Children may not grow out of being picky eaters, new research suggests

Picky eaters may not grow out of it any time soon, new research has revealed. (Getty Images)

Parents of picky eaters be warned, new research has revealed they may not grow out if it anytime soon.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news and all, but if you have a little one who refuses to even touch their food if anything remotely healthy is put on the plate or clamps their jaw shut in response to a request for just one more spoonful of peas, meal time battles might be on the table for longer than you think.

A new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, has suggested children could be established picky eaters by the age of four.

What’s more, the more parents try to control and restrict children’s diets, the more fussy they may become.

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The study analysed 317 mother/child duos from low-income families over a period of four years, with families reporting on children’s eating habits and mothers’ behaviours and attitudes about feeding when the children were age four, five, six, eight and nine.

The results found that fussy or picky eating was stable from pre-school to school-age, suggesting that any attempts to expand food preferences may need to occur when children are toddlers or in the pre-school years to be most effective.

Researchers linked the pickiest eaters with increased pressure to eat and restriction on certain types of foods, which is consistent with previous Mott-led research suggesting that putting pressure on children to eat foods they dislike will not lead to a well-rounded diet later in life or encourage better health or development.

“Picky eating is common during childhood and parents often hear that their children will eventually ‘grow out of it.’ But that's not always the case,” explains senior author Megan Pesch, M.D., a developmental behavioural paediatrician at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

The findings also indicated that high levels of picky eating was associated with lower BMIs and low picky eating was associated with higher BMIs, but parents of picky eaters shouldn’t panic too much as researchers said most fussy eaters are still within the healthy range and not underweight.

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The fussiest eaters were found to be those whose parents were strict with food. (Getty Images)

“We still want parents to encourage varied diets at young ages, but our study suggests that they can take a less controlling approach,” Pesch added.

She said the findings indicated the pickiest children tended to have mothers who reported more restriction of unhealthy foods and sweets.

“These mothers of picky eaters may be trying to shape their children’s preferences for more palatable and selective diets to be more healthful. But it may not always have the desired effect.”

Pesch said it wasn’t known if children who are fussy would have become even more selective if they did not receive higher levels of controlling feeding behaviours.

She added that more research was needed “to better understand how children's limited food choices impact healthy weight gain and growth long term.”

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Tips for parents of fussy eaters

The NHS has produced some tips and advice for parents of picky eaters including:-

  • Giving your child the same food as the rest of the family, remembering not to add salt to your child's food.

  • Try eating with children as often as you can so they can copy your behaviour. 

  • Don’t force children to eat food they have rejected, instead just take the food away without saying anything and try it again another time.

  • Try not to leave meal times until children are too hungry or tired to eat. 

  • Try to avoid giving too many snacks between meals. They suggest two healthy snacks a day is enough.

  • Don’t use food as a reward. Your child may start to think of sweets as nice and vegetables as nasty.

  • Make mealtimes enjoyable and not just about eating.

  • Switch up how you serve food. For example, swapping cooked carrots for raw grated carrot.