Uncovering the Psychology of Picky Eaters

Uncovering the Psychology of Picky Eaters
Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge

If this is you, serving up the same brand of chicken nuggets night after night, locked in a culinary tug of war with your little one, you're certainly not alone. Picky eating isn't just a childhood phase for some, but a complex issue, influenced by a mix of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Join us as we navigate through the maze of picky eating. 

We'll delve into the psychology behind this phenomenon, offering insights into why your child might be so loyal to their nuggets and more importantly, provide some practical strategies for introducing more variety and nutrition into their diet.

The Science Behind Picky Eating

Picky eating, which is characterized by strong preferences or aversions to certain foods, is relatively common among young children, with estimates suggesting that between 14-50% of preschool-aged children are picky eaters. This phenomenon can manifest in various ways, such as children rejecting both familiar and unfamiliar foods.

Although picky eating may seem like a harmless quirk, it can impact a child's nutritional consumption. Research suggests that picky eating in children may be associated with an increased risk of being underweight and exhibiting inadequate growth.

The science behind picky eating involves several biological factors. These factors include food neophobia, which is the reluctance or avoidance of new foods' taste flavors, sensory sensitivities, and decreased appetite.

A child's picky eating can be stressful for both parent and child and many parents guiltily give in just to see their child eat something. Hey, we have all been there. But there are reasons why some kids are more willing to eat a variety of foods and others that display more extreme picky eating.

Biological Factors

Genetic variation and sensory processing differences are known to be biological factors of picky eating. For instance, variations in certain bitter taste receptor genes can result in heightened sensitivity to bitter tastes. This means that certain foods may taste more bitter to some individuals, making them less palatable to those with picky palates.

Sensory processing differences also play a role in picky eating. These differences can make picky eaters more sensitive to certain textures, smells, and tastes, leading to the rejection of specific foods. Understanding these biological factors can provide valuable insight into why some children are more prone to picky eating than others.

What is Food Neophobia?

Food Neophobia

Food neophobia, which affects between 50 and 75% of children, is defined as the reluctance or avoidance of new foods. This developmental stage typically occurs between 18 and 24 months and is distinct from picky eating, which is a more persistent behavior.

While food neophobia is a common and normal part of early childhood development, it's essential to differentiate it from picky eating to better address the issue. It's worth noting that food neophobia can contribute to picky eating habits. For instance, a child who is hesitant to try new foods due to food neophobia may develop into a picky eater as they continue to avoid unfamiliar foods.

Understanding the difference between food neophobia and picky eating can help parents and caregivers better support their children in developing healthy eating habits.

Sensory Sensitivities and Their Impact on Eating

Sensory sensitivities can significantly impact picky eating. These sensitivities may be triggered by factors such as taste, texture, smell, and appearance of food. For example, a child with sensory sensitivities might refuse to eat a specific food because of its texture, even if they enjoy the taste.

The distinction between picky eating and Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) in terms of sensory sensitivities is crucial. Picky eaters may experience some distress when presented with a variety of textures, smells, and visual presentations of food, whereas individuals with ARFID often have heightened anxiety and report an inability to consume foods due to texture, taste, smell, visual presentation, etc., which can result in high distress or other symptoms such as gagging or spitting out food.

Sensory sensitivities play a vital role in understanding and addressing picky eating and most certainly should always be looked at as a cause. Especially with the rise of autism in children and its relation to sensory processing issues. 

Parental Influence on Picky Eating

If you've found yourself puzzling over your child's insistence on a single food or their staunch refusal of anything with a hint of green, it's time to consider our roles as parents in shaping their eating habits. As caregivers, we're not merely providers but key influencers of our children's dietary patterns. This influence extends from the selection of food we offer to the structure of meal times and, often, the portion sizes we recommend.

Our interactions surrounding food – our feeding styles, attitudes towards different foods, and the atmosphere we cultivate during meals – can all contribute to the narrative of picky eating. Regular mealtime exchanges can significantly influence our children's eating habits and their overall relationship with food. That is why it is important to share your calm to bring down stress levels. A very controlling or very permissive feeding style, for instance, could result in undesirable eating behaviors and complex dynamics around meals.

Yet, within this challenge lies an opportunity. By understanding our pivotal role and thoughtfully calibrating our actions, we can guide our children towards a more varied and healthier diet. It's important to remember that we are not just feeding our children; we are facilitating the development of their lifelong dietary habits and their understanding of nutrition.

