurant and there's all sorts of different smells coming from the kitchen. So they might have trouble eating just because they can't stop paying attention to the smells that are in the room.

Amanda: It's like walking into one of those KFC Taco Bell combos and you're just like, oh, it's all the smells together.

Gretchen: Do you want to give us one more example?

Keri: I think a lot of times we assume that kids are aversive to different textures, but there's also kids who are really super visual and they just don't like the way food looks, right? And the way they see it, it might jiggle, it might be a different color. There's just something about how they observe it on their plate that it stops them immediately from actually even trying it.

Gretchen: That brings me to a question. If you have a child who's refusing to eat lots of types of foods, what would be your first move as a parent to figure out what's going on?

Keri: I think as a parent, you need to sort of get a big picture. You know, a lot of times parents will come to me and they'll say, well, they only eat five foods, right? And so I'm like, OK, great. Well, let's make a list. And then when you actually make the list, you realize, well, maybe there's more than five, there's 10. But maybe five of them are kind of inconsistent. And so once we get kind of a clear picture of what they do eat, then I like to look at that and say, OK, well, are there any similarities within that list that might help decide where to go next? Right?

Most kids who are sensitive around their food choices don't like to eat vegetables. That usually tends to be a common one. They prefer not to eat really challenging meats like steak. And so once we kind of get an idea of where they're at, then we try to figure out what are the priorities of the family. And it's funny, because then you start to ask the family "Well, what is your menu like at home?" Right? And they're like, well, I want them to eat properly. And I'm like, "OK, well, how many times a week do you eat broccoli?" "Well, we don't eat broccoli."

Speaker 4 You know, so a lot of times we have this idealistic view of what we want it to look like, but it's just not part of that family culture to eat that food. So — and then, you know, I think, well, OK, so we're asking the child to kind of go out on a limb here and eat something that none of the rest of you actually enjoy eating in the first place. So how will we come up with some ideas of like as a family, what are your priorities for the kinds of foods that you would like your child to eat?

I think most parents realize that they're lacking some type of a protein source and usually a vegetable. And so it's kind of like, all right, well, what's the gateway vegetable we can sort of get into to at least make sure that we've got, like one vegetable that's in their repertoire. Protein is another one that I find a lot of kids really lack. A lot of kids really, really choose those salty foods. You hear a lot of chicken nuggets, a lot of macaroni and cheese, a lot of pizza, goldfish crackers.

Gretchen: Oh, yeah, all of that is my daughter's diet.

Keri: And that's another question that we'll often ask. Like, OK, where are they on the height and weight growth chart? You know, are they growing? Are they gaining weight? I think a lot of people realize now that you need to have some really good solid protein sources, because that we can attribute to having enough fuel in your body to be able to sustain things like going to school and learning and focusing, you know, throughout the rest of the day.

Amanda: Yeah, that's super helpful. I'm also going to say I love the term "gateway vegetable."

Gretchen: And I was going to ask, what's a good gateway vegetable?

Keri: OK. You ready for this one? A good gateway vegetable might actually be a veggie stick cracker.

Amanda: Oh, brilliant. Oh, that's brilliant. Because it tastes like a chip and it crunches like a pretzel.

Keri: Yes.

Gretchen: Does it actually have veggies in it?

Keri: Well, they say they do, but I don't know. But they're different colors, right? So, I mean, if you look at some of the ones that are green and you kind of make a focus to sort of expand on bridging that gap to getting into something like a vegetable. And then we think, OK, well, we know that child likes salt, we know they like crunchy things. You know, we want to get them into it like some kind of a vegetable. What if we then transition to something like a kale chip, you know? Like you're trying to match their tastes and then use those preferences in your preparation of what that vegetable might be, so that it then becomes similar.

What we're not talking about is like, OK, one day you're going to eat a carrot and the next day you're going to have broccoli. Two very different things, two very different colors, very different shapes, very different sizes, very different textures.

And the other part that we'll often ask parents to do when they're kind of thinking about what that food is — again, in the preparation of it, it's not just about like seasonings, you know, salt is a good one. You can try like Mrs. Dash or something if you're worried about too much salt intake. But it's more about like, OK, well, if they didn't like it this way, how can we prepare it another way? And maybe they'll accept it that way?

