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Your Child and Food: “Picky” or “Selective”?

by Jenny Penland, APT Occupational Therapist

            Is mealtime with your child a game of wills rather than a happy family bonding time? Jenny Penland, OT, shares insight that may help you better understand your child’s eating habits and why he or she displays a preference or aversion to certain foods. The theories may surprise you!

Being a “picky eater” can be a normal stage of development. Many children learn that they are able to refuse trying new foods and to begin to dislike foods touching each other. However, some children experience long term selective eating habits. Selective eating is different than typical “picky eating”. Selective eating will affect the child’s nutritional intake, the quality of the family mealtime, and social participation including eating at birthday parties, going out to eat at restaurants, and eating at a friend’s house.

What causes selective eating?

There is nothing that has been proven to cause a child to become a selective eater. However, many theories exist about what may have caused it to develop. These theories are based only on correlation of events and not evidence of causation. I will discuss the theories below.

  • Using formula as an infant

If, as an infant, the child is given formula instead of breast milk it limits the flavors that the child is exposed to during the first few months of life. The formula always has the same taste each time it is made. This means each meal of every day will taste the same.

This theory can also be applied to babies that are nursed by mothers who are very picky eaters. If the mother consumes a limited amount of foods or flavors, then the nursed baby will only experience those few flavors through the breast milk.

  • Inadequate amount of tummy time

“Tummy time” is valuable time when a child begins to really explore and attempt to master the environment. During tummy time, a child also begins to explore new textures with his/her stomach and hands. If a child doesn’t experience enough tummy time it can lead to tactile sensitivity to the hands, body, and face. This tactile sensitivity will affect the ways a child feels comfortable exploring food. There is no set amount of tummy time that will be adequate for each baby; each baby requires its own amount of time in order to reach appropriate developmental milestones.

  • Decreased strength and coordination

If a child has decreased strength/coordination of the core or mouth it makes it difficult to chew different types of food textures. Decreased core strength usually looks like a child who almost always slouches or cannot maintain a sitting position without frequently moving or fidgeting. Decreased oral motor strength/coordination usually looks like a child who has a difficult time moving his/her mouth or a child who frequently uses teeth at times when lips should be used (ex. teeth on a straw or teeth to clear food from a spoon).

Stages of food acceptance

In order for any person, children included, to accept new foods, specific stages of food acceptance must occur. We all go through these stages each time we try a new food. Children who are selective eaters progress through these stages slower than most people. The stages are listed below.

Stages of food acceptance:

  • Tolerate being in the room with the food.
  • Tolerate the food inside of his/her personal space.
  • Tolerate the food touching his/her hands.
  • Tolerate bringing food to face and smelling.
  • Tolerate food on lips and in mouth.

If you have concerns

A pediatric occupational therapist can assist parents in helping their children progress through the stages of food acceptance and overcome whatever obstacles may be interfering with new food acceptance. If you have any concerns regarding your child’s eating habits, an occupational therapy evaluation will be helpful in determining if therapy treatment will be part of the solution. Call us at 502-633-1007 to speak with an APT team member; we’d love to help!

If you have questions and would like to reach out to Jenny personally, you can contact her at: