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Picky Eating Could Be More than Just a Phase, Study Finds

little boy doesn't want to try the food
A new study asserts picky eating may not be a phase after all.

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Key Takeaways

  • Parents often blame themselves for their child's picky eating habits.
  • A new study suggests picky eating may be more of a trait than a phase or stage of early childhood.
  • There are lots of ways to encourage picky eaters to try new foods.

Remember how your baby happily gobbled up everything from plain avocado to shredded wheat during their first year or so of life? When that blissful time of food experimentation comes to a screeching halt sometime around your little one’s second birthday, it’s easy to place the blame on yourself, wondering if you’ve inadvertently done something to turn them into a picky eater.

“Picky or fussy eaters are defined as children who reject a wide variety of food, even those they are accustomed to,” says Gabriela Martorell, a psychology professor at Virginia Wesleyan University.

Gabriela Martorell

Picky eaters tend to reject new foods, but they are also likely to reject meat, vegetables, and foods mixed together. They tend to eat only their favorite foods and are very sensitive to textures. This can result in the consumption of an inadequate variety of foods.

— Gabriela Martorell

The Evidence

A new study in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics explores the possibility that picky eating stems more from a trait your child has, rather than a phase they’ll grow out of. The evidence? Kids who exhibited picky eating behavior at age 4 were still picky years later at age 9, the study asserts.

An included editorial written by Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, found that in general, “[Picky] kids may be more harm-avoidant,” which suggests they may share other similar traits in addition to pickiness. 

Why Is My Kid a Picky Eater? 

When it comes to picky eating, it’s about so much more than that one time you allowed your toddler to have a lollipop or a taste of ice cream.

Gabriela Martorell

Starting at about age two, it is developmentally typical for most children to go through a period where they reject new foods. This is known as neophobia, and it's strongly influenced by genetics.

— Gabriela Martorell

Regardless of whether picky eating stems from a trait or a phase, there are several issues that can sometimes accompany it. The study found that the kids who tested “persistently high” on the scale of food avoidance also tended to be highly demanding and had exaggerated mood swings.

Most often, this trifecta of personality traits is referred to as a “strong-willed child.” Indeed, says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, a Registered Dietitian at Balance One Supplements (balanceone.com), says, “[these children] may view their control overeating as a means of exercising their will and achieving independence.” 

In other cases, picky eating may be a sign of a sensory processing disorder (SPD). Other signs of this type of disorder include hypersensitive hearing, touch aversion, and poor motor coordination. 

Effects of Picky Eating

One in four children will develop a pediatric feeding disorder, where extreme picky eating impacts their nutritional health, says Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, a Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist & Feeding Specialist.

This can lead to things like nutritional deficiencies, over or underweight kids, and an increased likelihood of chronic diseases like osteoporosis and heart disease. But for the most part, these extreme circumstances are somewhat rare.

According to Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, "The stress in these households is palpable. Mealtimes are often miserable for the entire family, and the picky eater’s behavior always changes the family’s behavior and thus, family dynamics."

The family only goes to certain restaurants, serves certain meals, or provides the child with a special meal. Parents are worried about their child, and will change the entire family dynamic in order to ensure that the picky eater in the household eats.”

How to Help a Picky Eater

Here are some of our favorite ideas for encouraging your picky eater to try a wider variety of foods. 

  • Start small. Start with just a tablespoon of a new food and gradually help a child tolerate a tablespoon of each dish that is being served at mealtime, says Potock.
  • Enlist their help. Allowing children to take part in the food preparation process can help children with temperament-related picky eating to feel as though they have a sense of control in their food choices, says Best.
  • Take inventory of what your picky eater will eat. Focusing on the nutrient-dense foods that the child will eat is important in that they provide a source of essential nutrients from an otherwise void diet. 
  • Watch what you eat. Model good eating habits in front of your picky eater and he or she will be more likely to follow suit.  

What This Means For You

In a perfect world, you’d get a re-do; a mulligan; a chance to do it all over and help your child not to turn into a super picky eater. But of course, we can’t turn back the hands of time, so we have to work with the current situation. It can be done, Potock says, adding that when it comes to solving picky eating, “exposure is everything!”

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Article Sources
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  1. Fernandez C, McCaffery H, Miller AL, Kaciroti N, Lumeng JC, Pesch MH. Trajectories of picky eating in low-income US childrenPediatrics. 2020;145(6):e20192018. doi:10.1542/peds.2019-2018

  2. Lai CYY, Yung TWK, Gomez INB, Siu AMH. Psychometric properties of sensory processing and self-regulation checklist (SPSRC)Occup Ther Int. 2019;2019:8796042. doi:10.1155/2019/8796042

  3. Nationwide Children's. Feeding disorders.

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