Picky eater or feeding disorder?

Picky eating among young children is so commonplace, it is often a topic of conversation at cocktail parties and playgrounds: “My child won’t eat anything green,” or “My child eats only white foods.”

Most children outgrow this stage between ages 5 and 7. Yet, for a large percentage of developmentally delayed children, such as those born prematurely, and for the five percent of the rest of the population of toddlers and children, picky eating is a serious health problem.

What’s wrong?

Some children are so picky or feeding averse that they will consume only a few foods, such as crackers and certain types of juice.

How do you know what type of feeder your child is? A picky eater may reject certain foods, but still has a nourishing diet. Children with a pediatric feeding disorder may consume only three to four types of foods and reject entire food groups, resulting in too few calories and nutrients for healthy growth and development.

“Most kids experience food jags. A child with a feeding disorder will start omitting foods out of their repertoire instead of adding them,” says early intervention nutrition specialist Jennine Sidler, RD, of Primary Nutrition Specialists in Frankfort, Ill. “Often, the first sign of an eating disorder is they can’t look at the food.”

She points to numerous physical reasons a child rejects certain foods, including pain, malaise, immature motor skills, behavior or emotional problems, and parental or environmental factors.

“Most of the time, it’s physical — some type of surgery, reflux, GI pain, or negative reinforcement,” says Sidler. “Or they have autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Down syndrome or some type of development delay.”

When new foods frighten

Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Monell Chemical Senses Center found that many times children have aversions not to odors or tastes, but to food textures such as slimy or gooey.

“Generally, it’s the wet plant foods such as the fruit and vegetable group that the sensory kids avoid,” says Sidler, a mother of three, including one who is picky due to allergies.

Feeding problems are increasing due to the rise of disorders such as autism, sensory integration, and even prematurity.

“A feeding problem is often the first clue a developmental disorder exists,” she says. “Most of the kids crave crunchy and eat a lot of the starch group. They’re completely omitting the fruit and vegetable group. A lot of times it feels like they’re eating a grasshopper. They can’t even touch it.”

Five tips for parents

• Children don’t naturally expand their food choices. The parents’ job is to offer healthful meals every day, and it’s up to the child to learn to eat them.

• Parents and even siblings should be role models. They should spend time teaching their child about the taste, texture, temperature, color, and nutritional value of food to make them feel comfortable with trying new foods.

“Parents need to sit down and eat with their kids. They have to be teachers of foods,” says Sidler.

• She recommends toddlers sit in a high chair to help support their posture, and that parents check to see if the chair has a spot for their feet.

“Don’t let them walk around, eat at a coffee table or even at a bar with their feet dangling,” says Sidler. Also, avoid eating in front of a television.

• Allow the child to explore texture.

“To expose them to a lot of textures, play with rice, sand or whipped cream,” says Sidler. “They need to get their hands dirty, because they don’t like to get their hands dirty.”

• Have fun with food. Sidler recommends providing a fun fork or spoon, or playing a game by hiding a blueberry inside a baked potato.

“Otherwise,” says Sidler, “they would never touch the baked potato.”

Christine M. Palumbo, RD is a nutritionist from Naperville, Ill. One of her three children still can’t stomach the texture of potatoes. Follow her on Facebook at Christine Palumbo Nutrition, on Twitter @PalumboRD or at ChristinePalumbo.com.

Frocho Pop

Serves six

Preparation time: 10 minutes


1 cup mango, fresh or frozen

1 cup plain 2 percent Chobani Greek Yogurt

1 tsp lemon juice

3-5 Tbsp honey, depending on sweetness preferred

DIRECTIONS: Puree fruit, yogurt and honey to taste in a food processor until smooth, divide the mixture among freezer-pop molds, stopping about one inch from the top. Insert the sticks and freeze until completely firm, about six hours. Dip the molds briefly in hot water before unmolding.

If you don’t have molds, a small paper cup with plastic wrap over the top and a freezer pop stick in center will work, too.

NUTRITION FACTS: 70 calories, 16 grams carbohydrate, 4 grams protein, 0 grams fat or cholesterol, 18 milligrams sodium, 1 gram fiber, 15 grams sugar

Recipe used with permission by chobani.com/kitchen.