An article in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, recently acknowledged that the definition of “picky eater” can make it difficult to address the problem. As many as half of American kids could fall into that category depending on how you define a picky eater.
Something so normal can’t really be seen as a serious problem, can it?
Yet picky eating can in some cases affect a child’s health and happiness.
The normal picky eater
Ordinary or average picky eaters may have foods they love and foods they hate, but they usually will eat 20 or more different foods, including dishes from many different categories.
Extreme picky eaters, or problem feeders, are likely to have fewer than 20 foods they will accept. What’s more, they may only accept a particular brand or presentation of a food.
Normal picky eaters may go on a food jag, when they ask for a peanut butter sandwich every day for their lunch. They may accept different side dishes, such as fruit or vegetables, along with that sandwich. After a few weeks, they will usually move on to another favorite, though they’ll still enjoy that peanut butter sandwich occasionally.
Extreme picky eaters may insist on Campbell’s canned tomato soup with exactly three Goldfish crackers in it for lunch and dinner every day for months. They may react with tantrums if they are offered other foods alongside or instead of their chosen dish.
Picky eaters may try their parents’ patience, but their eating habits don’t threaten their health.
Extreme picky eaters may eat just a few different foods, making it very difficult to get the nutrition they need. They may reject entire categories of foods, such as fruits or vegetables. They may end up losing weight or — especially if their accepted foods are snack foods — gaining weight while not getting the vitamins and minerals they need for healthy growth.
Coping with picky eating
- Schedule regular meals and snacks at predictable times and places. Discourage grazing. This helps kids develop healthy habits of eating well when they’re hungry. Focus on teaching kids to enjoy family meals and conversation as a complete experience.
- Avoid distractions. Eating with the TV on, allowing kids to get down from the table and play, or using phones at the table can all make it harder for kids to develop good eating habits.
- Serve kids balanced meals with a variety of foods. Don’t let food choices become too much of a focus for small children. Parents should decide what, when, and where to eat. Kids can decide how much to eat of the food they are served.
- While we hear parents say, “I give him cookies so he’ll at least be eating something,” it’s best to avoid using sweets as a reward or a bribe. If dessert is served at your dinner table, serve it to everyone.
- Start early and set a good example. Research shows that most adults don’t eat all the vegetables they should. Especially during the pandemic, a lot of us are having trouble keeping up healthy eating habits. Do something nice for yourself and your kids by trying out a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Your toddler can enjoy figs and bok choy now — and be less likely to become a picky eater later.
- Involve kids in meal preparation. You decide on the menu, but let your kids help make the salad, choose the veggies for a casserole, and name a dish you’re trying out. Research shows that kids are more likely to try something they get involved with, including vegetables they’ve tended in the garden.
If you’re worried about your child’s eating habits, talk with your pediatrician.