A Guide for Picky Eaters and Their Families

Whether you have a picky eater in your life or are a picky eater yourself, the issue is common across all life stages. But what defines picky eating, how does it originate, and are there nutritional deficiencies associated with it? Here are the answers to these questions, plus tips and strategies to help picky eaters try new foods.

Defining Picky Eating

While the definition of being a picky eater differs depending on the source, it generally means someone is afraid to try new foods, has an aversion to a variety of food textures, or has the tendency to stick with consuming their favorite foods. The prevalence of picky eating is also hard to nail down. A study of 959 children conducted by the Eating Behaviors journal found that 25 percent of participants had picky eating habits, while Childhood Obesity reviewed 41 studies and found that anywhere from 6 to 59 percent of children are picky eaters, depending on the definition used.

Picky Eating Patterns

A good amount of research has been completed to uncover the patterns of picky eaters. For instance, a study published by Appetite looked at the eating patterns of more than 2,000 toddlers and found that pickier eaters had a significantly lower intake of eggs, sandwiches, and vegetables than nonpicky eaters. However, the overall calorie intake only differed slightly between the two types of eaters.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also studied toddlers' macronutrient (carbohydrates, fat, and protein) and micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) intake. Picky 3-year-olds were found to have lower intakes of vitamin A, iron, and zinc than their nonpicky peers, and picky eaters had a much higher intake of added sugar and a much lower intake of meat, fish, veggies, and fruits across all age groups. Again, there was no significant difference in how many calories each group consumed.

Last, but certainly not least, Pediatrics and Neonatology recently found that children with picky eating habits tend to exhibit slower development in learning ability, interpersonal relationships, and physical performance, as well as difficulty with attention span and cooperation.

Origins of Picky Eating

What causes someone to display picky eating behaviors? Parents of picky eaters tend to offer a new food more times before deciding the child doesn't like it, and picky eating habits have been linked to children from lower-income families with younger parents. Pregnancy health and birth delivery complications have also been associated with picky eating tendencies. And a cross-sectional review revealed that a lack of appropriate caregiver-child interactions, such as repeated food attempts and encouragement, as well as the presence of inappropriate caregiver interactions, such as threatening, commonly lead to children developing picky eating habits.

Tips for Overcoming and Preventing Picky Eating

How can you avoid instilling picky eating tendencies in your children and loved ones? Try these tips.

Don't Panic

Research has continually found that while picky eating results in lower micronutrient intakes, overall caloric intake and weight trends are stable. Surrounding the issue with worry can make it harder on everyone, so approach it calmly.

Make Mealtime Relaxing

Try not to make your picky eater the focus at mealtime. Allow him or her to enjoy the meal without feeling watched in an effort to create a relaxed environment where they're comfortable trying new foods. To promote mindful eating and interesting conversation, discourage devices or distractions at mealtime.

Avoid Pressure and Rewards

Resist pressuring your child into trying new foods, as this can lead to negative food associations. By the same token, don't use dessert to bribe your picky eater because this makes dessert the ultimate goal and can strengthen their bond to sugar.

Use Mindfulness

Introduce new foods to your children with mindful eating techniques. Make trying new foods a fun activity by exploring and discussing the way new foods look, smell, feel, and taste.

Cook with Your Kids

Invite your children into the kitchen. By including them in the cooking process, you're increasing the chance that they'll try new and healthful foods because they've had a hand in the process.

Don't Short-Order Cook

Avoid catering to each child's food preferences and making multiple meals at dinnertime. By serving only one option, you're teaching your kids to try new foods and appreciate the effort, time, and resources that went into creating a healthy meal.

Picky eating is common in both children and adults, but there are ways to expand your picky eater's palate. By understanding picky eating and its prevalence, origins, and common deficiencies, you can more effectively challenge the difficulties of offering new, healthy foods in your household. If you need more guidance on the subject, ask your pediatrician or primary care doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian.

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