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Updated 25 August 2020

For many kids, picky eating isn't just a phase

It can be very stressful for parents to deal with picky eaters, but if parents think they did something wrong to cause it, recent findings suggest otherwise.

For parents hoping their "picky" eater will grow out of it, a new study may be unwelcome news.

Researchers found that choosy four-year-olds were still turning their noses up at many foods at age nine – suggesting their finicky eating is more of a trait than a phase.

The study, which followed over 300 children, found three patterns: The majority were consistently middle-of-the-road when it came to food fussiness – sometimes shunning unfamiliar cuisine, but remaining relatively open to trying new foods.

A sizable minority (29%) consistently ate everything their parents offered up.

No signs of underweight

Then there was the picky 14%. From age four to nine, they routinely refused new foods and maintained a limited culinary repertoire.

Still, researchers saw bright spots in the findings, published on in May in the journal Pediatrics.

For one, there were no signs that picky eaters were underweight. And the fact that the fussiness seems to be a trait – and not a failure on the parents' part – might bring some solace.

"It can be very stressful for parents to deal with a picky eater," noted senior researcher Dr Megan Pesch, a paediatrician at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor.

But if parents think they did something wrong to cause it, she added, these findings suggest otherwise.

"It's not your fault," Pesch said. "It seems to be part of a child's disposition."

Ultimatums don't help

Nor do the findings mean that parents cannot do anything about picky eating, she stressed. The study merely followed families to see what happened naturally – and did not test any intervention to change kids' habits.

What does seem clear is that mealtime ultimatums do not help.

In this study, mothers of picky eaters reported more efforts to control what their child consumed – including limits on sugary, fatty foods. (When kids are high on the finicky scale, Pesch noted, they often stick to those types of foods.)

Despite those battles, children's fussiness held strong.

In fact, coercion is probably destined to fail, according to Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Zucker, who wrote an editorial published with the study, pointed to one of its key findings. Based on mothers' responses to a standard questionnaire, the pickiest eaters also tended to be emotionally reactive in general.

Brighten the mood around food

And those kids will not respond well to dinner-table demands – "It won't work," Zucker said. "These children will just shut down."

She agreed that the findings suggest picky eating is a trait.

"These kids may be more harm-avoidant," Zucker said. "And when you think about it, eating is breaking a barrier – allowing something into your body. These children hold back when everyone else is running to the food."

So what can parents do?

Zucker said that making meals a pleasant experience may at least brighten children's moods around food. And that could, at some point, ease their boundaries.

Including kids in shopping and meal preparation, Zucker said, is one way to make it more enjoyable for them.

Concern about nutritional quality

Pesch agreed, adding that simple exposure may help, too. That is, keep making varied meals for the family so that the picky eater gets used to the sights and smells.

"But keep it low-pressure," Pesch said. "Don't try to force them to 'clean their plates'."

The study included 317 mother-child pairs who were followed from the time the child was about four until age nine. Mothers completed a "food fussiness" questionnaire, and 14% of kids scored high enough, and consistently enough, to be deemed persistently picky.

What's the harm in being a picky eater? This study found no weight consequences: Finicky kids tended to weigh less than those who liked lots of foods – but they were not underweight.

There is, however, a concern, Zucker said, about the nutritional quality of their diets, as well as problems like chronic constipation.

Pesch also pointed out that the study looked at run-of-the-mill picky eating – where kids adhere to childhood favourites like macaroni and cheese, hot dogs and cereal. If a child is severely limiting food intake, she said, parents should talk to their paediatrician.

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