If a standoff over vegetables at dinner is a daily hurdle with your child then good news parents – a picky toddler is still likely to grow up to be a normal weight and height.
That’s according to new research from the University of Bristol’s Children of the 90s study. Researchers have struggled to agree on an exact definition of picky eating, or identify who picky eaters are – which makes it difficult to compare different studies and draw overall conclusions.
However, as a general rule, picky eaters have strong preferences for particular foods and are reluctant to try unfamiliar foods. Sometimes these children insist on having their food presented in a particular way and can be very slow about eating it.
How picky eating develops
Picky eating is a source of anxiety and stress for many parents. The constant battles at mealtimes, combined with worry about whether the child is getting the right nutrients to grow and develop normally, can be exhausting and disruptive to family life and relationships.
It’s a common behaviour in preschool children, but children tend to grow out of it in the early school years, perhaps as they mix with their peers and develop greater autonomy. Some people think it’s an evolutionary hangover that once helped infants to avoid bitter-tasting foods that might have been poisonous. A fear of new foods could also be partly inherited through our genes and perhaps related to genetic variation in how sensitive people are to bitter tastes. For many children it’s a normal stage of development that most will leave behind eventually.
The Children of the 90s study has followed the development of children who were born in the Bristol area in the early 1990s, providing data about their health and well-being as they grew up. In our study we identified children as picky eaters at three years old. We looked at what it was about their early feeding and family life before that age that made it more likely that they would develop picky eating habits.
We also tracked their diets and growth into adolescence and compared them with a group of non-picky eaters.
We found that there are some ways in which parents can help to avoid their child becoming fussy about food. Using the responses from about 6,000 questionnaires, we found that late introduction of solid foods during weaning (after nine months old) was a contributing factor to the child becoming picky at three years old.
Parents worrying about their child’s choosiness at an earlier age was also an important predictor. Fifty percent of three year olds whose parents were greatly worried about their choosy eating habits at two years old were picky eaters at three years old, compared with only 17% if their parents were more relaxed about the choosiness.
Family mealtimes with home-cooked foods were also important, with all family members preferably eating the same meal. The importance of repeated serving of unfamiliar foods, but without pressure to eat, has been highlighted in other studies. There’s also a place for parents leading by example, showing their children that it’s normal to enjoy a wide variety of foods.
Growing up healthy
Picky eaters in the Children of the 90s study tended to eat fewer servings of fruits and vegetables and less meat than other children at three years old. However, in common with the findings of similar studies, calorie intakes were still generally adequate. These habits lingered at ten and at 13 years old.
To find out whether these differences in diet affected growth, we looked at the average heights, weights and body mass indices (BMI) that were measured annually from age seven to 17 years in about 300 of the children who were identified as picky eaters at three years old.
When the results were plotted on reference growth charts the values were consistently just above the 50th centiles, which indicates the average measurement for all children in the population. This shows that the children were growing normally. There were a few children, however, who were thin, with a low BMI during adolescence. If these children can be identified at a young age, they may benefit from extra support and monitoring during their early years.
Parents naturally worry about their children, whatever age they are – and that’s difficult to change. But we’ve shown that even children who are picky as preschoolers usually eat well enough over time to ensure that they grow properly. A reassuring message for parents – and one that might even help to prevent picky eating behaviour in the first place.