Preschoolers who are picky eaters — who have strong preferences for certain foods and who reject new ones — are unlikely to grow out of it anytime soon, according to a study published this week in Pediatrics.
And the more parents try to impose strict control over their child’s cuisine, such as by making them eat certain foods and restricting their access to others, the fussier the child is likely to become at mealtimes, the study also found.
“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,” said Dr. Megan Pesch, the study’s senior author and a professor of developmental and behavior pediatrics at the University of Michigan, in a released statement.
On the positive side, picky eating was not found to be associated with any nutritional — or weight — problems. Children who are finicky about their foods tend to be neither overweight nor underweight, the study reports.
For the study, Pesch and her co-authors followed 317 mother-child pairs from low-income Michigan homes for four years. The researchers wanted to focus on low-income families in part because they had been underrepresented in previous studies on picky eating and its effects on children’s health.
The children were 3 to 4 years old at the start of the study. Half were boys. About two-thirds of the mothers were white, and just more than half of them had more than a high school education.
The mothers filled out detailed questionnaires about their children’s eating habits and about their own behaviors and attitudes about feeding at five different points during the study: at the start and when their children were 5, 6, 8 and 9.
Based on the questionnaires, the children were divided into three picky eating categories: persistently low, persistently medium and persistently high. Most of the children fell into the low (29 percent) or medium (57 percent) categories, but a significant number (14 percent) were persistently high picky eaters.
Children tended to stay in the same category throughout the five years of the study — a finding that suggests, according to the researchers, that parents may need to discourage picky eating long before their child reaches preschool.
Boys were more likely than girls to be picky eaters, as were children who struggle more with regulating their emotions.
High picky eating was associated with a lower body mass index (BMI), and low picky eating was associated with higher BMIs. This finding suggests that picky eating may protect against children becoming overweight or obese, although Pesch and her co-authors caution that little is known about the long-term trajectory of weight among picky eaters.
The study also found that children tend to be fussier at mealtimes when their parents pressure them to eat foods they don’t like or when their parents put strict limitations on what they can eat.
“We found that children who were pickier had mothers who reported more restriction of unhealthy foods and sweets,” says Pesch. “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.”
But as the researchers acknowledge, it’s not known if the children would have become even more selective about their food if the parents hadn’t tried to intervene.
Limitations and implications
The study involved only a relatively small group of families living in Michigan. The results may not be applicable to broader populations. In addition, the study’s data came from questionnaires filled out by the children’s mothers. Such self-reported data may or may not have been entirely accurate.
Still, the study’s findings are in line with other research on the topic.
Children who are picky eaters probably have “thousands of negative memories about food” — not only of unpleasant taste experiences but also of mealtime battles with their parents, write Nancy Zucker, a Duke University School of Medicine associate professor of psychiatry, and Sheryl Hughes, a Baylor College of Medicine associate professor of pediatric nutrition, in an editorial accompanying the study.
“It is critical that caregivers let go of their need for a child to taste something and instead focus on accumulating pleasant experiences,” they add.
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on Pediatrics’ website, but the full paper is behind a paywall. If your child is a picky eater and you’re looking for strategies, go to the American Academy of Pediatrics website.