“Picky eating” is always a big topic with my clients. I think all parents go through worries about their children’s picky eating. Kids do go through phases of picky eating – some of it is a normal process.
For many kids who have an existing medical condition like colic, GERD, asthma, diabetes, sensory processing challenges, ADHD, Autism, or nutritional imbalances, eating will be even more challenging.
Whenever kids are in a cognitive leap – learning to crawl, walk, talk, problem solve, and other skills – their sensory systems are in overload. However, eating is the only activity that actually affects all 8 sensory systems at once.
How do you know what is normal pickiness due to developmental leaps, and what is beyond normal? In this post, I’ll go over the Picky Eating Spectrum so that you know what’s a temporary phase and when to seek professional help.
The First of the Leaps
18 months – 2 years old
As babies gain mobility, around 12 to 18 months, they become more independent. They realize they are separate little people and can control their own bodies. They’re learning so much and figuring out their own identity.
Taste buds start to change. They move from being primarily in the back of the mouth (for breast or bottle positioning) to the front. This – in combination with the fact that toddlers have more taste buds than adults – means their sense of taste is more intense.
Toddlers also distinguish bitter tastes more strongly than adults. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is necessary as a natural protection against unsafe or poisonous plants, which are usually bitter.
They need to see the “proof” of food being safe. When they sit at the table with the family and see everyone else eating and enjoying the food, they trust that they can eat it as well.
Leaps on Leaps on Leaps
5 – 7 years old
During this time, there is another big cognitive leap going on for our little ones. At these ages, they start to follow rules and rely on structure.
Their thought process is very black and white. There is no gray area. Rules are in place; it’s our job to follow those rules. If you have children this age, I’m sure they’ve put you in your place a time or two! 🙂
Kiddos are sensitive during this phase. Their brains are working hard, making so many connections, and our little munchkins want things to run smoothly and calmly.
The Last of the Leaps
9 – 11 years old
During this phase, there is a cognitive leap of complexity. Children start to think in complex terms and have deep questions.
They’re developing a concrete sense of logic. Their brains are building puzzle skills and problem-solving skills. Thought processes start to develop as multiple options, instead of single options.
At these ages, they realize there may be gray areas and different ways to follow (or not follow!) rules. However, they still prefer a smooth-running operation – especially when it comes to mealtimes.
What the Leaps Have in Common
For all of these phases, we can expect to see some typical things happening. Since their sensory systems are so overwhelmed with everything else they’re learning and doing, children seek simplicity at meals.
This is the one process they’ve realized they have control over (what goes into their bodies), and sometimes they just want an easy process. They want to step back and take a break. They may become more selective, or eat smaller amounts.
Familiar, easy to handle, easy to chew foods will become their preference. The popular “all in one pot/pan” meals are especially hard for them. Visually and texturally, they are very overwhelming since there is so much going on in one dish. It’s too hard to quickly and easily tell what’s what.
You may notice that your child asks for the same foods all of the time. They seek familiarity and ease of use. However, since they’re eating the same thing, they get sick of it. Then they start dropping those foods from their diet, and it can end up taking years to add that food back.
Keep an Eye Out
Here are some telltale signs that may indicate a developmentally appropriate picky eating phase:
- Eating the same few foods
- Getting angry/upset when new/different foods are on the table (even a different type of macaroni)
- Dropping their usual foods
- Eating less of a variety of foods and fewer amounts of foods
While it’s important to remember that picky eating is completely developmentally normal around these ages, you still want to keep up with it. I simply tell my clients that these phases are something to be aware of so they can be prepared for them.
We can help our children through these cognitive leaps so that they don’t drop foods and get caught in a permanent picky eating phase. One way to do this is to make mealtimes easy and fun.
Stick to separate dishes; don’t make “all in one” meals. Have meals as a family. And finally: play, play, play! My clients know that I say this often: don’t be afraid to play with food a little! Make eating fun.
Hopefully, that helps you navigate the normal picky eating that goes along with your child’s cognitive development. If you have further concerns or want to talk your specific situation through with someone, book a 20-minute Picky Eating Assessment with me! I always love to chat.