Picky Eaters and Their Families

We may often be quick to judge a child or their parents when we see a picky eater. Picky eaters can be perceived as unadventurous or a product of poor parenting skills. However, parents of picky eaters have more to worry about than social judgement. Pediatricians say that children who develop picky eating at an early age can have growth and development problems.

Parents of picky eaters have real reason to worry about their children’s proper intake of proteins, vitamins and minerals, and vegetables. After all, a child’s appetite is a major indicator of his or her health. Picky eaters are also hard to pinpoint because they generally eat as much as other children do, and they can also be thin or overweight. This means that even though they are probably not eating properly, they are getting their caloric intake in ways that are not nutritionally ideal. Parents look to pediatricians to reassure them that their child is growing at a normal rate, which is usually the case. However, in rare instances, doctors will test for developmental disorders like autism, gastrointestinal disorders, or food allergies. These abnormalities are definitely not the norm, but even the original issue alone - pickiness - can be a cause of major stress for parents.

Here are three tips that parents can do to alleviate picky eating habits:

  • According to Dr. Natalie Muth, a pediatrician interviewed for the New York Times, it’s important to expose children to new flavors even while their mother is pregnant and breastfeeding. It is ideal for children who are starting to eat solid foods (between 6 and 18 months) to have frequent exposure to many different foods at an early age.  

  • It’s ultimately up to the child to choose what to eat. Pediatricians recommend following a division of responsibility at the table: parents can provide diverse food choices and show that other family members, including other children, are trying different kinds of food.

  • Children who are learning about tastes may exhibit some sort of neophobia - fear of the new and unknown. They may be partial to eat “white foods” such as fried foods, breads, rice, and chips. Families who cater to children who are partial to these foods by giving them separate meals from everyone else in the household are actually encouraging picky eating.  In the New York Times article, Dr. Muth suggests that one family should eat one meal together. By eating one meal as a family, children can be eased into different types of food as they watch other family members eat the same meals.

Training young children at an early age to appreciate a variety of foods will help children develop healthy eating behaviors, therefore benefiting their health in the long run. Parents can help with children’s learning process by actively engaging with them to establish a dialogue about their food preferences. That way, parents can also encourage autonomy and responsible decision-making in their children by allowing them to make healthy food choices. The act of eating itself can be an activity for the family, and a way for a child to invest in his or her future.