Kids may not grow out of picky eating

10th June 2020 | Eativity editors

If your pre-schooler often pushes their dinner plate away or wages war over having to eat another mouthful of “yucky” vegetables, brace yourself. A new study suggests they may not grow out of picky eating anytime soon. And the more parents try to control and restrict their child’s diet, the more finicky the child may become.

But you shouldn’t tear your hair out with worry over your child’s food intake. The study also found that most finicky eaters maintain a healthy childhood weight.

The study, from Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, US, found that by age four, children could be established picky eaters.

“Picky eating is common during childhood,” says senior study author Dr Megan Pesch, a developmental behavioural paediatrician. “Parents often hear that their children will eventually ‘grow out of it’. But that’s not always the case.”

However, there’s a silver lining for worried parents. While fussy eaters have a lower body mass index (BMI), most are still in the healthy range, researchers found. They may also be less likely to be overweight or experience obesity than their peers.

“We still want parents to encourage varied diets at young ages,” Dr Pesch says. “But our study suggests that they can take a less controlling approach. That being said, we need more research to better understand how children’s limited food choices impact healthy weight gain and growth long term.”

Kids may not grow out of picky eating
Pushing Junior to eat all of his broccoli may not work in his favour… or yours.

Under pressure

The study followed 317 mother-child pairs over a period of four years. Researchers found that picky eating in these families was stable from preschool to school age. This suggests that any attempts to expand food preferences may need to occur in the toddler or preschool years to be most effective.

The pickiest eaters were also often associated with increased parental pressure to eat, as well as restrictions on certain types of foods. This reinforces previous research from the same hospital which found that pressuring children to eat foods they don’t like won’t lead to a well-rounded diet later in life or encourage better health or development. A child’s sex, birth order and socioeconomic status can also be factors influencing picky eating.

Kids may not grow out of picky eating
Restricting unhealthy food choices might not make your child prefer healthy foods.

Easing restrictions

“We found that children who were pickier had mothers who reported more restriction of unhealthy foods,” Dr Pesch says. “These mothers may be trying to shape their children’s preferences to be more healthful. But it may not always have the desired effect.”

Whether picky eaters would become even fussier if they didn’t receive high levels of feeding behaviour control is unknown at this point, says Dr Pesch.

Potential interventions require more research. For now, you should look forward to more relaxed mealtimes. Which is good news for everyone.