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 it 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 and parents often hear that their children will eventually ‘grow out of it’. But that’s not always the case,” says senior study author Dr Megan Pesch, a developmental behavioural paediatrician.

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 and not underweight, 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, but our study suggests that they can take a less controlling approach,” Dr Pesch says. That being said, “we need more research to better understand how children’s limited food choices impact healthy weight gain and growth long term.”

Pushing Junior to eat all of his broccoli may not work in his favour… or yours.

The study followed 317 mother-child pairs over a four-year period. The researchers found that picky eating in these families was stable from preschool to school-age, suggesting that any attempts to expand food preferences may need to occur in toddler or preschool years to be most effective. High picky eating was associated with lower BMIs and low picky eating was associated with higher BMIs.

The pickiest eaters were also often associated with increased parental pressure to eat and restriction 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.

Certain child characteristics including sex, birth order and socioeconomic status have also been associated with persistence of picky eating.  

Restricting unhealthy food choices might not make your child prefer healthy foods.

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

It’s not known at this stage whether kids who are picky eaters would have become even more fussy if they didn’t receive high levels of controlling feeding behaviours, Dr Pesch says.

While more research is needed to explore potential interventions, for now, you should look forward to more relaxed meal times. Which is good news for everyone involved.