From Picky to Plateful: Your Child's Eating Psychology

From Picky to Plateful: Your Child's Eating Psychology

17 Jun 2024

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This informal CPD article, ‘From Picky to Plateful: Your Child's Eating Psychology‘, was provided by Maria Kardakova, RNutr, PhD researcher at the University of Surrey, and the CEO at iCook, who specialise in providing advanced nutrition and culinary solutions.

Feeding children can be a complex and often frustrating task for parents. Many assume that picky eating or refusal to eat new foods is simply a matter of stubbornness or preference. However, the psychology behind a child's eating habits can reveal much more about their emotional and developmental needs. Understanding these underlying factors can transform mealtimes and promote healthier relationships with food.

Every parent is dealing with the same old problems. Parents often find themselves puzzled by their children’s eating behavior and think it stems from pickiness.

“My child says ‘no’ whenever I offer something new!”

“My kid only eats white foods.”

“They won’t eat unless the TV is on.”

Does that sound familiar? Stumbling upon the same patterns and feeling exhausted, parents often fall into an emotional trap, doing what they can to manage the moment:

  • Turning mealtime into a battlefield, insisting their behavior is unacceptable.
  • Offering more enticing foods leads to a diet of fast food, sweets, and flavor-enhanced products.
  • Using distractions like TV or gadgets to get their child to eat.
  • Bribing with treats or rewards for finishing their meals.
  • Giving in to their child’s limited food preferences to avoid conflict.
  • Ignoring the issue, hoping the phase will pass on its own.
  • Adapting the "let them eat anything" approach.

Meanwhile, the reality is alarming. The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that kids get less than 10% of their daily calories from added sugars and saturated fats. But here’s the shocker: snacks alone make up a whopping 35% to 39% of their daily added sugar intake and 22% to 24% of their daily saturated fat intake.

And here's the catch: kids are quick learners. What seems like easy and fast fixes today could lead to big and lasting challenges tomorrow.

Time to act: practical tips

Before chalking up your child’s eating habits to mere pickiness, consider the underlying reasons. A child’s relationship with food often mirrors important aspects of their emotional growth. Specific eating behaviors might signal a deficiency in one of three key psychological development areas: self-awareness, autonomy, or relationships with others. Let’s break down each aspect and explore practical tips for navigating them regarding eating behavior.


Self-awareness in kids is all about how they see the world and why things happen as they do. It's also about understanding what they like and what they don't when it comes to food. When children understand themselves better, they can make smarter food choices and reflect on how they feel.

Signs of lacking self-awareness with food:

  • Constantly begging for snacks at the store: This might happen because of inconsistent family rules, not involving the child in grocery shopping, or unclear guidelines.
  • Throwing or playing with food: Common in younger children who don’t yet understand the rules about eating.
  • Asking for the same food repeatedly: Could be due to not understanding dietary variety.

What to do:

  • Avoid scaring or yelling at children: Fear-based tactics can backfire and cause more resistance.
  • Plan grocery runs together: Involve children in making grocery lists, ask for their opinion or advice on the products you need to buy, and ask questions about their favourite food.
  • Clearly explain family food rules: Discuss everything related to food and cooking to build understanding.
  • Create stories with younger children about different foods: Share tales about what gives strength, intelligence, agility, and healthy eyes.
  • Introduce fun, educational activities: Compare food labels or play quests to find the necessary products.


Autonomy is about giving kids the power to make decisions and control their own lives. It's like letting them choose their favorite superhero outfit or decide which game to play with friends. When it comes to food, it means letting them pick what they want to eat and how much. When kids feel like they have a say in what goes on their plate, they're more likely to enjoy mealtime and develop healthy eating habits for life.

Signs of lacking autonomy with food:

  • Refusal to eat: It's their way of asserting control and independence over their bodies.
  • Rejection of specific foods: This could signal their growing desire for autonomy and decision-making power.
  • Overeating: Sometimes, when kids feel like they lack control in other areas of their lives, they turn to food for comfort and a sense of control.

What to do:

  • Let children choose: Involve them in family meal planning.
  • Encourage simple tasks: Build menus together or engage kids in kitchen activities to promote responsibility.
  • Offer a variety of dishes: Let children control their portions to give a sense of choice.
  • Involve them in meal preparation and cooking: Foster a sense of control and accomplishment.
Engage kids in kitchen activities

Healthy relationships

It's about creating an environment where they feel safe, valued, and encouraged in their eating habits. This means providing nutritious meals, engaging in positive conversations around food, offering praise and encouragement, and being mindful of their preferences and needs. By nurturing these healthy relationships, you can help your child develop a positive attitude towards food and eating that will last a lifetime.

Signs of lacking healthy relationships with food:

  • Stealing food: Creating a private comfort zone hard to find elsewhere in their lives.
  • Manipulating mealtime: Signaling about loads of stress and insecurity around food.
  • Older children refusing to eat: Trying to get noticed and express their need for attention.

What to do:

  • Communicate openly: Share your own difficult experiences, seek their advice, and ask questions.
  • Spend one-on-one time with children: Strengthen your bond and show them they are valued in every aspect of life.
  • Create positive mealtime experiences: Eat together as a family without distractions.
  • Show appreciation and encouragement: Praise their efforts in trying new foods.

Final thoughts

The journey toward healthy eating habits of your children can be challenging, but every small step leads to significant positive changes. Imagine one day watching your child effortlessly prepare a salad for the whole family, knowing exactly which ingredients to use and in what quantities. They’ll understand why they're making the effort, how delicious the result will be, and how good they'll feel afterward.

By grasping the psychological aspects of child nutrition, you can enhance both your child's eating habits and your relationship with them. Fostering self-awareness, autonomy, and healthy relationships, you guide your children toward a healthier, more balanced approach to food. This improves their physical health, supporting emotional and psychological development.

We hope this article was helpful. For more information from iCook, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively, you can go to the CPD Industry Hubs for more articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.


  • C. Casey, Q.Huang, S.A. Talegawkar, A. C. Sylvetsky, J. M. Sacheck, L. DiPietro, K. R. Lora (2021). “Added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium intake from snacks among U.S. adolescents by eating location”. Prev Med Rep. 2021 Nov 5. doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2021.101630. PMCID: PMC8684031; PMID: 34976683
  • 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Accessed July 27, 2022. 

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iCook Ltd

iCook Ltd

For more information from iCook Ltd, please visit their CPD Member Directory page. Alternatively please visit the CPD Industry Hubs for more CPD articles, courses and events relevant to your Continuing Professional Development requirements.

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