Having a child who is a picky eater is a common concern among many parents. While it’s not unusual for children to reject food occasionally, picky eating over prolonged periods of time can be troubling for parents.
We recently spoke to paediatric dietitian and founder of Element Nutrition Co., Jessica Gust (MS, RDN) about her tips for parents with picky eaters. Jessica specialises in starting solids, picky eating and health and wellness for kids, and can regularly be found online sharing practical tips and information via her Instagram @elementnutrition.kids. Through her 1:1 coaching and online community, Jessica helps parents get their kids trying and eating new foods so they can grow into healthy eaters for life.
In this interview, we discuss whether parents should be concerned if they have picky eaters, explore a few simple strategies that parents can try to get their children to try new foods and touch on things parents may be unknowingly doing to sabotage mealtimes!
1. How common are ‘picky eaters’? Do we know why children develop such strong preferences for/against certain foods?
Picky or fussy eating is very common particularly among kids 0-36 months of age. However, it can extend longer. Since there is no exact definition for picky eating (it really varies) there is no exact percentage as to how many kids are considered picky eaters. In a recent review of the research, the range of picky eating spanned from 5% to 70% based on the study and how parents reported picky eating. Picky eating is also more commonly reported among toddler/preschool-aged children as it is a somewhat normal part of their development.
Some children develop stronger picky eating tendencies than others and it can be due to a variety of reasons such as a past bad or traumatic experience with food, sensory issues or a medical condition or other underlying reason. Some kids just develop normal picky eating tendencies and then they snowball based on their environment and how parents address picky eating issues.
2. Should parents be concerned if they have a child who is a picky eater?
Some forms of picky eating are pretty common. As previously mentioned, standard picky eating often starts in toddlerhood. This can’t totally be avoided since it aligns with their development, however, there are things parents can do to support autonomy and help move them through this phase effectively.
Some picky eating is not usually a huge concern as long as the child is still eating a decent variety of foods from each of the food groups or food types. However, it can become a concern when the amount of foods they are willing to eat continues to get smaller and foods are not added back into the diet after they reject them. When they are consistently leaving out whole food groups, they are likely missing out on key nutrients needed for growth and development.
Some common nutrients of concern in picky eaters are iron, zinc, vitamins A, E, C and B vitamins (among others). It is important for parents to seek help and support from their paediatrician and also potentially a paediatric dietitian if they feel their child’s picky eating is causing them to miss whole food groups. Missing out on these key nutrients for prolonged periods of time can impact health and development.
3. What are some things that parents can try to get their child to eat new foods?
There is no one strategy for getting kids to try new foods but rather a combination of strategies that work together. It is important for them to reduce the pressure at meals because this usually pushes kids the opposite direction.
The best way they can do this is by following the division of responsibility in feeding (a term coined by Ellyn Satter.) This means the parents are in charge of deciding what the meals are, where the food is served and when the food is served and then the child gets to decide if they eat the food and how much of it they eat. Following this can help decrease the pressure at meals.
Other strategies to get kids trying food include making meals fun by adding fun utensils, plates, colourful cups and cutting food into different shapes, and by providing adequate time for food play and interaction with food in settings other than mealtimes. Parents need to remember that it often takes upwards of 15-20 or more exposures before a child is comfortable with a food. So, they shouldn’t give up after a few refusals. Getting help from a professional that specialises in picky eating can also help them turn things around more quickly.
4. Is there anything that parents may be doing to unknowingly sabotage mealtimes?
The biggest way parents sabotage mealtime is by putting pressure on their kids to eat certain foods. This includes making them take a certain number of bites, saying “just try it” or making them eat a food before they get to eat something else (like dessert or more of a food they like more). This tends to re-enforce picky eating.
Other things that make picky eating worse is letting your kids graze all day (snacking nonstop) or allowing them to drink beverages other than water between meals. This includes milk, juice, soda or anything other than water.
5. Finally, what would your advice be for parents who have fussy eaters?
My biggest piece of advice if you are struggling with a picky eater is to get help or support now. The longer you wait the more you could be re-enforcing their picky eating tendencies. Change doesn’t always happen super-fast, it’s a slow progressive process. Start now and celebrate the small wins, it is all progress forward!
To learn more about picky eating and getting your children to try new foods, download Jessica’s FREE e-guide for parents. You can also learn more about Jessica and her work online by visiting her website, Instagram and Facebook.