It’s quite common for parents to describe their children as picky or choosy about what they eat. In fact, a study of eating behavior in young children found that up to 50% of parents consider their children to be picky eaters (Figure 1). Another study found that picky eating persisted in some children through 9 years of age.1
Picky eating can persist throughout the childhood years
Although picky-eating behaviors can be short-lived in some children, for others it remains an ongoing problem. In one study, 21% of children aged 4 and 5 years were identified as picky eaters by their parents. Another study found that picky eating persisted in some children through 9 years of age.
Typical behaviors of picky eaters include
- Eating very little
- Accepting only a few types of foods
- Eating few fruits and vegetables
- Refusing to try new foods
- Disrupting or prolonging mealtimes
Picky eating may increase the risk of nutritional gaps in your child's diet
- Picky eaters may consume less protein and energy than non-picky eaters
- Picky eaters have also been shown to have a reduced intake of some vitamins and minerals compared with non-picky eaters
Potential risks for persistent picky eaters
- Differences in dietary intake
- Lower intake of fruits, vegetables, and fiber
- Lower intake of some micronutrients
- Impaired growth
- Lower cognitive development
Tips for dealing with your child's picky eating
Mealtimes should be relaxed and fun both for you and your family. This helps ensure that your little one not only gets the nutrition she needs, but also brings you closer as a family.
- Step by step: Introduce only one new food at a time instead of serving a completely new meal. For example, if you want your child to eat unfamiliar or new food, try to introduce it with something familiar.
- Small to big: Serve small portion sizes when introducing new foods. Gradually move on to bigger portions.
- Be positive: Some children have negative associations with some foods. Try to alter the form and texture of that food to change the association into more positive ones. For instance, some foods remind children of 'hospital food' or 'hotel food' and they refuse to eat them.
- Make meals healthier: Try to improve the nutritive value of the food that your child enjoys. For instance, if your child likes pasta or pizza, try whole-wheat varieties and add vegetables. You may also add a slice of tomato or cheese to sandwiches, fruit to cereal or vegetables to pasta to increase the nutrient density of foods.
- Do not bribe: Resist giving your child sweets and fried foods to encourage him to eat. You may be doing more harm than good.
- Make mealtimes relaxed and fun: Avoid watching TV and other distractions that may lead to overeating or losing interest in food. Talk to your child about the day and share your own experiences so that your child looks forward to mealtimes.
- Encourage children as they grow: Encourage self-respect and self-acceptance. Never criticize a child's body type.
- Involve your child: Involve the child in buying food by taking him to the supermarket or letting him choose the menu for 1 day a week. This not only teaches decision-making, but also increases involvement in the preparation of meals. Let your child set the table or help you clear it.
- Make a schedule: Serve meals at consistent intervals and times. Discourage eating at unscheduled times; work with your child to establish the mealtime schedule.
- Set a good example: Eat healthy foods with enthusiasm. Never talk about disliking healthy foods when your child is present.
- Educate your child: Look for opportunities to teach your child the benefits of healthy eating and an active lifestyle.
- Keep a watchful eye and stay calm: If you notice your child is preoccupied with being 'thin', introduce discussion of the hazards of eating disorders. If the problem persists, see a doctor.
Healthy snacking is a good way to maintain interest in food, and at the same time provide good nutrition to your child between mealtimes. Good snacks for children include:
- Sandwiches with a variety of fillings
- Pasta or noodle dishes with interesting colors and shapes
- Sweet fruit yoghurts
- Popsicles made of fruit yoghurts and milk shakes
- Fruit juices
- Soups with vegetables
- Healthy fried rice with vegetables and lean meat
But remember, snacks are not a replacement to main meals!
How to know when your child is at risk
Talk to your child’s doctor about picky eating behaviors. This is especially important if your child:
- Loses or fails to gain weight
- Appears to be growing more slowly than normal
- Seems tired or lacks energy
- Has frequent illness or infections
If you need to understand more on picky eating/feeding difficulties, please go to www.pickyeating.com.sg
1Carruth, BR, Ziegler PJ, Gordon A, Barr SI. Prevalence of picky eaters among infants and toddlers and their caregivers' decisions about offering a new food. J Am Dietetic Assoc. 2004;104:S57-S64.