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Is picky eating really a problem?

Posted October 19

Every parent struggles with children going through picky eating, and some cases are worse than others. Some adults are picky eaters themselves. Is there a cause for concern? (Deseret Photo)

Picky eating is a concern that plagues parents of growing kids across America and many adult eaters too.

But is picky eating really a problem? Let’s take a closer look.

Legitimate concerns about picky eating include the worry that children or adults:

  • Will be afraid of food and not want to try new things.

  • Will be socially uncomfortable, nervous and anxious when in a place they don’t control the food (e.g. a friend’s dinner party as a guest).

  • Won’t get enough nutrients to grow, thrive, function optimally.

  • Will eat differently than the rest of the family and require more work or special meals.

The fear of trying new foods and not being in control

Feeding relationship researcher and dietitian Ellyn Satter describes a feeding and eating paradigm ideal for a “competent eater” as someone who can be “positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating.”

People who have a healthy relationship with food are not preoccupied or obsessed with food. They aren’t constantly worried about eating and food options.

Food neophobia, or fear of new foods, is relatively normal for kids to experience between the ages of 2 and 6 years. They may have eaten a wide array of foods as babies without complaint and then suddenly wake up refusing their old favorites and only want buttered noodles and hot dogs.

During this time children are more aware that what they’re eating is new. There are more new and strange foods available than familiar ones (this can be scary and is reasonable). They’re also establishing independence and self-identity; what they put into their mouth is one of the few things kids actually control in their lives.

Fear of food is something to be concerned about, but it is reasonable to assume that your child will grow out of this stage, at least in part. (See recommendations for help below and this dietitian’s story of becoming a recovered picky eater.)

Insufficient nutrients

Depending on how restrictive picky eating is, getting enough vitamins, minerals and energy may be a concern. Growth charts in children will indicate healthy growth patterns. The best way to tell if you or your child is getting enough vitamins and minerals is to compare recommended food group eating patterns with intake. You could also enter all the foods eaten over a few days into a food tracker like USDA’s SuperTracker or MyFitnessPal and look at average intakes of individual nutrients and compare against recommendations. A registered dietitian could help analyze and come up with a plan of action.

Picky eating or something else?

Some people are very sensitive to sensory input like textures, smells or tastes of foods or perhaps even the sensation of eating food and having things touch their mouth. This is called oral aversion. Sometimes there are physiological and medical troubles preventing successful eating. Other ideas about the root of extreme picky eating can be found here. If you suspect these in yourself or a child, a specialist can best help you navigate eating.

Sometimes kids seem picky, but other issues are influencing their selective eating.

Grazing

Children or adults who graze, eating food here and there all day long, will not be hungry at mealtimes. Those who are hungry are more likely to eat and eat new foods or less favorite foods (e.g. vegetables).

Consistent meals and snacks

Research and personal experience has taught that when meals are offered consistently and can be expected, people eat better. They aren’t as likely to grab something to fill a void quickly if they know that a real meal will reward their patience. I have a choosy child at home, and I can almost always track choosy flare-ups to busy schedules and inconsistent real meal eating occasions.

Power

Ideally, mealtimes are pleasant and enjoyable and all members of the family want to be present. When a child feels like he is being forced to eat a certain way, we’ve set up a win-lose scenario instead of a win-win, and there can be negative life-long consequences.

An especially strong-willed child will not want to lose a power struggle, and in general, no one wants to feel as if they’ve lost. When they feel cornered and forced, some children will dig in and build resentment, which is a problem for the mood at the dinner table and the parent-child relationship.

Moving past pickiness

To raise a competent eater, Satter recommends parents offer a variety of foods (including new and a familiar well-liked choice) and take responsibility for offering consistent, reliable nutritious meals and snacks and then let the child choose from the foods offered and let the child decide how much he’ll eat, all in a low pressure environment.

If any one of these pieces is missing, it can be more challenging to work through feeding troubles. Using this model doesn’t guarantee perfect eaters or a perfect process, but it is a useful tool to guide feeding decisions that will yield competent eaters who eat more wholesome diets, have healthier weights, better self-acceptance, sleep, and are more physically active.

Finding the solutions that work best for your family to create a positive relationship with food and each other is key.

Erica Hansen, a dietitian-nutritionist, advocates getting back to the basics in the kitchen with real food for real life is the first step to improving vitality and longevity. Find her online at realfoodfixes.com or @realfoodfixes on Instagram/Facebo

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