Picky eating is common in children and may be a source of anxiety for parents who worry that their child isn’t getting the necessary nutrients. But demanding that a child eat, or restricting food is associated with some of the pickiest eaters, according to a study published last week in the journal Pediatrics.
Researchers found that choosy four-year-olds were still turning their noses up at many foods by age nine, suggesting their finicky eating is more of a trait than a phase. Lower levels of picky eating in children were associated with parents imposing few restrictions on foods and a lack of pressure to eat.
Families in the study were eligible for the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Head Start program, meaning they were living at or below the federal government’s poverty level for a family of four. Researchers asked parents to respond to questionnaires describing their child’s level of picky eating and how the parents were handling the issue. Parents completed the questionnaires when their child was four, five, eight and nine years old.
“What makes this study really unique is that we were able to map this behavior over a longer period of time,” said senior author Dr. Megan Pesch, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, adding that the study did not find that a child grew out of his or her picky eating behavior within that five years. Whether that would continue as the child grew, she said, was an “important question for future study.”
Children were divided into levels of low, medium and high pickiness about food. About 15 percent of the children in the study fell into the “high” picky eater group, in which children didn’t accept vegetables often or were highly nervous about new foods.
These kids probably have “thousands of negative memories about food,” such as conflict over meals, unexpected tastes and discomfort, said Nancy Zucker, a Duke University School of Medicine associate professor of psychiatry, and Sheryl Hughes, Baylor College of Medicine associate professor of pediatric nutrition, in an accompanying editorial.
“It is critical that caregivers let go of their need for a child to taste something and instead focus on accumulating pleasant experiences,” they added. Not forcing kids to clean their plates can be hard for parents, Pesch acknowledged, sharing that she too struggles not to do the same with her three small children.
The study found no difference among children due to socioeconomic demographics, but did find higher rates of picky eating among children who had problems regulating their emotions. Those children were more prone to exaggerated changes in mood with possible heightened irritability or temper.
“Some kids are wired to be more cautious, to be a little bit more anxious,” Pesch said. “I don’t think parents should really feel a personal blame for this. Some kids are just going to be picky.”
Because picky eating was evident by age four and didn’t ease during the five years of the study, “interventions need to begin at younger ages because of the stability of picky eating trajectories over time,” wrote Zucker and Hughes.
The best time to introduce new foods is when the baby begins solid foods at six months, experts said, and then continue to offer a variety of foods throughout the formative years of toddlerhood.