For parents, feeding their kids is a a joy, and sometimes, a ridiculous amount of work. In an era obsessed with health and hands-on parenting, no one wants to be the mom with the kid who only eats plain spaghetti, but picky eating is actually common, and kids, who don't control much in their growing lives, love to feel in charge of something. And that's OK. Trouble only starts when their yellow-foods-only habit impacts their health. So you know when to let up, and when to double down, here are six signs your picky child is not getting enough nutrients at the dinner table.
When the body doesn't get enough of a crucial nutrient, kids develop what doctors call a nutritional deficiency, according to Kids Health. Extreme nutritional deficiency can in turn result in malnourishment, but as Kids Health reported, true malnourishment is rare in the U.S., where an abundance of food is available, and obesity is more of a problem, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The good news is that left to their own devices, even extremely picky kids are likely to get most of the calories and nutrients they need to stay healthy.
"Plenty of Americans eat poorly. Junk food, juice, processed foods and refined sugars — we eat these with abundance," explains pediatrician, Dr. Jack Maypole of The Goddard School in an email interview with Romper. "And you'd think as a country we'd look rather unwell accordingly. Truth is, even for the pickiest of eaters, it takes quite a bit of persistence and resistance to become truly under- or malnourished."
According to Maypole, picky eating might be annoyng, but it's not usually dangerous. You won't see your kid wasting away as a result of their PB&J lifestyle, or feeling too fatigued to go to school because they'll only eat mushy foods.
"Kids tend to navigate this time of life well enough, in the main, and if we adults back off, they tend to eat what is put before them," Maypole says. With that in mind, here are six signs that mean something is wrong with your child's eating habits.
1. They've Stopped Growing
While malnutrition is highly unlikely to be caused by picky eating alone, some diseases and conditions, like celiac disease, do lead to problems digesting and absorbing nutrients, Kids Health noted. And one sign that should flag a warning for any parent is if your child has stopped growing, according to the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS). Most likely, your pediatrician will pick up on this at their next well-visit, and perform any necessary tests.
Again, it's very unlikely that their obsession with pasta is the cause of the problem, but be sure to mention your child's eating habits to your doctor if you're concerned.
"In terms of wasting away, being fatigued or ill appearing from a lack of certain foods? That would be exceedingly rare. Not impossible, but it is uncommon," says Maypole. "If parents perceive their young child appears unwell, then I think that there is some other process afoot (allergy, reflux, or another illness)."
So take a breath. Picky eating is unlikely to hurt your child's health in the long run, and most kids do grow out of those crazy-making, picky eating habits.
2. Behavior Changes
According to an article in Nurtition and Behavior, studies consistently show a strong link between malnutrition and behavior issues. And that's because nutrition isn't just crucial for the body — it also impacts a developing mind. Again, the average kid won't see behavior changes as a result of picky eating alone, but if you notice any strange irritability or attention issues, absolutely give your doctor a call. Behavior changes are most likely to stem from severe malnourishment, explained the article, which isn't often seen outside of deep poverty. Changes in behavior might include being slow, cranky, irritable, or even anxious, according to the NHS.
3. Low Energy Compared To Other Kids
In a worst-case scenario, a lack of important macronutrients can contribute to your child having less energy at school and on the playground, but again, picky eating isn't often a cause. According to Parents, kids need sufficient protein, healthy carbohydrates, fats, calcium, iron, folate, fiber, and vitamins A and C to feel their best. But don't worry — they don't need all of that in a single meal, but over time. Keep offering healthy choices, says Maypole, and don't punish or scold. If you serve grilled cheese every night, he suggests including a new, or less preferred food as well, like side of broccoli. Maybe they'll take a bite — and who knows? They might even like it.
4. Loss Of Appetite
Infants and toddlers have high iron requirements that parents can endeavor to meet with a healthy, whole-foods-based diet. Iron deficiencies and anemia are serious business for growing kids, and interestingly, one sign your child may not be consuming enough iron is that they lose their appetite, according to Better Health. Craving non-edible things like sand and dirt — a phenomenon called pica — is another sign you may need to get their iron levels checked.
So what foods contain the most iron, and how can you get your kids to eat them? According to Healthline, iron-fortified cereal is a good choice, and so is red meat, beans, nuts, dried fruit, and whole grains.
Maypole's advice for getting a picky eater to dig into that healthy dish? "Stock healthy foods. Present healthy choices. They'll eat eventually in the vast majority of cases," he says. And keep the sugary options out of the house.
5. Dry Skin
While dry skin can also be caused by one too many baths in the middle of winter, vitamin A and vitamin C are also important for maintaining skin health, reported Love To Know. Luckily, you can find both vitamins in a variety of fruits and vegetables, like carrots, tomatoes, and dark leafy greens.
But what if you kids has an attitude about eating those reds and greens? "I find that preschoolers and toddlers like to be dippers," says Maypole. "Use cut and raw veggies ... to dip into dressing, cheese, peanut butter, or salsa."
6. They're Overweight
While it's very difficult for picky eating to lead to a nutrient deficiency, it can cause other issues. "Being overweight ... isn't hard and is a challenge to many families of kids who are picky eaters," says Maypole. If your child is overweight, they're probably not nutrient deficient, but it's likely that their diet is off balance, and that sugary and starchy foods are taking the place of healthier choices. Maypole recommends working with your child's doctor and a registered dietician to address any weight problems.