What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (2024)

Modified: November 6, 2023

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.

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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

What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (2)

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

What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (3)

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 Eatto 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):

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    • 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.

5. Motivate

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

Are Super Picky Eaters Doomed to Eat Badly for Life?

Simple Calming Activities for Active or Overwhelmed Kids to Start Today!

How to Believe in Yourself When You’re Tired, Stressed, and Overwhelmed With a Picky Eater

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.

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  1. What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (5)

    Annaon August 31, 2023 at 6:24 pm

    Hi, My 7 year old has always been an anxious child, but recently it’s really gotten out of control. A few days ago he had an anxiety attack where he almost threw up and ever since he refuses to eat because he says he will throw up if he eats. He takes some nibbles of chocolates, grapes, carrots, apples, honey nut cheerios and sips of water, but other than that, he dsnt want to try anything. The foods he use to love, he’s afraid to eat now. I’m really worried this won’t get better. We are going on day 5 now with this behavior and I dnt see much progress. It’s really scary. We set up a consultation with his pediatrician, but the only available day he had was in 2 weeks. How long can a child survive on nibbling on things without any proper nutrition? I think his anxiety is to blame and we want to be able to get it under control. We need help!


    • What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (6)

      Mariaon September 2, 2023 at 2:02 am

      My 11yo is getting worse with food with each year goes by. She used to eat everything till the age of 3 and then started to slowly narrow the choice of food. We are now left with spagetthi, but only when I cook them, meat balls with tomatoe souse, burger, pizza (only one type of it), schnitsle vieneese, and one type od marahroom soup and tomatoe soup. She refuses to try anything new either foods she used to like only a year ago, for example. No veggies but cucamber and onions and green olives. Fruits only pomegrame which she likes and blaxkberries and white grapes without seeds when she has to. I am out of my mind 🙁


    • What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (7)

      Jamieon November 1, 2023 at 9:47 pm


      We are going through almost the exact same thing. We have a 7 year old daughter and she had the flu that had her feeling nauseous for a few days. Ever since then she is so worried about throwing up that she’s surviving on melon, cucumbers, and graham crackers. She used to love school and now cries because she’s so anxious at lunch and asks us is we can bring her home to eat lunch then take her back. She’s so sad that she “can’t” eat the foods she loves and is now at the point where she just cries because she “wants it to be fixed”. She’s already saying she’s nervous for the holidays with having family and friends over during meal times. She is typically an outgoing, funny, super active kid. She does best at home, but still only eats those things. At school there are days she won’t eat at all until she gets home. We are seeing her pediatrician this week in hopes to get a referral to a therapist of some sort. At this point I just want to get her some help.


      • What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (8)

        Laura Mauon November 6, 2023 at 9:47 pm

        Hi Jamie,

        Natasha at Anxious Toddlers (Not just for toddlers!) is our favorite resource on this topic. Check her out, I think she could help!


        Your Kid’s Table team member


  2. What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (9)

    Claire Qualtroughon August 10, 2023 at 3:51 am

    My son feels uncomfortable about trying certain foods (eggs, bacon, ham etc) and is often mainly put off by the smell. His repertoire is widening which is good but I am unsure whether I should attempt to get him to very slowly feel more comfortable with these foods. He won’t even touch certain foods like ham. Is that uncommon? How would you encourage him to make these small steps?


    • What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (10)

      Laura Mauon August 21, 2023 at 10:38 pm

      Aversion to meat is definitely common. Have you taken our free picky eating webinar before? It goes into depth for how to approach mealtimes in a no-pressure way. It is great that he is slowly building his repertoire but this free class should help!


      Your Kid’s Table team member


  3. What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (11)

    Bethon August 2, 2023 at 3:20 pm

    My younger son (7) wasn’t a picky eater until he accidentally gagged himself on a cheese stick as a toddler. Since then it has spiraled more and more and he eats fewer and fewer things. He gags and vomits easily if he gets too much of anything in his mouth. No matter how small we cut things he manages to still overfill his mouth at least monthly. We went to a pediatric swallowing evaluation and they said he seemed fine mechanically when they watched him eat a fruit strip. The activities they suggested were either things he was fine with already (toothbrush play in his mouth) or failures (try vegetarian meat alternatives that are easier to chew). Somehow he follows a normal growth curve (he has always been on the small side, even at birth). He had horrible reflux as a baby, but it didn’t seem to bother him beyond infancy even though I know he still refluxes after certain foods, which we avoid at night. He actually prefers several of those foods (chocolate, bell peppers). He doesn’t eat any meat, pasta, things that are warm (and rarely anything frozen), or anything that requires a lot of chewing besides raw carrots (and those I have to cut small). We hoped things would improve after he lost his chipped front teeth, but they haven’t. He has started making grossed out noises about the rest of the family’s normal meals. Some days the safe foods (like pancakes – he requires whipped cream on every bite) aren’t even okay with him. It’s especially common for him to have issues at family gatherings and even worse at restaurants (I generally bring things for him, but if he orders something that is safe he acts like it is a problem once it arrives at the table – today that was chocolate chip pancakes). Does this seem like anxiety or something else is the underlying cause? I want to have him evaluated further so we can make some progress, but I am not sure which type of care provider is needed. Please advise.


    • What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (12)

      Laura Mauon August 2, 2023 at 4:30 pm

      Hi Beth, this does seem like anxiety surrounding that experience, but many of the comments you mentioned also sound like oral sensory sensitivities, specifically a lack of registration for his mouth, which might be why he overstuffs. Have you read this article? It may help.


      Your Kid’s Table team member


  4. What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (13)

    Simmion July 10, 2023 at 12:08 am

    My 5 and a half year old son stopped eating diary products , meat and grains .He got a strep throat a month and a half ago and then he vomited once after eating . Since then he is so scared to eat all of the food categories mentioned above .
    I have tried talking to him but feels like nothing is working . He can eat fruits , c and tea cake that’s his diet .
    He has lost 6lbs weight and getting really weak day by day.All the blood tests are negative.
    I will really appreciate your help.
    Thanks ,


    • What If Your Child Wasn't Anxious About Food Anymore? (14)

      Laura Mauon July 18, 2023 at 10:53 pm

      Hi Simmi, I’m sorry to hear that being sick was a set back for your son. It’s fairly common for some kids to respond this way due to fear of being sick again. You’re doing the right thing by talking to him, but I would definitely try to increase calories where you can. Would he do a smoothie or something similar? I know you mentioned no dairy but we have a weight gain recipe and some weight gain ideas that may help.


      Your Kid’s Table team member


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