Feeding Styles

There are four recognized parental feeding styles: Controlling, Indulgent, Uninvolved, and Diplomatic. Each feeding style can have a different impact on a child's eating habits and attitude towards food. For instance, when parents take an authoritative role in their children's dietary habits, such as prodding them to eat more or using food as a reward, it can lead to a power struggle with children or other kids who are picky eaters.

Being mindful of different feeding styles and their effects on a child's dietary habits is essential for parents. Choosing an appropriate feeding style can help create a positive and healthy relationship with food, reducing the likelihood of picky eating behaviors.

Four Types of Parenting Feeding Styles

Four Types of Parenting Feeding Styles



Modeling refers to parents demonstrating good eating habits for their children. The “Division of Responsibility in feeding” model is an excellent example of this concept, as it states that parents are responsible for providing the food and setting meal and snack times, while children are in charge of deciding how much they eat and whether they eat at all.

By adopting the division of responsibility model, parents can create a positive mealtime environment and encourage their children to develop healthy eating habits. This approach can help reduce mealtime conflict and support children in a healthy weight and being in tune with their internal hunger gauge, ultimately addressing picky eating behaviors.

Mealtime Dynamics

Managing mealtime dynamics can be an effective strategy for addressing picky eating. Parents can provide their children with guidelines regarding the consumption of sweet foods, such as a daily dessert, three meals, or an after-school snack. Teaching children how to consume sweet items in moderation can prevent overindulgence or misuse. Additionally, it's important to recognize and avoid foods with any trust issues in children who cannot be trusted with sweet items, as this is an issue of trust and not of food.

Involving children in meal planning and preparation can also help create a positive mealtime environment. By allowing children to have a say in the food they eat, parents can empower them to make healthier choices and develop a more adventurous palate. This approach can be especially effective in addressing picky eating habits of young kids.

Differentiating Picky Eating from Eating Disorders

Differentiating picky eating from disordered eating and eating disorders is crucial to ensure proper treatment. Disordered eating is an unhealthy relationship with food, while Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is characterized by fear or sensitivity to food, and Anorexia Nervosa (AN) is motivated by nutritional content and body image concerns.

In the following sections, we will delve deeper into disordered eating, ARFID, and anorexia nervosa, highlighting the key differences between these conditions and picky eating. Recognizing these distinctions can help parents and caregivers seek appropriate interventions and support for their children.

Disordered Eating

Disordered eating is a term used to describe a range of abnormal eating behaviors that can have a detrimental impact on a person's physical and mental health. This includes restrictive eating, compulsive eating, or irregular or inflexible eating patterns. Disordered eating is situated on a spectrum between normal eating and an eating disorder, exhibiting various symptoms and behaviors of eating disorders, though at a lower frequency or intensity.

Signs and behaviors associated with disordered eating may include restrictive eating, compulsive eating, or inconsistent or inflexible eating patterns. Eating disorders can also result from clinical conditions such as OCD, PANS/PANDAS, or autism. 

Understanding the difference between picky eating and disordered eating can help parents and caregivers determine whether their child's behaviors warrant further assessment and intervention.

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)

Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) is a type of eating disorder in which a child restricts the amount or types of food they consume. Unlike picky eating, children with ARFID may not achieve anticipated or normal weight and gains or may even develop nutritional deficiencies. Individuals with ARFID may display reactions to foods with certain colors, smells, textures, or brand names, and may experience an intense fear of physical consequences, such as vomiting, choking, allergic reactions, or abdominal pain.

Severe food restrictions in ARFID may lead to nutritional deficiencies or, in the case of children, inhibited growth. Recognizing the signs of ARFID and differentiating it from picky eating can help parents and caregivers seek the appropriate treatment and support for their children.

Anorexia Nervosa

Anorexia Nervosa is a serious eating disorder characterized by a fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. Unlike picky eating, anorexia nervosa is driven by considerations of nutritional value and body image issues. Psychological factors such as dysfunctional families, social learning, and cognitive factors are often the root causes of Anorexia Nervosa.

Indications of anorexia nervosa include drastic and significant weight loss or reduction, exhaustion, lightheadedness, and a preoccupation with food and body image. Treatment options for anorexia nervosa include psychotherapy, nutritional counseling, and medications.

Understanding the differences between picky eating and anorexia nervosa can help parents and caregivers seek proper intervention and support for their children.

