When you’re a dietitian, people make certain assumptions about you. You have beautiful bowls of avocados and apples throughout your home, you obviously adore kale and your kids are the ones that other moms envy for their unapologetic love of broccoli.
The truth is, when a fellow mom asks me how she can get her picky eater to eat something nutrient dense, I often tell her to let me know when she figures it out.
I am one of those moms: The mom of the child who turns his nose up at the very plants I counsel my patients to load up on. The mom who tries every tactic in my arsenal to get something colorful into my boy. I am not alone — there are many parents who feel the struggle as well. The question is, how should we respond to it?
Defining picky eating
There is no official definition of picky eating, but in general, it involves strong food preferences surrounded by a reluctance to try new foods. It may also be associated with inclusion of only a few select foods (chicken nuggets and buttered noodles for example). Picky eating is quite normal among toddlers, however, it can become distressing to parents when they don’t grow out of it.
Picky eating: Nature or nurture?
When your child won’t eat what you make, it’s easy to blame yourself. But picky eating may be both learned and genetic. A 2015 study found that parents who labeled their child as “picky” in fact causes a child to assume the position of a fussy eater. The labeled child becomes more choosy about food selection than kids who aren’t identified as finicky eaters.
Additionally, reducing the risk of having a picky eater may begin in infancy. Multiple studies show that exposing children early to different tastes, textures and colors can help them develop a healthy approach to a variety of foods. Finally, what (and how) kids see their parents and siblings eat has an impact as well. Studies show that when parents and siblings eat a variety of healthy foods, the risk of picky behavior decreases.
As with many behaviors, genetics can play a role here as well. A 2017 study found that certain genes may contribute to young children's food choices. Another study, conducted on 4-7 year old twins, found that genetics played a larger role than environment in terms of fussiness with foods.
Potential consequences of picky eating
Multiple studies show that picky eaters are more at risk for constipation, some nutrient deficiencies and being either underweight or overweight. A Duke University study on moderate to severe picky eaters, found that picky eating could also correspond with psychological disorders as well, including anxiety and depression. Further, a new study showed that when picky eating progresses beyond childhood into the teen years, an increase in nutrient-lacking food, like sugar, can become prevalent.
On a positive note, studies also show that the short-term consequences do not usually last well into childhood.
When picky eating becomes something more serious
Sometimes, picky eating is more than just picky eating. In 2013, The American Psychiatric Association established a new eating disorder classification called avoidant restrictive food intake disorder or, ARFID.
ARFID is different from general picky eating in that it involves severe nutrient deficiencies, weight loss (or failure to gain weight as necessary for development), extreme psychological distress related to situations where food is served, and a general lack of interest in eating. The eating disorder can also come about from a traumatic experience with food, such as choking. Talking with a physician or therapist is a good first step in determining if your child is displaying more than just an aversion to healthy foods.
Living and eating with your picky eater
The ultimate question, of course, is how to stop it.
Keep mealtime stress-free
One thing every pediatrician has told me not to do, is to dwell on the behavior at dinnertime. In fact, even science is clear that constant nagging and talking about your child’s inability to eat something won’t work and that ignoring the behavior at meal time is the best tactic.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
Repetition in offering unfamiliar foods can also be key. In the early days, of working with my son, I skirted around the issue and instead bought every “hide the healthy food” book available. If I couldn’t get him to eat it willingly, I’d hide it in his brownies. It didn’t work — my clever 3-year-old was onto me. Over time, I just put the vegetables right on his plate, didn’t talk about it and let him decide when he was ready to take a nibble. I did this every single night and eventually, he would try something.
Set a good example
I never let my son hear me tell others he was picky and I followed the rule I tried to teach him: Eat all your fruits and vegetables first.
Keep mealtime sacred
We live in a busy world, but keeping mealtime a constant in your child’s life may help him or her eat better over time. Sit down at the table, without distractions, and focus on what occurred that day, not on what people are, or are not eating.
Rest assured studies show that the majority of picky eaters grow and thrive, despite never having a leaf of kale in their toddler years. Studies also show that parents who are overly concerned can do more harm than good by their child.
Picky eating can be a normal consequence of development and independence. While it’s important to recognize it and make efforts to squash it, it’s probably not something you should lose sleep over. Like most things in your child’s life — this phase will most likely pass.