What Causes Children To Be Picky Eaters?

What Causes Children To Be Picky Eaters? | Little Feet Pediatric Occupational Therapy Pediatric Speech Therapy Clinic Washington DC, Charlotte NC, Raleigh NC, St Louis MO

Has your child ever looked at a certain food and refused to eat it, or even try it?

Do you have trouble with feeding your child, and has this been going on for some time?

If this is the case, you may be wondering if your child is just a picky eater or if there’s something deeper going on.

Being a picky eater can be a normal part of childhood development, but if it persists it may be an indication of another underlying condition.

Picky eating may result in your child not eating enough or not getting enough nutrients through eating a varied diet.

Don’t worry, we can help.

Here at Little Feet Pediatric Therapy, we’re a rehabilitative therapy clinic for kids that can help address your child’s picky eating and its underlying causes.

On this week’s pediatric therapy blog, we’re looking at picky eating.

We’ll talk about its signs and characteristics, its potential causes, and the treatments available.

Let’s dig in.

What Is Considered “Picky Eating”

During childhood, kids will develop their self care skills like eating through having an established routine, schedule, and set boundaries.

Your child will begin to develop their eating skills and habits early on, so it’s a good idea to monitor their progress.

That said, kids don’t usually start off as neat, tidy eaters.

As your child is learning how to behave during feeding time, it’s common for them to do things like:

  • Throw food
  • Have a tantrum when their favorite food is not offered
  • Spit out food
  • Eat well in one place but not in another
  • Dislike staying in a high chair

It’s also common for kids to avoid certain types of food.

For instance, most kids are averse to sour and bitter flavors and drawn to sweet flavors.

Many kids also tend to shy away from trying new foods.

This isn’t considered picky eating, but a normal part of childhood development.

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What makes picky eating different is the underlying cause.

In some cases, unfamiliar foods can cause an anxiety, stress, or fear based reaction.

Let’s take a look at the signs of picky eating versus regular eating habits.

General Signs Of Picking Eating

When it comes to picky eating, your child’s food preferences and aversions will go beyond typical toddler selectivity.

The signs of picky eating may differ depending on your child’s age and the underlying cause of the condition.

However, some common signs or behaviors to look out for can include:

  • Eating only very particular types of food (like a specific brand, shape, or color)
  • Refusing to eat a food they’d normally like if it’s close to one they don’t
  • Needing to constantly distract your child during feeding time

Signs Of Picky Eating Before 18 Months

Most kids under 18 months display signs of toddler selectivity.

Toddlers are pickier eaters in general, so it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference.

However, there are some signs to watch out for that will help you determine if your child is a picky eater.

One of the main signs is if your child is particularly hungry around mealtime.

Most kids will snack frequently, for example.

If your child does as well, it’s likely not the case that they’re a picky eater.

However, if your child is hungry when coming to eat, and you offer them a wide variety of foods that they refuse to eat, that’s an indication that they may be a picky eater.

Some other common signs to watch out for include:

  • Refusing to try any new foods for over three months
  • Only eating a small and very specific number of foods (less than ten)
  • Crying when sitting in their high chair
  • Gagging when eating most foods
  • Needing to be distracted during feeding time

Signs Of Picky Eating After 18 Months

After 18 months, it may be a bit easier to tell whether your child is a picky eater or not.

Here are some general signs that your child may be a picky eater:

  • Refusing new foods, even to the point of going hungry
  • Showing sensitivity to certain textures or feelings (like having messy or wet hands)
  • Seeming anxious around feeding time
  • Throwing larger temper tantrums than usual around feeding time

These signs are particularly important to act upon if they’ve been happening for more than a few months.

Why Is My Child Such A Picky Eater?

There are several underlying causes that can contribute to your child being a picky eater.

Aside from typical childhood development, picky eating can be the result of eating disorders, mental health issues, neurodevelopmental disorders, or sensory processing disorders.

Keep reading to understand how these health issues can cause picky eating.

Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory processing disorder is a condition in which you have trouble with processing and reacting to information that comes from your senses.

If your child has sensory processing disorder, they may experience extreme sensitivity to certain stimuli.

RELATED: How To Recognize The Signs Of Sensory Processing Disorder

This includes the smells, tastes, or textures of certain foods.

If that’s the case, your child will go out of their way to avoid these foods.

While this can present challenges with their eating, sensory processing disorder therapy can help.

Through exploring and understanding your child’s specific sensory triggers, you and your child’s occupational therapist can put together a plan to help your child find their safe foods.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism is a form of neurodivergence.

That means it’s a difference in how a child’s brain develops.

Autistic kids communicate, learn, and behave differently than allistic children do.

Not all autistic children will have sensory processing issues.

However, most will – A 2022 survey of more than 25,000 autistic children found that 74% had some sort of difference in how they process sensory inputs.

However, autism and sensory processing disorder are not the same thing.

Sensory processing disorder is also not the only reason why your autistic child may be a picky eater.

