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This Picky Eater Test Separates Problem Eaters from Typical Kids

Your kid's picky eater phase is probably typical but there's a way to tell if it's cause for concern.

Getting kids to eat well at mealtime is the riddle that most parents are struggling to solve. But it can be tough to tell whether or not your child’s struggles are more intense than most. So how can you tell if a medical intervention is necessary, or just a dose of empathy from fellow parents will suffice to get you through? It turns out there is a picky eater test that might give parents clarity.

What is a picky eater test?

According to pediatrician Dr. Leah Alexander, picky eater behavior is expected for kids from about 15 months until almost four years old. As long as they present as picky eaters as opposed to problem feeders, you are experiencing a common struggle. “Some of that is just inherent to toddlers,” she explains. “They’re just not as hungry, and they don’t need as many calories to grow and gain weight properly.” 

Starting around four years old, Dr. Alexander notes that picky eating can become unhealthy for kids. “Between the types of foods and frequency of the eating, I see many obesity and dental issues,” she says. “Most of the older kids who are picky eaters develop carb-heavy diets. They tend to snack a lot on foods that are low in fiber and protein, so they’re not so good at sitting down at meals to eat.” 

When concerns arise regarding a child’s eating habits, most healthcare providers look at seven points of differentiation to determine if a child is a typically picky eaters or a problem feeder

  • Number of foods consistently eaten when presented: A picky eater will regularly eat more than 30 different foods, a problem feeder usually eats less than 20. 
  • Whether or not a child’s food range is decreasing: Unlike picky eaters, a problem feeder will not embrace a food that has been removed from their diet for two weeks before being reintroduced. 
  • Ability to eat foods from all different textures and nutritional categories: Problem feeders will reject entire categories of food based on texture or nutrition group. A picky eater will eat at least one food from most nutrition or texture groups.
  • Tolerance for new foods: Picky eaters can tolerate the introduction of new foods, but a problem eater will completely melt down when new food is introduced.
  • Ability to eat the same food as the rest of the family: A problem feeder will almost always eat a different set of food from their family and often eats in a different place or at a different time than the rest of the family.
  • How long the parents have reported picky eating: Kids typically need to be persistently reported by parents as a picky eater at multiple well-child check-ups.
  • Ability to learn to eat new foods: Problem feeders require more than 25 steps on a Steps to Eating Hierarchy in order to learn to eat a new food.

Dr. Alexander notes that problem feeding is largely present in kids who have been diagnosed with speech delays, Autism, or sensory issues. “Oral sensitivity issues, like difficulty with teeth brushing, or difficulty with certain textures, is usually picked up in the toddler years,” she says. And then it kind of carries over into the grade school universe with the picky eating.”

What can I do if my kid is a picky eater?

The first thing parents should do is evaluate their own eating habits and attitudes toward food. “Kids tend to be less picky when their parents eat a variety of foods and when they are offered healthy foods regularly,” Dr. Alexander advises. “So those kids tend to eat a wider variety of foods, even if they have a picky eater phase and have certain foods that they just refuse to eat for a while. Their overall diet tends to be pretty varied and more balanced than some kids that don’t get those exposures.”

Increasing a child dietary repertoire is a long game. It’s very rare for a child to skip a pickiness phase altogether. Parents who are persistent and patient can typically experience success in the long run. “The most important thing is to try not to make it a battle, especially with a toddler that’s prone to tantrums and testing boundaries,” Dr. Alexander warns. “They’re going to push back and become more defiant, which creates a whole cycle of unpleasant mealtime.” 

Instead of turning the dinner table into a battlefield, Dr. Alexander suggests waiting a couple of weeks and then reintroducing foods that your child has rejected in the past since one of the picky eaters vs. problem feeder tests is whether or not a child will be more amenable to a type food following a break from it. “A picky eater may feel differently about the food when they see it again, or they might be in a different mood that day and more willing to try it. So I would say don’t give up if the first attempt doesn’t go well.”