So you can change the taste, you can change the temperature, you can change the shape, you can change the size. And that's why even like looking at something like a pretzel, right? If you have a child that only eats pretzel sticks, my first recommendation sometimes is, well, let's try a pretzel rod. Right? Let's try a round pretzel. Let's try something of the same brand that probably tastes similar but just looks a little bit different. And guess what? We can count that as maybe the number six food that they eat, you know? So it's kind of a different way, I think, of like looking at how kids experience food, knowing this stuff takes a long time.

Amanda: Then there's also that we want other people to think we're doing OK with our kids. right? Because I know I have experienced judgment when one of my children has tried something and done the, like, Tom Hanks in the movie where he goes "bleah" and it just comes like right out of his mouth, right?

Keri: Or the gagging. The gagging really, really, really worries people, right? Because a lot of parents contribute that to like choking. And then kids sort of learn like, oh, I gagged. That was kind of a cool reaction they had. And guess what? I didn't have to eat it, you know. So it then becomes sometimes this behavioral component.

Amanda: So let's talk about that. Let's talk about the behavior versus sensitive eating, because I think that is such a huge thing. And I think, you know, like a general parenting book that you pick up is going to be like "It's a power struggle. You have to make sure that you win that power struggle as a parent and make them try every food on their plate." And then it gets out of hand because you have a child who's really struggling here. So how do you know if it's "behavior"? And I'm using quotation marks around "behavior" — or a food sensitivity?

Keri: I think it's hard to actually like watch one time and kind of figure that out. As a general rule, sometimes for me in kind of the sensory world, I often like to think that that behavior didn't come out of nowhere, right? That there most likely was probably some kind of a sensory component that has led to a reaction. And that reaction has now become a behavior. And that behavior, we have to sort of figure out, OK, well, how can we eliminate that behavior, or reduce that behavior, or just have a better positive experience in general? So to me, rather than continually re-exposing kids to the things that we know are going to immediately cause them that kind of anxiety, let's just make it a non-issue.

Maybe we need to pick our battles in terms of the kinds of foods that we're requiring, or change the idea around what the accepted response is to make it positive and successful. So it's not like you hand them a new food and you're like, "OK, chew it up and swallow it." You know, that's going to be success. It might just be having a plate off to the side while you're eating with whatever accepted foods or preferred foods you have on the plate in front of you. And you might just have that thing you don't like on a plate next to the one you do have. And we might call that a win. And we might do that for a little bit.

And then maybe we're going to move that piece of food to the plate that's in front of you. And we're just going to leave that there. And at the end of the meal, it's not about picking it up and chewing it and swallowing it. It's about picking it up and throwing it in the trash. Because even that is a way to experience and explore that new item without actually having to eat it.

And so then there becomes this whole continuum of activities that you can do around food. So you're looking at it, you're touching it, maybe you just smell it, you might bring it to your lips to just to tap it on there. You might lick it a little bit. Then you might take a little piece off. You might chew that, you might spit that piece out into the trash. You know, there's a whole way that we can kind of help kids move through that progression, and calling those little moments where they're doing even just something a little more than nothing — and calling that a win.

Gretchen: I love those suggestions. I especially love the plate of things that aren't your favorites, and we actually do that at my house and I'm like, "Oh, go me. I have something that works." But I bet I also have a lot of things that don't work. And so I want to know from you, what are some of the most unhelpful things we parents and families may be doing to try to get our child to eat different foods?

Keri: I think sometimes parents are cooking multiple options for the family because everybody has a different thing they don't like to eat or something that they do like.

Gretchen: So is that unhelpful? The short order chef, as I call it?

Keri: I think it's kind of unhelpful because then that child is eating that same meal. And as a parent, you're having to make like three different meals. So a lot of times what you can do is sort of, if they've only got five foods and one of them is macaroni and cheese, well, guess what? We're going to probably have macaroni and cheese every single night for the family. So if you think about your main dish and a couple of sides, it's not about making multiple different meals. It's about maybe how do you take everybody's preferences in the family to create your family meal that has something that sort of appeases everybody to an extent without it being too many different meals to have to cook.

