“You can’t live on grain”: raising a difficult eater

A girl sadly watching her breakfast with a bagel and poached eggA certain difficult level of food is generally comparable to the parenting course. Children of any age can show some selectivity over the food they eat but Parents often have the most difficulty with toddlers and preschoolers.

Most of the tough development choices will go away by the time your child starts school – we have a few tips below to help you manage until then.

In some cases, however, a difficult diet may be a symptom of something beyond an age-appropriate desire for independence. So, if your child is eating nothing but Cheerios or white bread and you don’t know what to do, keep reading. We will see what a difficult diet looks like and offer advice on how to get help for more serious problems.

In some cases, a difficult diet can be a symptom of something beyond an age-appropriate desire for independence.

Why are some children difficult?

There are many reasons to eat hard, according to a major research journal published in 2015. Some possible factors include:

It should also be noted that many children simply have a limited range of favorite tastes at the start of their lives. Developing a taste for new foods is often a long process, so your child may need to try a food several times, not just once or twice, before trying to eat it more regularly.

Children begin to develop preferences for specific foods as they approach the preschool years. Of course, this is also when they begin to regain their sense of independence. Preschoolers don’t have many opportunities to demonstrate this regained independence, so they often choose the table as the stage. This can lead to a number of battles over food, whether or not the issue is about food.

They also often lack words to express how they really feel about certain foods. They may not want to eat something for a more specific reason than not to like it, but they don’t know how to tell you exactly what they are thinking. Maybe the texture is uncomfortable in their mouths, or they have an aversion to the smell of the food or spices you used.

Allergies can also lead to difficult eating behavior. Children with a mild allergy to a specific food may not have a severe or even fatal reaction, but they may associate the food with any minor symptoms they experience and avoid it altogether.

Anxiety and other distress can also contribute to frailty. Think about what you want to eat after a bad day. Everyone preferred comfort foods: soup, macaroni and cheese, ice cream, popcorn, etc. stress and unhappiness too, even if they don’t know how to talk about it. Confronting a new spicy green vegetable may be the last thing they want to do after a long day that has left them tired, cranky or otherwise messy.

Meal Tips for Parents

The battle to get your child to eat can be frustrating, but you can avoid distress (for yourself and your child) by not looking at mealtime as something you need to “win”.

Keeping calm helps. If you are frustrated or irritated with your child for wasting food or being stubborn, they will likely notice. Sometimes it can make them push harder to win the argument. In the end, it comes down to controlling.

You may feel stressed about your child’s health or believe that you have “failed” as a parent if you cannot get your child to eat nutritious food. But try not to let this happen to you. If they reach developmental milestones, have good general health, and have energy to play, they are probably fine. If you have specific concerns, your pediatrician can offer more advice.

Try these tips to make meals easier:

Do not force or bribe your child to eat.

This usually doesn’t create any more problems later. Offer nutritious food in small amounts and let your child decide how much to eat.

A promising dessert after so many bites of vegetables may seem like a great way to get your child to eat these vegetables. However, it does teach children that dessert is better than everything else, an idea that can potentially contribute to unhealthy eating habits later in life.

When you offer a dessert, don’t make it subordinate at the end of their dinner either – it can lead children to eat more than they really need.

Do not serve separate meals.

If your child refuses lunch, don’t offer to do something you know he likes. This only reinforces their behavior. Likewise, eat the foods you want your child to eat – at least in front of them. If you offer them a breakfast of broccoli, apple slices, brown rice and scrambled eggs while you have pizza, you may not be sending the best message.

Get your child involved in food preparation.

Let your child choose vegetables and fruit at the store, and then involve them in the cooking process. You may not always succeed with this approach, but children may be more interested in trying new things when they have helped them create them.

Try not to be frustrated when they don’t want to take a single bite, even after helping you in the kitchen. They can test you, but they may also need time. Stay calm and continue to offer the new food.

Food consumption disorder avoiding restrictions

Children who don’t seem to get out of a difficult diet, or who eat less food as they get older, can eating disorder: disorder avoiding food restriction or ARFID.

Experts aren’t sure exactly what causes ARFID, but it often seems to be linked to trauma. These children may have previously choked, had trouble eating when they were babies, or suffered birth trauma or in utero trauma. They may refuse to eat new foods because they believe the food can cause choking or other damage.

ARFID can also concern sensory distress around specific food textures. People with autism (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or all of it sensory problems may be at higher risk for ARFID.

Most children will end up eating the food you give them when they are hungry. But children with ARFID generally do not eat foods in addition to their selected “safe” foods. Meals usually become very difficult for them, as they tend to experience anxiety and distress due to their inability to eat.

It is generally best to seek professional advice if your child:

  • Seems really distressed by specific foods
  • Lose weight or can’t gain weight
  • Have pain or other stomach problems
  • Has trouble sleeping or concentrating
  • Feeling cold or tired regularly

ARFID can have serious health consequences because a child on a severely restricted diet is probably not getting the right nutrients.

Treatment for ARFID

Help is available for picky eaters, even picky eaters.

A good first step is to speak to a therapist who specializes in working with children. Depending on your location, you may even find a therapist who treats eating disorders in children.

Just be aware that other mental health issues beyond ARFID, including obsessive compulsive trends and other anxiety issues can also contribute to a difficult diet. Your child’s therapist will start by figuring out what is really going on, because the most effective treatment usually depends on the cause of their poor diet.

Your child’s treatment plan may include:

If something doesn’t seem typical to your child’s refusal to eat, don’t hesitate to contact an advisor. There may not be anything serious, but you don’t overreact – even if their eating behaviors are in the range of difficult meals, it’s usually best to know for sure.

Start your search for a compassionate counselor trained in GoodTherapy today.

The references:

  1. Avoiding restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). (North Dakota.). National Association of Eating Disorders. Extract from
  2. Child nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters. (2017, July 28). Mayo Clinic. Extract from
  3. Ehmke, R. (n.d.). More than difficult. The Child Mind Institute. Retrieved from
  4. Elliot, S. (n.d.). What exactly is ARFID? National Association of Eating Disorders. Retrieved from
  5. Knopf, A. (n.d.). When to eat carefully is a sign of psychological distress. Bradley Hospital. Retrieved from
  6. Taylor, C.M., Wernimont, S.M., Northstone, K., and Emmett, P.M. (December 1, 2015). Difficult / difficult feeding in children: review of definitions, evaluation, prevalence and food intake. Appetite, 95, 349-359. Retrieved from
  7. Tips for picky eaters. (North Dakota.). United States Department of Agriculture. Extract from

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