Is my child malnourished? Will he grow normally? Will he become a picky eating adult? These are some of the things we, as self-proclaimed parents of picky eaters, ask ourselves while serving up another plate of French fries, just to get our stubborn kids to eat SOMETHING.
My daughter is the complete opposite of me when it comes to food adventurousness; while I will happily chow down on turtle meat or insects, she will stick to chicken nuggets and corn flakes. So, I turned to research to find out what damage, if any, her diet (sadly lacking in fish heads and chicken gizzards) can cause and to look for helpful tips.
Picky eating varies by country to a great extent. Research reveals 7-56% of kids to be picky eaters based on survey data received from parents. This is, perhaps, not surprising considering that food culture also varies considerably across the globe. Developing countries and rural communities have fewer picky eaters. In Western countries like Canada, about 47% of boys and 54% of girls are labelled as picky eaters by their parents by 2 years of age. The foods that kids typically reject are fruits and veggies, followed by dairy products and meat.
Some experts believe that formula-fed babies and babies who were introduced to solids before 6 months of age are more likely to develop food phobias and picky eating habits. They recommend exclusive breastfeeding and supplementation with solids only at 6 months. More recent research, however, discredits these findings and makes no link between early feeding and the development of picky eating.
Still, there is one major factor that, undoubtedly, influences kids’ eating habits: it’s the primary caregiver (usually, the mom). There is strong evidence to show that whatever food-related hang-ups the mom has, they will likely be assimilated by her kids. Picky eating begets picky eating.
Children’s sensory perception is also at play here. We as adults may have no clue why so many tasty things are “gross” to our offspring.
Lastly, children who are on the autistic spectrum are less receptive to new and varied foods due to their atypical perception of textures and flavours.
The vast majority of “parent-diagnosed” picky eaters are not malnourished. By age 2, a child’s growth slows down significantly and their appetite reflects this change. After the initial growth spurt many kids start eating less as they self-regulate their energy needs. There are psychological changes that play a role here too. As your toddler tries to establish some autonomy and exert control over his surroundings, he will first try to control the type of food he eats. It’s normal. Kids at that age are also neophobic (don’t like new things) and that translates into resisting new foods and narrowing their diet to a few staple dishes.
The main question, of course, is “will this affect their health?”. Many parents decide that their child is failing to thrive when he doesn’t hit the 50th percentile on the height/weight chart. Percentiles are tricky since they don’t really tell you what’s normal, they just tell you what’s average. Actually, your kid can be perfectly healthy anywhere between the 3rd and the 97th percentile on that chart. Humans come in a variety of builds and sizes. Before you get worried, book an appointment with your doctor to determine how well your child is developing.
Research shows that both picky and non-picky eaters get sufficient calories from their diet. They also get enough major nutrients like fats, proteins, and sugars. A few studies indicate that picky eaters do not get enough vitamins E and B9 (folate), but the interesting part is that neither do many non-picky eaters. The target values for these vitamins are based on government recommendations. Many kids are not reaching those numbers.
If your child is a true picky eater, a medical professional will be able to see the signs. Malnutrition caused by severely restricted eating causes stunted growth, but it takes more than just looking at a chart to make the correct diagnosis. Iron deficiency, constipation, and tooth decay can also result from a lack of food variety.
TRANSITION TO ADULTHOOD
Do old habits die hard? One study followed a group of children into young adulthood to see how their eating habits evolved. Kids who sought variety in food before age 4 were less likely to become picky eaters as adults. Those who did not like variety, carried at least some of their habits into adulthood. This particularly applies to dairy and vegetables.
Even if your kid is not an extreme picky eater, encouraging a variety in nutritious healthful food is a great idea for obvious reasons. Your number one weapon in this battle will be to lead by example. You will need to model a positive food attitude to your kids and be persistent when offering them a new type of food. It will take 8-15 attempts to get them hooked.
Food enjoyment is a big factor in breaking down food phobias. So, no more threats and pressure tactics. They only re-inforce picky eating. Getting kids involved in meal prep promotes better eating habits and so does praise. Offer your child tiny portions of new foods alongside his favourite dishes. Reward systems such as sticker charts work well with kids and food is no exception. Once your child has tried a few new foods and earned a few stickers for doing so, reward him with a favourite activity. Let your child use senses other than taste to explore new foods. Talk to him about how noisy or quiet, hard or soft the food is, and how it’s shaped.
We are what we eat. My rule is – if it has fewer than or more than 2 legs, it’s food! Your rules may be different, but I hope you and your kids get plenty of joy and health from your meals for years to come.
REFERENCES (links to scientific articles)