- A new study found that picky eating may be more than a temporary phase children go through.
- The study found that controlling parents made for picky children, while parents who created a more open eating environment had children more willing to try new foods.
- Making dinner time a lower-stakes environment might encourage children try new foods.
- The authors said interventions should be made before the age of 4.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Picky eating in childhood is more likely to become a lifelong ailment if parents don’t intervene when their child is still a toddler, according to the results of a new study.
But intervening doesn’t mean becoming stricter. In fact, it might mean taking a less controlling approach.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that around the time children enter pre-school, their eating habits were already fixed, suggesting that interventions for picky eating might have to begin before age four.
“As a paediatrician and also as a mum, I always had this notion that kids will grow out of picky eating,” said study author Megan Pesch, assistant professor at the department of pediatrics at University of Michigan. “But our study is really showing more of a steady trajectory, in those early childhood years.”
As for how to intervene, they found it’s better to be hands-off.
“Don’t force kids to take bites or clean their plates because that often backfires and just makes it feel more stressful,” said Pesch. “Involve kids in the prep, let them pick out two vegetables at the grocery store, and demystify the process a bit. Then they can take some ownership and pride, like ‘I made that,’ and feel more connected to the food that way.”
Picky-eating is an under-researched topic
There isn’t much previous research on the subject of picky eating, in part because so many researchers defined it differently. Some treated it like a texture issue, while others treated it more like an eating disorder.
What’s more, most of the previous research on picky eating didn’t focus on low-income children, providing a skewed perspective.
Pesch and her co-authors took 317 mother-child pairs, all from low-income backgrounds, and gave the mothers questionnaires to fill out about their children’s behaviour at ages four, five, six, eight, and nine, over the course of a few years. They found that 14% of the children were very, very picky eaters, while 29% weren’t too particular, and the remaining 57% were in-between.
The very picky eaters were found to have less control over their their emotions, and were associated with “high demandingness.” The extremely picky eaters and the moderately picky eaters were found to have lower body mass indexes.
The rise of super sugary food – designed for kids – has narrowed children’s palates
“Picky eating is definitely a more modern phenomenon,” Pesch told Insider.
“We have so many choices and our food has become more engineered to be hyper-palatable and rewarding for kids, which can narrow their palates. Like why eat plain broccoli when you could eat a doughnut?”
That’s another factor that means it’s imperative to study children from all backgrounds, Pesch said. Children from low-income backgrounds have less access to fresh produce, and more access to processed foods.
“If money was hard to come by in a family, the mother’s goal might be to get her kids to eat something and have a full belly,” said Pesch, “rather than spending money on something like asparagus that they may or may not eat.”
Parents can help their children be less picky by creating a lower-stakes eating environment
Pesch’s study builds on previous research, and reinforces parenting advice to realise that your children are more attuned to your behaviour and stress than it may seem, even at a very early age.
One study found links between picky eating and the behaviour of the mother feeding the child – the more demanding that a child eat their food, the more resistant the child would become. And in 1994, researchers said that the first two to three years of life were the best times to introduce children to new foods.
“As in all things parenting, our behaviour as parents influences the behaviour of our children,” Natasha Burgert, a general paediatrician in Kansas, who was not involved in the study, told Insider. “Eating is no exception. The study suggests that when mothers are more restrictive with high-fat foods, kids are reported to be more picky. Keeping more desirable foods outside a child’s reach may increase their pickiness.”
Letting kids help cook, so they feel a sense of ownership and pride in what they’re eating, is one of the easiest ways to expand their palate without protests, the authors of the new study said.
Other useful interventions include presenting new foods to children multiple times, to increase familiarity with different types of foods, and encouraging parents to model non-picky eating by eating a variety of new foods in front of their kids.
“We can think of children with elevated picky eating as having thousands of negative memories about food,” Nancy Zucker and Sheryl Hughes wrote in an editorial published alongside the piece. “Caregivers can work to create positive memories and experiences around food to help picky eaters expand their preferences.”