Picky eating starts young - but being too demanding doesn't help

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

If you have a picky eater, you'll know just how frustrating it can be. Mealtimes can become stressful for everyone and parents often worry about whether their kids are getting enough nutrients when they refuse anything but nuggets and plain rice. According to a new study, however, some of the tactics parents use to cajole their kids into eating their broccoli might just be ineffective. 

In fact the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that mothers who were more "demanding" or restricted foods had some of the pickiest eaters of the bunch.

The researchers collected data from 317 mother-child pairs in the US to examine the trajectory of picky eaters. Beginning at age four, children's weight and height were measured at five points over five years and their mothers answered questionnaires. Three trajectories of picky eating emerged from the results: persistently low (29 per cent), persistently medium (57 per cent), and persistently high (14 per cent).

Persistently high picky eating was more common in girls and in children with more emotional difficulties. In addition, picky eaters at age four often grew into picky eaters at age nine, with the researchers noting that it was a stable trait and one that likely requires intervention early.

Interestingly, medium and high picky-eating trajectories were associated with lower BMIs, but in the healthy range. "This may be comforting to parents concerned about picky eating and underweight in their children," the authors write. "This may also suggest that picky eating could be productive against obesity."

According to the authors, mothers of pickier eaters were more demanding and engaged in higher levels of restriction, perhaps trying to shape their children's selective diets and food preferences to be healthier.

"Given evidence that picky eating is not associated with micronutrient deficiencies,coupled with our findings that child BMIz trajectories are stable in the healthy range, parents may be reassured that they can take a less controlling approach to child feeding," they note.

Previous studies into picky eaters have come to similar conclusions, both about kids' health and caregiver behaviour.
One study published in Appetite found that 50 per cent of three-year-olds with mothers who were greatly worried about their child's fussy eating at 15 months were very picky eaters, compared with only 17 per cent of the mothers who were more relaxed earlier on. As well as a mum being concerned about their child's diet in their second year, late introduction of lumpy foods (after nine months) was linked to having a picky eater, as well as a child being fed ready-prepared main meals, especially baby foods, at 15 months of age.

But it wasn't all bad news. Giving kids fresh fruit and mums eating the same meal as their child, had the opposite effect.

Another study published in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour found that using affirmative phrases such as "eat your lentils if you want to grow bigger and run faster" was more effective at getting kids to eat healthy foods than presenting the food repeatedly without any conversation.

"Every child wants to be bigger, faster, able to jump higher," said Associate Professor and lead study author Jane Lanigan. "Using these types of examples made the food more attractive to eat."

Whatever works, right?