Amanda: We at one point figured out that if we're going to do something like casserole, like right, which is kind of a nightmare when you have all of these different textures and things, if you have trouble with textures and smells and those kind of things. I'll give the example: Shepherd's pie is a favorite of one of my children. And then the other one was just like, Oh no.

Keri Oh, I could never eat that.

Amanda: Kari does not like shepherd's pie either. I'm watching her face.

Keri: No, there's corn. Corn does not belong in mashed potatoes.

Gretchen: I agree. I agree.

Amanda: Well, I think that's a whole other conversation about mashed potatoes. You know, I learned to, like, cook them separately and then put together a shepherd's pie for the kid who liked shepherd's pie. And then everybody else could either have a spoonful of ground meat and put cheese on it, or some corn on the side or something like that. And I wasn't cooking a whole different meal.

Gretchen: Totally.

Keri: I think the other thing that I often hear a lot of, too, is like unrealistic expectations about how many bites. You know, it's like we need to have five bites of those peas before you can get up from the table. But they're not even going to eat one. And so now there's five, you know. So I think a lot of times it's about changing the expectation of, OK, well, does it even need to be a bite like we talked about before? Can it just be throwing five peas in the trash, you know. Or can it be licking one pea and throwing it in the trash?

I think the hard part is that the stress and anxiety comes when kids know that those expectations are also coming. And so they anticipate it. And then it becomes this thing that's hard for them to overcome. Whereas if you can as calmly as possible, sort of be like, all right, well, just take one bite and then you'll be done. But the second half and this is the important part, right, because it will happen that they're going to eat the food you never thought they were going to eat. And then you're going to be like, oh, they ate it. Have another bite.

No, you don't want to encourage them to take more bites. You want to encourage them to just be in a good place about what they did and you want to high five them for doing a great job of trying something new — and let's be done. It's just like any other kind of behavioral expectation. If you've set a limit, just stick to it. Because it's now sometimes where, OK, well, I've said five. Well, we're going, now we're going to negotiate. Well, three. Well, no, I said five. No, one. No, none. You know.

Amanda: Keri's been at my dinner table.

Gretchen: This sounds so wrong now that someone plays it all back.

Keri: But I'll tell you a little trick, OK? This is like my secret trick, OK? When it comes to bites, I sometimes will take little pieces of paper, and I'll write down numbers on the paper. And it might just be all ones and like, one, two, right? And you might have five of these little pieces of paper and you fold them up and you put them in a little baggie, and you pull one out and guess how many bites you're going to take?

Amanda: Got it.

Keri: One. I mean, there are some people who probably would be like, well, that's a game and this is a mealtime. And like, we need to have this mealtime. But the only way sometimes you're going to be able to overpower that will to want to negotiate, and the stress that they have, is by making it something that seems way more fun than what it actually is.

Amanda: Well, you take the pressure out of it, you take that power struggle out of it.

Gretchen: Is the bag, not me.

Keri: Yeah, well, that's right. That's exactly it, right?

Gretchen: Over time. I'm wondering, does a kid's ability to tolerate certain textures or certain smells, does that change over time? Like does he ever grow out of the stage or no?

Keri: Well, I do think there is — like it is pretty developmentally appropriate at certain ages to have some of these picky expectations, you know. So it does, oftentimes, I feel like it gets a little bit better, but sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. I do find that sometimes as kids get into school and they're eating with other kids who have different things that are next to them, or a lot of times they get to like middle school age and it becomes a little bit more social and fun for some kids to be able to go get pizza on a half day after school somewhere. Then sometimes those things get a little bit better because there is a desire to experience that social opportunity with other people — or having dinner at somebody else's house. You know, I was notorious for not wanting to eat some of the things that my parents cooked. But man, my best friend, her mom was the best cook ever. I tried all sorts of things at her house.