Picky Eaters vs. Eating Disorders

Picky Eaters vs. Eating Disorders
Picky Eaters vs. Eating Disorders


Strategies for Addressing Picky Eating

Now that we've explored the complexity of picky eating and distinguished it from other eating disorders above, let's discuss some strategies for addressing picky eating. These strategies include repeated exposure, division of responsibility, involving kids in meal planning and preparation, and providing foods for brain health. Implementing these strategies can help your child overcome their picky eating habits and develop a healthier relationship with food.

In the following sections, we will delve deeper into each of these strategies, providing practical tips and guidance for parents and caregivers looking to address picky eating in their children.

Repeated Exposure

The strategy of repeated exposure involves gradually introducing a new food to a picky eater on multiple occasions. Studies indicate that it takes multiple exposures before a child will accept a new food. This approach can be particularly effective for children who are hesitant to try new foods due to their food preferences, neophobia or sensory sensitivities.

Exposure therapy and the three-try rule are additional techniques that can be employed to address picky eating. By encouraging children to try a food item at least three times before determining they do not like it, parents can help their children become more open to new foods and flavors.

Division of Responsibility

The concept of division of responsibility is a feeding method that provides parents with control over what, when, and where a child eats, while granting the child autonomy to decide how much they wish to consume at each meal and whether they eat the foods offered. This method aims to reduce mealtime conflict and support children in being in tune with their internal hunger gauge.

Implementing division of responsibility may present some challenges for parents, such as the need for consistency and patience. However, by adopting this feeding method, parents can create a positive mealtime environment and encourage their children to develop healthy eating habits, ultimately addressing picky eating behaviors.

Involving Kids in Meal Planning and Preparation

Incorporating children into meal planning and preparation can foster healthy eating habits, boost vegetable intake, strengthen family ties, and provide children with food-related skills. By involving children in meal preparation, they become active participants and gain a sense of control from the outset.

Allowing children to have a say in the food they eat empowers them to make healthier choices and develop a more adventurous palate. Involving children in meal planning and preparation can be an effective strategy for addressing picky eating habits.

Optimizing Nutrition for Brain Health in Picky Eaters

Dealing with picky eating habits often feels like a complex and daunting task, much akin to solving a multi-layered puzzle. Convincing a child to deviate from their preferred foods, or to venture into tasting a different vegetable or a new dish, can indeed be an uphill struggle.

As parents, we're acquainted with the challenge of turning mealtime into a harmonious event rather than a negotiation table. 

The consistent ‘no' to anything unfamiliar, especially vegetables, or the painstaking process of picking out ‘undesirable' items from their plate can make meal preparation and presentation a taxing exercise.

Despite these difficulties, it's essential to persist in this endeavor. The introduction of nutrient-dense, high-quality foods plays a pivotal role in a child's brain health. These essential foods, replete with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and B vitamins, extend beyond mere physical nourishment. They serve as fundamental components for optimal brain function, supporting cognitive development and contributing to increased mental flexibility.

Envision every new food item introduced and accepted as a stepping stone to creating a robust and adaptable neural network in your child's brain. Foods such as leafy greens, oily fish, eggs, nuts, berries, broccoli, avocado, and olive oil are not merely constituents of a balanced diet; they are integral to your child's cognitive fortification.

Addressing picky eating habits transcends the goal of diversified food acceptance; it lays the groundwork for nurturing a resilient and flexible brain. While the journey may seem strenuous now, each small step contributes to a larger, more crucial objective: fortifying your child's cognitive health. Persistence is key in this journey, and your commitment today will lay the foundation for their cognitive prowess tomorrow.

Understanding When It's Time to Reach Out for Assistance

It's no secret that discerning when your child's picky eating habits warrant professional intervention can be a tough call to make. However, this discernment is crucial to prevent severe consequences in a subset of children. If you notice that your child's selective eating habits persist in a way that disrupts their daily life or leads to noticeable health concerns such as progressively limiting the variety of foods consumed or manifesting signs of nutritional deficiencies, it might be time to consult a dietitian or a healthcare provider.

Just as a pilot would turn on a warning light when the airplane veers off course, picky eating can occasionally signal both short- and long-term nutrient deficiencies and other challenges. Distinguishing between typical picky eating behaviors and more severe eating problems such as disordered eating or eating disorders can empower you, as parents or caregivers, to seek the appropriate support and intervention for your child.

