Hands up if you’re a parent worried about your toddler’s food intake (like me hah!).
I’m part of quite a few parenting groups on Facebook and every week, someone will put up a post essentially saying: “Help! My toddler has become a picky eater. And she was such a good eater as a baby too. What do I do? What have I done?”.
If you’re not a parent or you’re one of those who are blessed with a unicorn baby, you’ll probably never appreciate just how common an issue this is.
And that’s really the main point of this post: if your medical provider has checked your young child and found him growing as he should, then there is nothing to worry about. Though as a parent, I know that you’ll always worry because that’s what we do, isn’t it (please say, it’s not just me?!)?
So, seeing as it’s so common, is it normal for toddlers to be picky eaters?
And in the following sections, we’ll tell you why.
Why are children picky eaters?
Wow, what a very important section.
Whole books are written answering the question, “Why are children picky eaters?” so I’m not even going to attempt to include all that information in a 1000-word post.
What I will do though is give you the four most common reasons why a child is a picky eater that will hopefully help ease your worry:
1. It’s not your fault. It’s evolution!
Many young children flat-out refuse anything new.
It’s like they have trust issues with strange food and need time before they can be convinced to try them. Just remember that any sort of manipulation is best avoided (like praising, rewarding, cajoling, begging, bribing and punishing).
It’s not you being a failure at this whole parenting thing. It’s actually evolution.
Yep, you can totally blame our genes and the process of evolution for the fact that you are now struggling with a toddler who refuses to eat (yes!).
Because most toxic foods are bitter.
And so our species evolved in response to that by making us predisposed to sweet and savoury tastes (at the expense of sour and bitter flavours).
In other words, because we prefer sweet and savoury foods, our risks of ingesting something poisonous would be lowered seeing as many of those poisonous substances are either sour or bitter or both.
It’s actually pretty clever, isn’t it?
Some compounds (ie.: glucosinolates) that are bitter tasting are not always toxic, like the glucosinolates found in such vegetables as broccoli, cabbage, kale and Brussel Sprouts. You know, the dreaded greens.
But at least, now you know why many children struggle with eating their greens.
It’s really not you.
It’s just your child being genetically pre-programmed not to eat them, in order to stay alive!
2. Neophobia is normal.
Aside from evolution, the other major culprit to your young child’s predisposition to not try anything new is neophobia, the irrational fear or dislike of anything unfamiliar or new – and which usually strikes the unsuspecting parent when their child turns two.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith writes, “Neophobia is the norm, rather than the exception to the rule, in young children. While it may be incredibly frustrating to parents, especially after they have lovingly prepared a new meal to introduce their child to a new taste and ingredient, it is actually important to the child’s survival as it helps to keep them safe.”
Remember that in the not-so-distant past, we foraged for food instead of going to our highly sanitised food shops with its ingredient labels and heavily regulated options. None of these existed before and so, hungry children, like hungry adults, would have had to rely on their own wits – and ability to discern between safe and unsafe foods – to survive.
Therefore, from an evolutionary perspective, neophobia is an important safety feature. If children only ate what they’ve already tried before (and survived eating before), they would avoid any potential toxins found in the new foods.
Yes, anything prepared for your children is safe but, as you probably know by now, you can’t always reason with strong survival instincts.
3. My body, my choice.
Another reason for a child’s pickiness could be that they feel powerless and are exerting control in one of the few areas they have full control over: eating (the other two being sleeping and toileting).
Whilst parents control practically everything in their lives, they cannot force a child to eat, go to sleep, pee or poop.
Believe it or not, sometimes they stop eating (or even eat too much) if they’re feeling suffocated, railroaded, or powerless.
Can you blame them?
You’d feel that way too.
Try this exercise.
Remember the meals you’ve had the past few days then ask yourself the following questions:
✦ Why did you eat when you did?
✦ What did you eat and why, out of all the food available in your house, did you choose what you did?
✦ How much did you eat and how often?
✦ Who decided that you should start and stop eating?
✦ Where did you serve your food?
✦ Who chose your cutlery?
✦ What drinks did you have with the food you ate and who chose the pairing?
✦ Who chose the portion sizes and why were those portions chosen?
If you’re an adult, your answer would’ve been “me” for all or most of them.
Now, ask those same questions of your child.
Finally, imagine having practically no control over what you eat. How would you feel?
Can you see where the problem is coming from?
4. It’s too yucky!
My preschooler loved avocado and mashed potatoes as a baby.
He hit two and would then gag and literally be sick whenever he had either of those by accident.
It wasn’t the colour or the smell. It was the texture – too slimy and yucky, he said.
It turns out that he’s not alone.
In other words, it’s totally normal.
I mean, what’s your reaction when you see something slimy?
Now, think of overcooked spinach, which can also be slimy.
Can you really blame your toddler for refusing to eat the thing if it looks and feels like green slime and?
Ugh, now I can relate to them, can you?
To recap, is it normal for toddlers to be picky eaters? Yes!
Because they’re hardwired biologically to prefer certain tastes and textures over others and to not try anything new.
It’s also possible that they’re feeling so claustrophobic and suffocated with their lack of power, control and autonomy, that they resort to exerting what little power, control and autonomy they have on eating.
Finally, it’s not you. So, breathe a little bit easier. You’re doing well.
Side Note: If you can’t stop worrying and you’re thinking “heck, why am I listening to someone online who I don’t even know”, then please consult your medical professional. Better be safe than sorry, right? 🙂
What do you think? Have you experienced the joys of raising a picky eater? Tell us all about it. We’d love to hear from you!