One of the hallmark traits of autistic children is their desire for predictability and dislike of change.

It’s common for autistic kids to prefer processed foods, because they tend to be more predictable than fresh fruits and vegetables.

However, processed foods aren’t usually as nutritious.

Some other signs of autism aside from picky eating can include:

If that sounds like your child, and they’re a picky eater, they may be autistic.

Here at Little Feet, we take a neurodiversity affirming approach to pediatric therapy.

We can work with you and your child to help them broaden their restrictive palate in a way that isn’t upsetting for your child.

RELATED: Autism Spectrum Disorder Therapy


Eating disorders involve dysfunctional eating behaviors that can harm your health.

AFRID is one of these disorders.

AFRID, also known as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, is a type of eating disorder that may appear as picky eating.

The following food related symptoms may occur in children with ARFID, which are also present in picky eating:

  • Social anxiety with situations where food in involved
  • Avoiding foods of certain textures or colors
  • Skipping meals or making excuses to not eat
  • Losing interest in eating

This might sound like autism and sensory processing disorder as well, but it’s a unique condition.

The difference is that AFRID is an anxiety around the consequences of eating.

Sensory processing disorder, on the other hand, is a difficulty with the brain making sense of sensory information.

However, some of the treatments used for sensory processing disorder can be effective for ARFID as well.

In particular, if your child has ARFID, pediatric sensory integration therapy can help.

This is a therapeutic approach that slowly, gradually, and gently exposes your child to sensory inputs.

This can help your child adapt their reactions, which can relieve their anxiety around eating.


ADHD, like autism, is a form of neurodivergence.

ADHD can impact the way a person interacts with and processes the world.

If your child has ADHD, they may also experience challenges with eating.

Children with ADHD are usually unwilling to try different foods and stick to particular food choices.

They may also have sensory sensitivities.

As a result, they may develop picky eating habits and avoid unfamiliar textures, tastes, and smells.

These habits may also be caused by impaired dopamine activity in the brain, which is associated with ADHD.

Children with ADHD tend to typically go for sugary, fat, and familiar foods.

This is because these foods provide a temporary dopamine surge.

Impaired dopamine activity isn’t necessarily the only cause for picky eating in children with ADHD, but it may be a contributing factor.

Other potential causes for picky eating in those with ADHD include co-occurring conditions like OCD, eating disorders, or autism.

Pediatric ADHD therapy can help your child improve their impulse control, as well as find healthier sources of dopamine.

RELATED: Frequently Asked Questions About ADHD

What is Considered “Picky Eating”?| Little Feet Pediatric Occupational Therapy Pediatric Speech Therapy Clinic Washington DC, Charlotte NC, Raleigh NC, St Louis MO

What Can You Do About It?

Just because your child is a picky eater, doesn’t mean they still can’t have food preferences.

However, it’s a good idea to gently guide them towards healthy food options when possible.

If your child is showing signs of picky eating, avoid pressuring them to eat or calling them a picky eater.

This could make the situation worse by causing additional stress and anxiety.

As a parent, you may often feel frustrated and not know how to deal with a child that’s a picky eater.

But don’t worry, we’re here to help.

Occupational therapy can help address and resolve your child’s picky eating.

An initial evaluation can help determine the extent of your child’s picky eating habits, its underlying cause, and the treatment plans available.

Therapy for picky eating involves finding positive ways to expand what your child eats and increasing their sensory tolerance.

We can create a treatment plan that’s designed to address both your child’s picky eating as well as any underlying condition that’s causing it.

If you’ve noticed that your child is a picky eater or displaying signs of another condition, don’t wait to get help.

With early intervention pediatric therapy, you can help your child learn good habits early on and increase the effectiveness of their pediatric therapy.

RELATED: 6 Signs Your Child Could Benefit From Occupational Therapy

Book Your Appointment With Little Feet Pediatric Therapy Today

Is your child displaying signs of picky eating?

Are you still unsure if they are picky eaters or if it’s just typical toddler selectivity?

Or maybe you’re wondering what the underlying cause of their picky eating is.

Whatever the reason, we at Little Feet Pediatric Therapy are here to help.

We offer pediatric occupational therapy and can help address your child’s picky eating, regardless of its cause.

Book your appointment with Little Feet Pediatric Therapy today.

Little Feet Therapy
3535 Randolph Rd, Charlotte, NC 28211
1331 H St NW Ste 200, Washington, DC 20005
St. Louis, MO
Raleigh, NC

Founded in 2019, Little Feet Therapy offers on site pediatric physical and occupational therapy treatments for children from 2 months to 18 years old with physical and developmental concerns. Our clinics focus on providing therapy in a child’s natural setting where your child is in familiar surroundings, it puts their mind at ease and helps them focus more on the work they’re doing with their pediatric therapist. Our therapists will work with your child at your home, at school, at daycare, or another place in the community where they feel most comfortable.