The Plight of the Picky Eaters: What Can Parents Do About Their Children’s Eating Habits?

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Parents of picky eaters may be frustrated about what foods their children want to eat and how they want to eat them. Some kids might like pasta, but only if there’s no sauce on top of it. Others may think hot dogs and pizza are a food group. Still, other kids may prefer to eat whatever mom or dad can place between two slices of bread. What can parents do with the picky eaters seated around the family table?

Is picky eating normal?

A 2015 report published in the journal Appetite reviewed dozens of studies dating back to the turn of the 20th century to examine what factors contribute to kids becoming picky eaters. The report found that fussy eating habits were connected with everything from a child’s personality traits and parental behaviors at mealtime to social eating influences.

On its website, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that picky eating is often the norm for toddlers. “After the rapid growth of infancy, when babies usually triple in weight, a toddler’s growth rate—and appetite—tends to slow down. Toddlers also are beginning to develop food preferences. A toddler’s favorite food one day may hit the floor the next, or a snubbed food might suddenly become the one he or she can’t get enough of.”
Dr. Jennifer Burns of Urbana Pediatrics further adds, “Between the ages of 1 and 5, children generally only gain 4 to 5 pounds per year and sometimes go three to four months without gaining any weight. Kids at this age may appear like they are never hungry and that they don’t eat enough, but children’s brains at this age are very good at knowing how much they need to eat. Children will eat enough to grow and have enough energy.”

Parents dealing with picky eaters in their households shouldn’t be so quick to throw in the towel, Burns says. “Most children outgrow picky eating as they get older. If there is a strong family history of picky eaters, then sometimes the picky eating continues. As children get older and start going through their growth spurts—usually late elementary school and middle school for girls and middle school and high school for boys—their appetites increase and they are more willing to try new foods.”

How can parents foster a positive association with food?

Dr. Susan Chaitovitz, a pediatrician with The Pediatric Center of Frederick, says that family meals should be something parents and children look forward to.

“When mealtime is a stressful event, the focus becomes what to eat and how many bites to eat or micromanaging what the child eats,” she says. “We want to be enjoying food with our children. Research supports the idea that families who share meals together can contribute to their child’s success in school and other achievements.”

Along with enjoying food with their children, Chaitovitz also believes that kids should be eating the same quality of food as their parents. “A parent may say, ‘I’m worried that if I give them stir-fry chicken with vegetables, they won’t eat it, so I’ll make mac and cheese instead.’ If you’re substituting for one or two go-to foods, you may be acting out of concern that your child isn’t eating enough at a meal or frustration at dealing with how they react toward food,” she says. “But in doing so, we’re giving our kids food that is less high quality than what we’re eating.”

Similarly, parents shouldn’t stop offering something just because their kids won’t eat a particular food today or this week. “It can take up to 10 offerings before a child explores a new food. You’ll do better in the long term by repeatedly offering foods in a nonpressured way,” she says. And don’t be afraid to let kids play with their food. “Let them touch it and mash it up,” she adds. This tactile experience can help expand a child’s understanding of a food’s texture and consistency.

Chaitovitz also encourages parents to make a meal all members of the family can share and put something appealing within the meal. For example, if your child loves apple slices, then include them as part of the offerings. “Match a high-desirable food with a new food to try,” she says.

What about nutritional concerns in children?

While parents can get frustrated by picky eating behavior, the most important thing moms and dads can do is continue to make healthy food choices available and be patient.

“Generally, picky eaters don’t develop nutritional deficiencies,” Burns says, “but if they’re not drinking any vitamin D–containing drinks (dairy and non-dairy milks and vitamin D–fortified OJ), they may become vitamin D deficient and need a vitamin D supplement. If they’re not eating much dairy or calcium-fortified foods, they may need a calcium supplement. If they’re not eating iron-containing foods, like meats, beans and green leafy vegetables, then they may need an iron supplement.”

Parents concerned about whether their children are getting the proper nutrition should talk to their family pediatrician. “Your children’s pediatrician can look at whether your kids are getting enough calories and appropriate serving sizes for their ages,” Chaitovitz says. For specific cases, feeding programs and nutritionists are options parents can investigate if the pediatrician believes further intervention is needed.