Anita Floresca, M.S. CCC-SLP
Is your toddler more than just a picky eater? 9 signs to look for.
Updated: Jul 11, 2020
“No!”.....”Ew!”.....”I hate it!”.....”Yucky!”.....”I’m done!”
Some of the most common words and phrases found in the Toddler-to-English dictionary.
When do you hear these words?
While your toddler throws their plate of breakfast across the floor?
When he pushes any food you offer farther away?
As she runs away from the dinner table?
Before you finally concede and let him have goldfish crackers for dinner...again?
It is no secret that toddlers are notorious for being a little picky when it comes to exploring new foods. Sometimes new can be scary...or smelly...or sticky...or slimy...or (GASP!) orange. And that’s okay. You have the opportunity to show your child that these new foods are nothing to fear. And eventually, with lots of modeling and encouragement, your child will become an adventurous eater! Or at least, good enough!
But what if your toddler’s picky eating habits are ruling your lives and stressing you out? A little bit of pickiness as a child explores new foods is typical, but when does it become something more?
If any of these 9 things are happening in your family, then it might be time to reach out for some extra support from a pediatric feeding therapist:
1. Your toddler is so picky they are only eating a small amount of food.
If your child is not eating enough food, there can be serious concerns for adequate growth and development. If you have reached out to your pediatrician and they have concerns, they may refer you to a feeding therapist and probably also a registered dietitian for support. An appropriate quantity of food and a good variety of food are essential.
2. They avoid an entire category of food.
I don’t mean they don’t like pepperoni. I mean they won’t eat any kind of meat. Think of this as an aversion or an avoidance of an entire food group. For example; meat, vegetables, fruits, bread, etc. If you have tried all sorts of vegetables and your child refuses to eat most of them, then this is a concern. If his diet is made up of chicken fingers, goldfish, and popcorn...that is more than just picky eating. We don't want children to be missing out on essential vitamins and nutrients their developing bodies need.
3. They will not go near certain textures or flavors.
We all have food preferences! Some of us have a sweet-tooth, some of us hate broccoli. Think about the types of foods your toddler will and won’t eat and look for patterns. If he is willing to eat anything that is dry and crunchy, but will fight tooth and nail before eating anything soft and squishy, then there might be more going on with his feeding skills than just pickiness.
Foods are a sensory explosion. Your toddler has to accept a variety of smells, tastes, temperatures and textures to be successful with expanding the foods he or she is willing to eat. Differences in how toddlers process various sensations associated with foods can determine what foods they love and hate. If your child is limiting their intake based on certain patterns, it might be time to seek an evaluation to determine what is causing those preferences or aversions.
Keep in mind that the sensory aspect of food may not be the only reason that kids choose to avoid certain foods. Your toddler might prefer foods that are softer and easier to chew and swallow if their oral-motor development hasn’t progressed adequately enough to successfully manage challenging foods.
4. One or two bites, then done.
Is your toddler only taking a few bites before trying to leave the table? There could be many reasons why, but either way, it is disrupting their their ability to develop a routine. Not to say that lunch must be served at noon sharp everyday, absolutely not! However, having generally set meal and snack times throughout the day will help your toddler feel hungry and then feel full. This is important for developing self-regulation and learning how much they should eat as they get older.
5. Meals last forever.
And yes, I mean like The Sandlot type of FOR-EV-ER.
Of course, toddlers can get easily distracted, but meals should not typically take more than 30 minutes on average. After 30 minutes, she is probably just pushing food around the plate. Typically, this is either to avoid non-preferred foods or she is having some oral-motor difficulties that are inhibiting her from chewing and swallowing her food in a timely manner. If the energy it takes to eat the food is more than the energy the food is providing, you haven’t made much progress.
6. You are preparing separate meals for your toddler.
You are not a private chef! You are too busy to make a separate meal for everyone and you are certainly not going to cater to your toddler’s every whim. Respecting that your child has individual food tastes and preferences is fantastic, and you can make adjustments to your meals to make them more toddler friendly. Maybe they eat the mashed potatoes and chicken, but don’t want any gravy. Maybe they pick the mushrooms out of the stir fry. Maybe they douse everything in ketchup. Fine! However, constantly having to make an entirely separate meal because they won’t touch ANYTHING on the plate is not typical picky eating.
7. My way or the highway.
Your toddler is particular about his meals to the point that it is interfering with the success of mealtimes. Does he only like certain brands? Does she typically like smoothies, but if it’s blue instead of red it’s all over? Does he hate having his food touch each other? That is not “picky eating”. That is restrictive eating, and can have numerous underlying causes. Reach out to a feeding therapist who can evaluate your child’s feeding habits and discuss their overall development in all areas to get a complete understanding of your child’s needs.
8. Your toddler is doing any of the following:
spitting, throwing, screaming, crying.
You are doing any of the following:
spitting, throwing, screaming, crying.
These habits are not appropriate for your toddler during meals. The reasons for these behaviors need to be addressed appropriately. And let’s face it, sometimes parents can’t help but scream and cry because they are simply at the end of their rope.
If you feel a rush of anxiety when it comes to preparing dinner...call a feeding therapist.
If you dread going to the grocery store because you know anything you buy will just get thrown out...call a feeding therapist.
If the thought of wrangling your child into the highchair gives you hives...call a feeding therapist.
You get the point.
Food is how we show love, how we teach skills and values, how we pass on family traditions, how we connect at the end of the day. It won’t be sunshine and rainbows every meal...you have a toddler...but it should not be a negative experience day after day.
9. Restaurants are a nightmare.
Restaurants can induce so many challenges with feeding. Maybe your toddler can’t sit still at the table. Maybe you know he won’t eat anything on the menu so you basically have to pack your entire pantry in your purse. Maybe you feel like all eyes are on you as she protests. You are not alone! If your family enjoys going out to eat, but have found yourselves avoiding it due to your toddler...call for backup! As mentioned already in the list, there might be more going on with your toddler’s feeding than meets the eye. Restaurants can intensify these challenges, but it does not have to mean that you are exiled from eating-out forever. Addressing the root of these concerns will give you hope and confidence that restaurants are in your future again.
Check, check, check! Does this sound like your family?
Here is what you can do next!
Pediatric feeding therapists can help your family figure out why your child might be having significant difficulties with food and mealtimes. Feeding therapists are typically speech-language pathologists or occupational therapists with specialized training with providing therapy to children regarding all aspects of feeding. Concerns might involve sensory differences, oral-motor delays, or behavioral challenges. They can assess where the breakdown is happening and develop a therapy plan with your family so that meals can be an enjoyable experience for everyone!
Food should be a time for fun, bonding, family, and growth. Not stress, anxiety and a battle. Reach out to a feeding therapist today to schedule an evaluation!
Gooseberry Speech Therapy LLC offers feeding evaluations for toddlers online so we can see exactly what a typical meal looks like. This is invaluable to developing a therapy plan that is tailored to your meals, your home, your foods, and your toddler. Reach out now!
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