Amanda: Well, I'll give you my magic trick. One year for a holiday, we gave one of my sons a Star Wars cookbook, and it was all of the recipes from the various like cantinas and things like that. And told him pick one of those recipes to make yourself. And he tried it. Like it was foods that he had never tried before because he made it himself. He picked the meal, he made it himself. So that was one thing that once my kids started cooking a little bit, they would eat it because they made it even — if they didn't like it. And they'd be like, ooh, I'm not sure I really like this, but I made it, so I'm going to try it. So that was an interesting, magical moment for me where I was like, oh, I can have you cook and you'll try new foods.

What I find most challenging is hearing from like the sidelines. Whether it's relatives who are saying, well, why are you not eating this at this holiday at dinner? Or whether it's friends who are just telling me about how their kid always eats everything and anything, and that they would never let their kid say no to anything. How does everybody in the world handle that? How do you know what to do when you have that coming at you? Do you have suggestions?

Amanda: I think the hard part is you do have to advocate, help advocate for your kids, right? You know, and I think letting people know. Usually it's — like great aunt so-and-so's special something at some holiday meal that everybody has been the family holiday tradition favorite for decades. You know, and I think it's OK to say they don't like it, but we're working on trying new foods. And so, hey, maybe when I see you again, maybe we can revisit it then. It's hard, because then it becomes a power struggle sometimes too, of people who believe that they know better and that they're going to jump right in and be like, no, no, no, I'm going to get them to eat it. Just you watch, you know. That doesn't happen.

Amanda: The answer to that is no, you — just you watch and see what happens.

Gretchen: Exactly.

Keri: You know, and I think, you know, just try to downplay it. And if you have to before you go to some of these events, like you give your kid the meal that they like to eat. And so when they get there, you can say like, oh, we already ate, but thank you, you know, we're full. We're not, you know, that's good, thanks. You know, and just kind of make it a non-issue. Because it's not something that you have to do. Or, you know, if you know, sometimes the good news, bad news is we're eating at 4. Great! I'll see you for dessert at 6:30, you know?

Amanda: Oh, that's smart.

Keri: You know, you have the control to be able to decide whether you want to be there for that or not. And I think you have to do you, and you have to do what's right for your family. And if that means that being there is going to cause a lot of additional pain and anxiety and drama, I think it's OK to choose modifying the schedule, changing the environment, doing something that allows you to still have a successful visit without it having to revolve around whatever that food scenario is.

Gretchen: And how do you talk to your kids about not feeling bad or embarrassed about the fact that they have these food sensitivities? Because I remember as a kid, whatever was said to me made me feel awful about it. That I was like, you know, not a good eater. And I just felt — I didn't feel good about it.

Keri: I think you could even just kind of liken it to it being a skill, right? You know, right now you eat five foods. That's great. Our goal is maybe we're going to add one more and that's OK. We're just working on the skills of eating and, you know, we'll take it one day at a time. I think it's just being honest and validating what their feelings are. "I know this is hard for you. I understand that you don't like the smell." You know, you're just using those same rules of empathy and talking to kids and re-iterating to them that you hear what they're saying. And sometimes they just want to feel like they're heard.

Gretchen: That's good advice.

Amanda: And for me, as a sensitive eating adult, what do I say? So when I go out to eat, people don't think I'm the most high-maintenance person in the world to eat with at a restaurant.

Keri: I don't know that you have to really say anything other than just just do it. I think at the end of the day, more people need to be OK with people doing what they need to do for themselves for whatever reason that is. You know, I mean, you go to Starbucks and order your coffee 1,700 different ways.

Gretchen: That is so true. And why is that OK?

Keri: It's OK. Totally OK.

Amanda: This is a place I want to end an interview because it's perfect for me.

Gretchen: Yes. Yes.

Amanda: Keri, thank you so much for joining us.

Keri: You're welcome.

Gretchen: Thank you so much.

Keri: It was great to be here.

Amanda: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Gretchen: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Amanda: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Gretchen: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Amanda: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin, and Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer.

Gretchen: Thanks for listening and for always being in it with us.

 

Stay in the know

We’ll alert you whenever a new episode of your favorite show airs.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the In It podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

      Tell us what interests you

      Stay in the know

      We’ll alert you whenever a new episode of your favorite show airs.

      Copyright © 2014-2022 Understood For All Inc.