Life Wellbeing Children who are picky eaters may never grow out of it
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Children who are picky eaters may never grow out of it

A child who was a picky eater as a toddler, may still be picky when they reach their teens. Photo: Getty
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Does the mention of broccoli or bratwurst turn your darling child into a brawling resistance fighter?

Does your preschooler regard peas or pumpkin as a personal affront?

Picky eaters: Gotta love them, one supposes, regardless of the anxiety they cause at the dinner table.

New research suggests that if you haven’t solved the problem by the time your child is four years old, chances are you’ll never turn them on to the joys of a varied, healthful diet.

Apparently the good old “you can eat what you’re given, and you can sit there all bloody night, but you’re not leaving the table until that plate is clean” doesn’t actually work for everybody.

The more you try to restrict what a child eats, the more likely they become a picky eater. Photo: Getty

What makes the situation worse is trying to restrict what a child eats.

That is, pushing them toward brussels sprouts and boiled carrots and anything else they hate, and trying to keep them away from lollies and fries, sets their pickiness in stone.

“The more parents try to control and restrict children’s diets, the more finicky they may become,” according to findings published in the journal Pediatrics.

“Picky eating is common during childhood and parents often hear that their children will eventually ‘grow out of it.’ But that’s not always the case,” said senior author Dr Megan Pesch in a prepared statement.

Dr Pesch is a developmental behavioural pediatrician at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Is there any good news here?

Yes. The researchers found that “while fussy eaters have a lower body mass index, most are still in the healthy range and not underweight”.

They may also be less likely to be overweight or experience obesity than peers. (The only possible problem there is fear of missing out.)

“We still want parents to encourage varied diets at young ages, but our study suggests that they can take a less controlling approach,” Dr Pesch advised.

But she conceded: “We need more research to better understand how children’s limited food choices impact healthy weight gain and growth long term.”

The study followed 317 mother-child pairs from low-income homes over a four-year period.

Families reported on children’s eating habits and mothers’ behaviours and attitudes about feeding when children were four, five, six, eight and nine.

Picky eating was stable from preschool to school age, indicating that any attempts to expand food preferences may need to occur in toddler or preschool years to be most effective.

Previous research from Mott Children’s Hospital found that “pressuring children to eat foods they dislike won’t lead to a well-rounded diet later in life or encourage better health or development”.

Why the study focused on children from low-income families isn’t clear.

 What is it with these kids?

In 2015, a University of Illinois study sought to create a set of criteria that would define and identify a childhood picky eater.

Until then, picky eating was something that parents would say “they know it when they see it”.

According to a statement from the university, the two-week study investigated differences in picky eaters’ and non-picky eaters’ behaviours and food selections.

Parents of 170 two- to four-year-olds observed their children’s responses to five standardised meals brought into participants’ homes, evaluating their behaviour in real time, not from memory.

At the beginning of the study, 83 children were described by their parents as picky eaters; 87 children were not.

Significant differences existed between the two groups, with the behaviour of picky eaters “ranging from simple suspicion of an unfamiliar food to cringing, crying and gagging”.

Sensory scientist Dr Soo-Yeun Lee writes: “Non-picky eaters on average were perceived by their parents to have consumed more of the meal and had higher acceptance scores for most of the foods evaluated.

“They also displayed significantly fewer negative behaviours – they were more ‘willing to come to the table to eat’ and ‘participate in mealtime conversation’.”

Dr Lee said picky eaters can be divided into four groups:

  • Sensory-Dependent Eaters, who reject a food because it’s mushy, slippery, bitter, or lumpy
  • Behavioural Responders, who cringe or gag when food’s not prepared in the “right” way or refuse to come to the table at mealtime
  • Preferential Eaters, who won’t try new foods and avoid foods that are mixed or have complex ingredients, and
  • General Perfectionists (by far the largest group), who have very specific needs, little variety in their diet, and may insist that foods not touch each other.

The researchers suggest serving a new item with a food the child likes and taking apart combined foods like sandwiches and casseroles to show what the dish contains.

Parents should also realise “a certain amount of this behaviour can be attributed to a toddler’s developmental stage”.

Picky eating “peaks between two and three, and at this age, children simply don’t like new things. They’re afraid of strangers, and they’re also less accepting of new foods.”

It’s got to the point that picky eating now bears the title: Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).

That’s a little hard to swallow.