KIDS
June 3, 2020

Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

Picky eaters can make mealtime a battleground. The more parents push, the harder they dig in. A lighter touch is better.

Picky eaters are trying for even the most patient of parents. You bargain with them and offer anything and everything to get your child to eat, but it seems like the more you try to shape your child’s diet, the more firmly they stand their ground. A new study appears to confirm this.

Children who are picky eaters refuse certain foods or want to eat the same foods over and over. Understandably, parents worry that their child isn’t getting enough nutrition and may go to great lengths to encourage their child to eat. The problem usually peaks during the toddler and preschool years.

Things parents should not do include forcing a child to eat, threatening them if they don’t eat a food, making the child a separate meal or bribing a child to eat.

Parents have mostly been told that their child will eventually outgrow being picky, and this can happen, but a University of Michigan study paints a different picture. Researchers followed 317 low-income mothers and their children for four years. The parents were asked to complete periodic questionnaires about their child’s level of picky eating habits and the ways they were trying to handle the problem.

Picky eating tends to remain stable from preschool to school-age. This suggests that efforts to expand a child’s food preferences may need to occur before or during those years to have the best chance of success. The pickiest eaters had lower BMIs (body mass index), not necessarily a bad thing. The kids who weren’t as picky about what they ate had higher BMIs.

The pickiest eaters often were those who experienced the most pressure to eat or who were restricted from eating certain foods. Pressuring children to eat foods they don’t like will neither lead them to eat a better diet nor encourage better health or development.

“We found that children who were pickier had mothers who reported more restriction of unhealthy foods and sweets,” said Megan Pesch, MD, of Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, in a statement. “These mothers of picky eaters may be trying to shape their children's preferences for more palatable and selective diets to be more healthful. But it may not always have the desired effect.”

Pressuring children to eat foods they don’t like will neither lead them to eat a better diet nor will it encourage better health or development.

Children can become established picky eaters by the time they are four years old, so the best time to try to avoid the issue is when a baby is introduced to solid foods, usually around six months of age. Exposing your child to a large variety of foods from that point on is key to establishing a healthy relationship with food.

Kids are notorious for sticking their noses up at unfamiliar foods, but that should not discourage parents from offering a new food to a child over and over again. Sometimes it takes repeated attempts before a child is willing to entertain the idea of even having the food on their plate, but eventually many will try it.

Things parents should not do include forcing a child to eat, threatening them if they don’t eat a food, making the child a separate meal or bribing a child to eat.

It’s complicated, just like so much about parenting.

The study was published in Pediatrics.

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