It’s a scene most toddler parents are familiar with: entire meals discarded, stubborn little ones exerting what control they have, and frustrated parents torn between remaining firm and wanting to ensure their kids are getting at least some calories.
The plight of parenting a picky eater is real. But a new app may help offer some relief.
Released by the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychology, in conjunction with researchers from NYU Langone Health, When to Wonder: Picky Eating is the first of what the group hopes will be several digital tools meant to help parents through early childhood challenges.
This first release has two main features. The first is a game that allows children to place various foods into “yummy” or “yucky” categories so that parents can then test their knowledge of their children’s food preferences.
The other is a section with evidence-based advice to help parents address some of the picky-eating issues they may be dealing with.
Dr. Natalie Digate Muth, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and co-author of “The Picky Eater Project: 6 Weeks to Happier, Healthier Family Mealtimes,” thinks the app is a good place for parents to start.
However, she warns parents that while “there are some general principles that apply mostly across the board when working with children with picky eating preferences,” there are also cases where a more individualized approach is needed.
This can be especially true for children with special needs.
Family and child nutrition expert Katharine Jeffcoat, RDN, LD, agrees.
“It’s very individualized when I work with children with picky eating,” she told Healthline. “Often there is more going on with sensory processing disorder, which is inhibiting the acceptance of new foods.”
She also mentioned delays and overall high anxiety as potential sources of a problem.
“When I meet with a new family, I will rule out ‘problem feeder’ vs. picky eater since they often start off the same, but I treat them differently,” she said.
Jeffcoat explained that problem feeders often have high anxiety around new foods.
Because of this, they may be missing food groups in their diet or eat less than 20 foods in total.
They also usually have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight.
“This type of child is referred to as a selective eater, extreme picky eater, or one with ARFID (avoidant restrictive food intake disorder),” Jeffcoat said.
For the sorting section of the app, Jeffcoat said that parents are usually right about which foods their kids will or will not like, but that “this assumption their child doesn’t like something leads to them not serving and exposing it to the child and the child not having much of a chance to like it.”
Muth added: “We know it takes 15 to 20 tries of a food for a child to come around to liking a previously rejected food. Every taste that a child with picky eating preferences is willing to take is a win.”
Which means that parents who avoid serving foods they know their children aren’t likely to enjoy may actually be doing them a disservice.
As for the general advice the app is likely to contain, both experts recommended Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding.
“For the most part, parents should decide the foods that are offered to a child, when, and where. Ideally this is during scheduled meal and snack times and the same foods the rest of the family is eating.”
Under this concept, parents essentially present the food but children are responsible for deciding what and how much they will eat.
“Parents should avoid pressuring or bribing a child to eat a food. Most of the time, a hungry child will eat.” Muth said. She also noted that consistency is key, and that children eventually learn there will be no other options, so they come around to eating.
It may be possible to minimize it by presenting a variety of foods and textures prior to a child’s second birthday (when they tend to get a little more picky), Muth explained.
In this way, parents can at least limit the number of new foods kids may not be familiar with.
But Jeffcoat admits that even as a family nutrition expert herself, achieving the goal of avoiding the picky eating stage hasn’t always proven possible.
“I tried,” she said, “But both of my kids are picky in different ways! I don’t think there is a way to prevent from my experience, but a parent can certainly make the situation worse by how they react to the picky behavior.”
When in doubt, she urges parents to seek the advice of a professional.
“Don’t wait too long before getting help. A lot of kids don’t grow out of it and their food aversions just get worse. Sometimes there is more going on and getting help early can help steer the ship in the right direction to long-term success.”