Picky eating: typical or troubling?

Though some children eat anything and everything, many parents experience their child being a “picky eater” at one time or another. An estimated 14–20 percent of preschoolers are said to be “often” or “always” picky (or selective) with foods.

Cause for concern? 

Traditional advice has been not to worry or criticize, and to avoid making meals a time of conflict. Children will outgrow their picky eating in time, the common wisdom goes, or they’ll eat when they’re truly hungry. 

But some recent research suggests that parents may want to have their children’s picky eating evaluated rather than simply shrugging it off. For some children, picky eating is just a phase. For others, it correlates with additional problems that either already exist or may emerge in the future.

What research reveals

A 2015 study published in Pediatrics involved more than 900 children ages 2 through 6. The study showed an association between “picky eating” and psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—conditions that merit some followup. 

This isn’t to suggest that all picky eaters have a psychological disorder. Nor does it mean that cajoling or bribing a child to eat more or different foods will prevent future problems.

Although the Pediatrics study showed a correlation between picky eating and anxiety, depression, and/or ADHD, it didn’t show cause. That is, children who were picky eaters were more likely to have such conditions, but there was no indication that selective eating led to the development of such problems—or vice versa. It could be that in children with heightened sensitivity to experiences in general, the sensitivity extends to the taste, texture, and appearance of their food.

Tips for tempting picky eaters

Unfortunately, researchers don’t have a way to determine which kids will outgrow picky eating and which won’t. After parents of picky eaters have had their child assessed for any coexisting conditions, they can follow the same advice that’s been around for generations: 

  • Be a good role model. Eat a healthy, varied diet. Children learn from their first teachers—their parents.
  • Keep mealtimes positive. Never force your child to eat, especially when he isn’t hungry. Forcing a child to eat may make him resist mealtimes even more. The dinner table should be a relaxed space for family bonding and for enjoyment of good food.
  • Offer a variety of healthy foods. Skip the sweets and prepackaged foods so that every one of your child’s bites provides as much nutrition as possible. Start the day with a complex carbohydrate such as fortified cereal, and follow every hour or two with a new offering. Make a game of selecting green, yellow, and red fruits or vegetables each day. Trade carbs for higher protein foods like chicken or soybeans later in the day. 
  • Take advantage of hungry times. When your child is hungry, offer foods to fill in any nutritional gaps. For example, if your child eats little protein but loves eggs, offer her a scrambled egg after she works up an appetite playing outdoors.
  •  Involve your child in preparing foods. Even a young child can help put baby carrots into bowls or shake cheese onto a salad. Children are often more eager to eat what they’ve helped to prepare.
  •  Keep a food diary. Track what and how much your child eats for about a week. Many parents find that their child will, over the course of several days, eat a relatively healthy and balanced diet. 
  • Watch your child grow. Growth is the best sign of adequate nutrition. If you have any concerns about your child’s growth, contact his pediatrician, who can assess his current height and weight against his health history. 

Last updated October 31, 2017

Suggested Reads