Parents are often reassured that picky eating is a phase that their child will eventually grow out of. But, according to new research, that’s not always the case.
The study, published in this month’s issue of the journal Pediatrics, suggests that children could be established picky eaters by the age of 4. And the more that parents try to control what or how much their child eats, the fussier they may become.
Researchers from the University of Michigan followed 317 children from age 4 to 9 to determine if picky eating was a phase or if it persisted as a stable trait. Children’s eating habits and mothers’ behaviours and attitudes about feeding were assessed annually.
Children were categorized into three groups: high, medium or low picky eaters based on their differences in levels of food selectivity and its persistence over the four-year study.
Picky eating is defined as eating a limited number of foods, an unwillingness to try new foods and having strong food preferences. According to the Canadian Pediatric Society, 25 per cent to 35 per cent of toddlers and preschoolers are identified by their parents as fussy eaters.
The researchers found that picky eating was persistent from preschool to school-age, suggesting that efforts to expand food preferences may need to start before four years of age to be effective.
The pickiest eating was associated with greater parental restriction of unhealthy foods and sweets. The findings also suggested that pressuring picky eaters to eat may be counterproductive.
While this study adds insights into strategies that may help prevent picky eating, it does have limitations. Picky eating was subjectively reported by mothers which may be biased.
As well, the study involved low-income participants so the results may not be applicable to other populations. (Low income has been associated with picky eating in previous research.)
Strategies for fussy eaters
If you’re the parent of a picky eater, it’s natural to worry that they’re not eating a balanced diet. Research suggests the following approaches can help picky eaters broaden their food choices.
Keep trying. Just because a child refuses a food, don’t stop offering it. Research has found it takes repeated exposures to a new food (as many as 15) before a child decides to try it.
Introduce one new food at a time, next to other foods you know your child likes. Keep the portion size of new foods very small.
Cook one meal. Preparing a separate meal for a child who doesn’t like what the family is eating can promote picky eating by not offering new foods. Allowing a child to eat only a few select foods can make it harder to accept new ones later on.
To discourage picky eating and avoid power struggles, experts advise that parents share responsibility with their children around eating. Parents control which foods are provided and when; kids can decide how much or whether to eat.
Avoid bribes and rewards. Offering food bribes (“you’ll get dessert if you eat your vegetables”) teaches kids to dislike vegetables since eating them deserves a reward. It also sends the message that dessert is the best food.
Plus, encouraging children to finish their meal can train them to eat when they’re not truly hungry.
Arrive hungry. Withhold juice and snacks one hour before mealtime to help ensure that your child arrives at the table hungry and more receptive to new foods.
Provide no more than three snacks, at relatively consistent times, each day. Constant snacking can leave kids uninterested in food when mealtime rolls around.
Get kids involved. From an early age, have kids participate in meal planning and preparation, grocery shopping and setting the table. Doing so can help overcome fussy eating habits by piquing their interest in foods.
Lead by example. Research suggests that parents who eat a variety of healthy foods are more likely to have kids who do the same. Children are more likely to accept a new food if they see an adult or another child eating it.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.
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