Do you have a picky eater? A child who has a limited variety of food intake because he or she rejects unfamiliar foods? It’s not uncommon for children to go through a “picky phase,” but researchers aren’t clear about exactly how many children experience this common phenomenon.

Picky eating typically begins during toddlerhood, between ages 2 and 6, which also happens to be a time when physical growth slows down. Because growth and appetite are closely tied, the toddler’s appetite naturally declines as growth slows.

Picky eating often overlaps with normal emotional developmental milestones. Many toddlers are just beginning to assert their independence around this age, and food refusal can be another form of inserting independence. Picky eating can also be a way to assert power.

Many toddlers also go through a phase of neophobia (fear of new food). Researchers do not fully understand why this happens.

If you’re worried about malnutrition, it might be helpful to know that many toddlers meet their nutritional requirements in the first half or two-thirds of the day, especially if they are fed with structured meals and snacks. Often, dinner is the time when toddlers are most tired and least needy of nutrients. Some toddlers may eat only one good meal a day and pick at food the remainder of the day. What your toddler eats over the course of a week (21 meals and multiple snacks) is a better indicator of overall nutritional intake.

You should make sure you keep offering appealing and tasty vegetables! Repeated exposure to food is the most studied avenue for addressing picky eating. Young children can require several introductions (up to 15 or more!) before they accept and eat certain foods. However, a 2012 Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics study of preschoolers in school showed that repeated exposure did not increase vegetable consumption. Children were more likely to eat vegetables when they saw their friends eating them. This study highlights the importance of role modeling, peer-to-peer influence, and a need for more research in this area. Nutrient-wise, fruit is a good stand-in for vegetables, so you don’t need to fret about vitamins and minerals.

Letting your child serve himself, staying on a structured meal pattern during the day, and responding to your child’s appetite are just a few ways to keep the feeding dynamic positive.

Unfortunately, some parents make picky eating worse with practices such as pushing more bites or pleading with a toddler to try something new. These practices, though well intentioned, tend to backfire with toddlers, making picky eating worse.

Takeaways

  • Picky eating is a common feature of toddler development.
  • Parental expectations and response to picky eating may extend this phase or even make it worse.
  • Using positive strategies with the picky eater is key to helping children be healthy and adventurous eaters.

References

  1. Savage JS, Fisher JO and Birch LL. Parental influence on eating behavior: conception to adolescence. J Med Ethics. 2007; 35 (1): 22-34.
  2. O’Connell ML, Henderson KE, Luedicke J,  Schwartz MB. Repeated exposure in a natural setting: A Preschool intervention to increase vegetable consumption. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012; 112: 230-234.
  3. Castle J. and Jacobsen M. Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA, 2013.

Comments

  1. My son is just shy of 19 months old, and he has the strangest eating habits! I think he likes weird food items (weird for kids)…like plain greek yogurt, cauliflower, and salmon…but he all of a sudden won’t touch a banana, orange, or green peas, which he used to love. I have noticed that he eats a really large breakfast, a smaller lunch, and usually very little for dinner. And I follow his queues on when he’s hungry and when he’s full. I hope if I just keep giving him the foods I want him to eat, he’ll eat them eventually. I know he won’t go hungry. 🙂

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  2. My three year old is the exact same way! She eats breakfast and lunch great, but not so much her dinner. It’s nice to know that I don’t need to worry if she tends to eat less towards the end of the day. And I definitely agree that she eats better around her friends. If she sees them eating something she is much more likely to try it.

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  3. Thank you for writing this! I definitely have a non-adventurous 3 yr old on my hands, and I realized that breakfast and often lunch were his ‘big’ meals (big being oh-so-relative). Hearing that this is normal makes me feel even better that many days he barely touches his dinner. I am also glad to hear this is an instance where peer pressure can be a good thing 🙂

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  4. My four year old began her picky eating stage at around 15 months and is still in that stage. I used to really stress about what she was eating everyday but have learned that it is not worth arguing over anymore. Bribing her with dessert often encourages here to try a couple of bites of what is on her plate and a lot of the time she ends up liking what I have served. She doesn’t like to try new foods but I try to encourage her to take one bite and she usually will. Looking forward to the day that she actually likes to eat what I make!

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