Focusing on natural ways to calm an anxious child and helping them gain coping skills coupled with sharing your own calm is critical to helping your child overcome their stress and resistance.

Remember, it's okay to reach out. In this journey of nurturing your child's health, you're not alone. Many have navigated this path before, and help is available. Sometimes, all it takes is a conversation with a trusted healthcare provider to illuminate the path forward.

Perseverance is Key in Shaping Healthy Eating Habits

Dealing with picky eaters is undeniably challenging. At times, it may feel like an uphill journey that tests your patience and resourcefulness. However, remember that you're not alone in this, and the struggles are part of a universal parenthood experience.

Every step you take, every new food introduced, and every mealtime negotiation is a piece of the puzzle towards a healthier eating pattern for your child. These small, persistent efforts are significant investments in your child's future health and cognitive development.

It's important to hold onto the belief that picky eaters can and do change. Children's tastes can evolve over time, and with consistent exposure, encouragement, and a positive eating environment, they will gradually embrace a variety of nutritious foods.

However, if your concerns persist or intensify, seeking help from a healthcare provider or a dietitian can be a constructive step forward. It's a demonstration of your dedication and proactive approach towards your child's well-being, rather than a reflection of defeat.

In the end, your perseverance and commitment play an instrumental role in molding your child's dietary habits and brain health. It might be a marathon rather than a sprint, but the finish line leads to a healthier, happier, and more nutritionally balanced future for your child.

So, keep going, and trust in your journey. Your dedication today is building the foundation for your child's vibrant health and well-being tomorrow. You're doing an amazing job, and every step you take makes a difference.

Unlock the secrets to successful self-regulation for your picky eating child. Our free resource, “147 Therapist-Endorsed Self-Regulation Strategies for Children: A Practical Guide for Parents,” is a game-changer. Access your copy now and discover practical strategies endorsed by therapists. Don't miss out, download here: www.drroseann.com/regulate 

147 Self-regulation strategies for children
147 Self-regulation strategies for children

Frequently Asked Questions About Picky Eaters

What personalities do picky eaters have?

Picky eaters tend to demonstrate personality traits such as stubbornness, moodiness, nervousness and a short attention span. They are often resistant to trying new foods and prefer to consume only their favorite dishes.

As a result of their picky eating habits, they may not receive enough calories from an adequate variety of nutritious food.

Is being a picky eater a trauma response?

Yes, it can be. Being a picky eater can be a response to trauma for some. It is possible that the fear of certain textures or flavors and refusal to try new foods may stem from a traumatic experience, like choking on a food with a certain texture.

Additionally, a fear of the unknown may also contribute to the disorder.

Is picky eating ADHD or autism?

While picky eating can be associated with both autism and ADHD, there is no definitive answer that definitively connects the two.

Additionally, research suggests that selective eating is also common in children who suffer from depression and anxiety, OCD, and PANS/PANDAS. Therefore, it is important to consider all potential underlying causes of picky eating.

Is it a disorder to be a picky eater?

It can be a disorder to be a picky eater if the person experiences a strong restriction in the types and/or quantities of food they will eat, leading to poor nutrition or physical health consequences. For some teens and adults, this extreme selectiveness of food consumption can signify a serious underlying condition called avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).

Therefore, it is important to pay attention to picky eating and consider seeking professional help nutrition counseling if necessary.

Is there a disorder for being a picky eater?

Yes, there is a disorder for being a picky eater. Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is a recently recognized condition that involves restricting food and not eating to an extreme level.

It can negatively affect physical and mental health and be dangerous if not addressed.

Top Parent Takeaways

  • Picky eating in children is linked to biological factors such as food neophobia, sensory sensitivities and decreased appetite.

  • Parental influence is a key factor for the development of healthy eating habits, manifesting in feeding styles, modeling and mealtime dynamics.

  • Strategies like repeated exposure, division of responsibility and providing foods for brain health can help address picky eating. Seek professional help if necessary.

Parent Action Steps

  • Have patience and keep trying new foods
  • Explore the possibility of clinical issues
  • Seek help if you need need guidance or your child is loosing weight


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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of  media outlets including, CBS, NBC, FOX News, PIX11 NYC, The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Business Insider, USA Today, CNET, Marth Stewart, and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.” 

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She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

© Roseann-Capanna-Hodge, LLC 2023

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to give health advice and it is recommended to consult with a physician before beginning any new wellness regime. *The effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment vary by patient and condition. Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LLC does not guarantee certain results.

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