Ever wonder if and why your child is anxious with food? It’s complicated, but in this post I’m simplifying it and giving you 5 steps to help your child out of that fear of food.
Has your kid ever come to the table and not only didn’t want to eat anything you prepared, but acted scared and fearful of the food that was on the table?
If so, your child *might* have anxiety with food, a food phobia, or a fear of foods.
This fear of foods can be specific to one or a few types of food, or it could be universal across nearly all foods. But, here’s the thing. This can all be tied up with picky eating. Well, not just average I love chicken nuggets and mac’n cheese kind of picky eating, but extreme picky eating.
Typically, that means kids eating less than 20 foods and that have strong reactions to new and different foods.
But anxiety with food can also be stand alone issue. If that’s starting to make your head spin – it’s understandable. Let’s break this down one step at a time so you can figure out if anxiety is a component of your kid’s eating challenges, and if it is, what you can do to help them.
What is a Food Phobia? Is the Fear of Food Real?
It can be difficult for many parents to relate to their child that is straight up freaking out over their green beans like the boogeyman just popped a squat at the table. But, food phobia is a real thing. Kids with classic food phobias will often seem irrationally fearful and scared of a particular (or many) foods. It doesn’t make sense and usually isn’t present in younger children.
It can develop later in childhood and come seemingly out of nowhere. Sometimes, children with food phobias have no previous difficulty with food, they may not have even been a picky eater.
But, a general fear of food can develop from anxiety. And, anxiety is a slippery feeling that can show up in all sorts of unusual areas, including eating!
Is Anxiety With Food the Same Thing as Extreme Picky Eating?
This is where it starts to get tricky because for some kids with extreme picky eating, they too can have anxiety with food, but in my experience as an occupational therapist and treating hundreds of families, anxiety is often the result of a negative experience or sensory issues.
I firmly believe that there are many layers to extreme picky eating, and several of those layers are the underlying reason your kid isn’t eating. Sensory issues (think texture, smells, flavor of food) is at the top of list, but so are oral motor skills, and medical issues like acid reflux.
Those issues are often (but not always) present at an early age, as in as soon as a child is starting to eat or in their toddler years. That means when a child can’t chew food properly and they almost choke, or actually do, it’s scary. For some kids, they internalize that experience and desperately want to avoid repeating it.
They narrow their food choices to control what’s going into their mouth and may lose their mind, flip out, and cry if you even suggest taking a bite.
It’s fair to say that there’s some anxiety about the food, but I’d argue that it’s not the root cause. It’s the result of a negative experience. The same thing happens with kids that have pain with eating because of numerous possible medical issues or a sensitivity to different textures.
If looking at, touching, or tasting peanut butter causes your child to have a strong visceral reaction like gagging or throwing up, then there’s going to be some anxiety around peanut butter.
Food Aversions Related to Anxiety
And, that’s where food aversions come in. When a child has either had a negative experience or perceives it will be negative because of how a food looks, smells, feels, or tastes, then it’s the breeding ground for a strong food aversion.
A food aversion is when a child seems to be physically unable to eat a food because of the underlying causes we talked about.
You already know anxiety is a component of that, but it’s usually not the driving factor.
Anxiety With Food is Usually a Factor
I think most extreme picky eaters experience a level of anxiety with their food because they have real concerns about eating it.
But, there’s another group of kids that struggle with anxiety primarily and, if they have a history of picky eating, are likely to fixate on a fear of foods as part of their anxiety.
How to Help Your Child With Anxiety or Fear of Food
Either way, the big question is how you can help your child overcome that anxiety with food and willingly eat the foods their avoiding. I’ve got 5 steps for you on exactly how to do that:
1. Get to the bottom of it, is it primarily based in anxiety?
Hopefully, you’ve got some ideas around whether or not your child’s anxiety is primarily rooted in anxiety or if it’s secondary to another underlying cause that’s creating the extreme picky eating situation. But, let’s get really clear so that you’re not wondering by asking these questions:
- Would you describe your child as a picky eater?
- Does your child have a long history of picky eating?
