This is a guest post by Jill Castle, RD.
Everyone is talking about picky eating, but the frustration isn’t about toddlers alone. Picky eating is prevalent in elementary and middle school, and even high school. It’s not uncommon to see nine and ten year-olds bringing the same lunch to school everyday, shying away from the lunch line because it is too loaded with “yucky” food. Or the tweener who doesn’t spend the night at friends’ houses because she’s not sure she can eat there.
When older kids are still picky, it’s important to recognize that there may be more to the story. Picky eating at age three is expected and part of the normal continuum of childhood developmental, but picky eating at the age of ten or fourteen is not.
As a young child, Pete would only eat certain foods, prepared in a certain way. If his mom messed up or tried to branch out, he wouldn’t eat. He really wouldn’t eat. Twenty years ago, his food limits and picky eating were never connected to his learning difficulties, his limited wardrobe (soft clothing only), or his sensitivities to the way things appeared and felt to the touch. Today, Pete has a wonderfully wide diet due to years of integrated therapy to address his overall sensitivities, which increased his willingness to try new foods.
Callie, now twelve years old, was born prematurely and had breathing tubes in her mouth to help her breathe. She was fed through a vein in her arm because her tummy wasn’t ready for food. She didn’t get to eat through her mouth for a long time. Today, Callie has challenges with eating. The process of tasting, chewing, and swallowing is tedious and not particularly enjoyable for her. She is often not interested or motivated to eat. Her family wonders if her early life experiences contributed to her current eating problems.
The reality is that many parents (even dietitians, doctors, chefs and foodies) deal with the older picky eater on a regular basis.
Even Michael Pollan has a picky eater! He described his fourteen-year-old son Isaac as a picky eater in a June article in Cooking Light. “He’s picky, incredibly limited in what he will eat,” says Pollan. His son, Isaac agrees, “I really wish I wasn’t as picky an eater. I can smell the smallest things that nobody else seems to notice.”
It’s estimated that one in twenty kids up to age ten are picky eaters. Called “problem feeders” in the scientific world, these children refuse to eat, or eat a very limited number of selected foods. Super-selective eaters may have underlying sensory, mechanical or medical conditions, while others may have behavioral problems. Still other kids may have learned that being “picky” is how to get the foods they want. Bottom line: there may be a host of reasons why the older child or teen is still picky.
The old advice, “Just wait it out—the child will eventually eat!” may not work with older picky eaters, especially if there is more to the story. Waiting for a problem feeder to eat may make the problem worse, causing nutrient deficiencies or worsening the dynamic at the meal table.
Often, parents and healthcare providers don’t take the time to look back at the origin of picky eating and try to unlock the mystery. Yet, knowing why a child is picky helps enormously with getting the right help to move forward with eating.
Additionally, coping strategies used by families to deal with the older picky eater often serve to complicate matters more. For example, serving picky eaters what they will eat (called catering) or pressuring a child to eat certain foods when he is unwilling may reinforce picky eating or make it worse. These common tendencies promote two scenarios: a child with a narrow diet lacking in adequate calories and nutrients, or further distress and disinterest in food.
If you have an older child who is still a picky eater, I encourage you to dig deeper into the potential reasons for this ongoing issue. An underlying medical condition may exist such as eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE), silent reflux or occlusive adenoids and tonsils (if you can’t swallow comfortably, it turns off the desire to eat). Your child or teen may need feeding therapy to help desensitize textures, smells or taste sensitivities, while broadening food variety. It may also help to learn about feeding interactions at the meal table and how to optimize a positive environment for eating.
The good news is that older picky eaters can overcome their pickiness and like a variety of food with proper help and patience. Enlist help if your child’s eating is a struggle or not progressing with new foods.
Jill Castle is a registered dietitian, mom of 4, and creator of Just the Right Byte. She is co-creator of the Fearless Feeding Community and co-author of the book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. You can find more about Jill Castle.