Is Picky Eating Normal?

You might seem like you're on an island with your kiddo who won't eat anything. You might feel guilty and constantly ask yourself if picky eating is normal. We're here with good news. The short answer is yes and it's not your fault. But let's get into the long answer. 

Blanca Garcia, RDN Nutrition Specialist of Healthcanal, has seen what picky eating can do, working hands on with kids from 15 months to five years old. She says picky eating is totally normal and very common. Usually, by the age of two, a child is starting to speak, developing what they like and don’t like. They also start to realize a sense of self and the word "no".  

It's important to prepare yourself for the long haul, but know that even the extremely picky child can learn to eat what you eat (which is why it's important to model healthy eating). Some children are just extremely skeptical, require more time to learn and have more to learn when it comes to new foods. Some children also have a genetic basis for food preference, meaning they can more easily detect bitter tastes in foods or they may be more tuned in to sweet flavors. Researchers looked at the habits of children ages 4 to 9, and found that picky eaters tended to stay picky. That means that we as parents need to start early to prevent picky eating, preferably before our child turns 2. We'll list some tips below.  

Here's some good news. According to the Satter Division of Responsibility (sDOR) in Feeding, children have the natural ability to eat. They eat as much as they need, they grow in the way that is right for them, and they learn to eat the food their parents eat.

The Division of Responsibility for Infants:

  • The parent is responsible for what.
  • The child is responsible for how much (and everything else).

The Division of Responsibility for babies making the transition to family food: 

  • The parent is still responsible for what, and is becoming responsible for when and where the child is fed.
  • The child is still and always responsible for how much and whether to eat the foods offered by the parent.

The Division of Responsibility for toddlers through adolescents:

  • The parent is responsible for what, when, where. 
  • The child is responsible for how much and whether.

Satter Division of Responsibility (sDOR) in Feeding

What we don't realize is that we can create picky eaters. Even children who have temperamental or neurological barriers are able to learn to eat foods their parents eat, IF a regular and unpressured eating environment is provided. We provide a wide variety of foods for the child to choose from and we do not pressure children in any way to eat. We don't praise, remind, reward, applaud or withhold a reward if your child eats a certain food. This is where sDOR comes in. Parents do the what, when and where of feeding, and let the children do the how much and whether of eating. It's also crucial that we don't limit the amount of food we put in front of them because this takes away their opportunity to learn about a new food. 

Blanca also shared some helpful tips with us. When feeding a child, it’s very important to always provide a variety of foods at every meal. If your child does not eat it, it’s okay. A child just needs to be exposed to foods, as it takes about 10 times for a child to see the food before willing to try it. Help your child by allowing them to choose what to eat from their plate, a few bites are so much better than none at all.

To wrap this all up, here are ten action items to help your picky eater. 

  1. Self regulate food intake with responsive feeding. This means recognizing and responding to the hunger or fullness cues of your child. Don't push the "clean plate club".
  2. Involve your kids in meal planning and preparation. This teaches them that the magic food fairy doesn't wave a wand and dinner shows up. It takes work to prepare the meal and it exposes them to all of the ingredients you put into the meal. 
  3. Provide a wide variety of foods and remember it could take 8 to 10 times of serving. Remember, exposure is everything. 
  4. Create a positive feeding experience and give independence.
  5. Create a social experience out of eating. 
  6. Structure meal and snack time. Use the same place for meals with the same routine.
  7. Offer two preferred and one non-preferred food. If they like chicken nuggets, you can serve chicken nuggets with a starch they like and include a non-preferred food with it, like green beans.
  8. Use siblings or friends to help reinforce appropriate eating. Don’t forget to reinforce any positive behaviors such as “I love how you used two fingers to touch that food”.
  9. Brace yourself for food jags. Food jags might occur when your child is bored or burned out on the same food. The goal is for you to change the food just enough so it’s noticeable change, not so the child melts down and refuses to eat the food. 
  10. Have family mealtime. The goal of a family meal is that the child eats a volume of preferred foods and the child is learning about non-preferred/new foods.


Picky Eaters vs. Problem Feeders (Dr Kay A. Toomey (2010)