- Did your child’s picky eating begin as a result of their sensory processing, medical issues, oral motor difficulties, or was it a snowball of average toddler picky eating that got out of control?
If you answered yes to any of those, anxiety is likely a bi-product of picky eating. You can follow the rest of the steps, but addressing the root cause of the problem is an important step in your situation. Head to 5 Reason Kid’s Won’t Eat to learn more.
But, if you answered no and your child struggles with anxiety in other areas of their life, then helping your child from an anxiety perspective will be most helpful. Continue with the following steps, and consider looking for a child therapist that specializes in anxiety in your area. Ask your doctor and friends for referrals.
2. Stop the pressure!
If you’ve listened to my facebook lives, have read other posts here on Your Kid’s Table, or are a student of Mealtime Works (my picky eating program), then you’ve heard me say this 1,000 X: end all pressure at meals.
I have to say it again because it’s the most important step you can take when your child has anxiety about food.
No matter how good your intentions are when you beg, bribe, reward, distract, or even praise your child about the food they’re eating, it will very likely increase their anxiety, not decrease it. The more anxious they feel, the harder it will be to make true progress.
A child that’s anxious about food will have the most successful and long lasting progress when they feel at least some level of control, comfortable, and supported. Pressure doesn’t do any of those things.
Check out more on not pressuring your child to eat.
3. Talk to your child about their anxiety around food. Learn why they feel that way.
It’s time to have a conversation with your child about what makes them feel them scared. When you begin this convo, make sure you’re in a place where you want to understand, not when you’re annoyed that you just dumped another failed dinner down the drain.
Choose a time when you’re one on one and they’re receptive to talking. My kids respond best when we’re in the car or right before bed and I’m tucking them in.
Start by saying something like this, “I noticed that you get upset and seem uncomfortable anytime there’s vegetables on the table. I want to understand better. Can you tell me why you think you feel that way?”
You may get some “I don’t knows”, which means you’ll need to rephrase or take a break and try again in a few days.
But, you’re trying to get them to talk about what it is that makes them anxious (they may not be entirely aware of this). It’s a big step when you and your child can both understand what’s causing the anxiety.
It could be a fear of choking and dying. It could be their scared the noodles will feel like snakes. The list goes on and on, but you don’t know until you talk about it. This conversation, when approached from a support standpoint, also helps your child feel like you’re on the same team as them. They want you to get what they’re going through.
4. Make a plan for a small step
Let your child know that you’re sorry they feel this way about food, but that you’re here to help them.
Ask them what’s one thing they could do with the food(s) they’re fearful of. Highlight that it could be something really small. Some examples are (but this will vary widely from child to child):
- Put the food in the grocery cart when shopping
- Clean the food (fresh fruits and veggies)
- Allow a small amount of the food in a section of their divided plate (or a small bowl/plate nearby)
- Tolerate the food on the same table
- Wear some essential oils on their wrist during dinner so they don’t smell the other foods
- Pick a recipe that includes a food their fearful of
- Help cook or prepare a food their anxious about
- Serve other’s at the table the food
You may have to go REALLY small. That’s okay, it’s a starting point. After they make that one step, which could take days or weeks, then you move onto another step, this time it’s a little more interaction or tolerance.
Some kids will need some extra motivation, and while I wouldn’t recommend rewarding for food eaten, you could “celebrate” when they reach a new milestone. Maybe they get to rent a movie of their choice on Friday night or you have a picnic dinner in the backyard?
Choose something that’s fun and easy for you.
Remember. that if you pick something too hard to work on in step 4, their isn’t anything that will motivate them, that’s how deep their fears are.
And, some kids don’t need this step at all, I only use it when I absolutely have to.
It’s possible for your child to get a better handle on their anxiety with food and food phobias with your help. Speaking from personal experience, when your child feels like you’re working together instead of against them, it changes everything. Now they’ll look to you for help.
You’ve got to be careful to not enable them once you fall into that dynamic though. Instead slowly and steadily always push them a little out of their comfort zone.
Over time, that builds up and makes a huge difference in foods they’re willing to eat.
To learn more about the key steps you can take for any child with picky eating, grab a seat in my free workshop here.
More on Picky Eating in Kids
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.