For Many Kids, Picky Eating Isn't Just a Phase, Study Finds
For parents hoping their "picky" eater will grow out of it, a new study may be unwelcome news.
Researchers found that choosy 4-year-olds were still turning their noses up at many foods at age 9 -- suggesting their finicky eating is more of a trait than a phase.
The study, which followed over 300 children, found three patterns: The majority were consistently middle-of-the-road when it came to food fussiness -- sometimes shunning unfamiliar cuisine, but remaining relatively open to trying new foods.
A sizable minority (29%) consistently ate everything their parents offered up.
Then there was the picky 14%. From age 4 to 9, they routinely refused new foods and maintained a limited culinary repertoire.
Still, researchers saw bright spots in the findings, published May 26 in the journal Pediatrics.
For one, there were no signs that picky eaters were underweight. And the fact that the fussiness seems to be a trait -- and not a failure on the parents' part -- might bring some solace.
"It can be very stressful for parents to deal with a picky eater," noted senior researcher Dr. Megan Pesch, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor.
But if parents think they did something wrong to cause it, she added, these findings suggest otherwise.
"It's not your fault," Pesch said. "It seems to be part of a child's disposition."
Nor do the findings mean that parents cannot do anything about picky eating, she stressed. The study merely followed families to see what happened naturally -- and did not test any intervention to change kids' habits.
What does seem clear is that mealtime ultimatums do not help.
In this study, mothers of picky eaters reported more efforts to control what their child consumed -- including limits on sugary, fatty foods. (When kids are high on the finicky scale, Pesch noted, they often stick to those types of foods.)
Despite those battles, children's fussiness held strong.
In fact, coercion is probably destined to fail, according to Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
Zucker, who wrote an editorial published with the study, pointed to one of its key findings. Based on mothers' responses to a standard questionnaire, the pickiest eaters also tended to be emotionally reactive in general.
And those kids will not respond well to dinner-table demands -- "It won't work," Zucker said. "These children will just shut down."
She agreed that the findings suggest picky eating is a trait.
"These kids may be more harm-avoidant," Zucker said. "And when you think about it, eating is breaking a barrier -- allowing something into your body. These children hold back when everyone else is running to the food."
So what can parents do?
Zucker said that making meals a pleasant experience may at least brighten children's moods around food. And that could, at some point, ease their boundaries.
Including kids in shopping and meal preparation, Zucker said, is one way to make it more enjoyable for them.
Pesch agreed, adding that simple exposure may help, too. That is, keep making varied meals for the family so that the picky eater gets used to the sights and smells.
"But keep it low-pressure," Pesch said. "Don't try to force them to 'clean their plates.' "
The study included 317 mother-child pairs who were followed from the time the child was about 4 until age 9. Mothers completed a "food fussiness" questionnaire, and 14% of kids scored high enough, and consistently enough, to be deemed persistently picky.
What's the harm in being a picky eater? This study found no weight consequences: Finicky kids tended to weigh less than those who liked lots of foods -- but they were not underweight.
There is, however, a concern, Zucker said, about the nutritional quality of their diets, as well as problems like chronic constipation.
Pesch also pointed out that the study looked at run-of-the-mill picky eating -- where kids adhere to childhood favorites like mac and cheese, hot dogs and cereal. If a child is severely limiting food intake, she said, parents should talk to their pediatrician.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has advice for parents of picky eaters.
SOURCES: Megan Pesch, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Michigan, and pediatrician, Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, Ann Arbor; Nancy Zucker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, Duke University School of Medicine, director, Duke Center for Eating Disorders, Durham, N.C.; Pediatrics, online, May 26, 2020