With Thanksgiving on the horizon, delicious food is on everyone’s mind. For many of us, eating a large meal with friends and family is a happy occasion, and one that we (and our stomachs) often look forward to. In fact, I look forward to dinnertime almost every night. At least I did, until I had my son. These days, mealtimes aren’t quite as much fun, as they mean sitting across the table from a 2-year-old who will likely refuse everything I put in front of him. Even when he was nursing, my son was a picky eater; he was particular about when he wanted to eat, and even which breast he would take milk from. The picky eating continued when he started eating solid foods, and by the time he was a toddler, mealtimes became a constant power struggle, with me trying to get my son to eat anything, and my son doing what he could to refuse everything.
This story might sound all too familiar to you. Picky eating starts around the age 2, it peaks between 2 and 6, and it’s something that a lot of parents experience: Anywhere between 8 and 50% of parents report that their kids are picky eaters, depending on how strictly you define the word “picky.” Since picky eating habits are so common during the “terrible 2’s” and “threenanger” years, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether your child is a picky eater or whether he’s just being a kid, but there is pretty widespread agreement among researchers that picky eaters have strong food preferences, they often need to be served a different meal than the rest of the family, they reject new foods and sometimes even reject familiar ones, and because of these strict preferences, there are limitations to the number of basic food groups they are generally exposed to.
Some pickiness in a child’s eating behavior is just a normal part of growing up, and in general, it will not hurt children’s long term development. However, picky eaters can drive their parents absolutely crazy (I know from personal experience), and although there aren’t necessarily any long-term consequences of picky eating behavior, picky eaters do get less variation in their diet and they do tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables, vitamins, minerals, and fiber than other kids. But all is not lost, and there are some things you can do to either prevent picky eating habits from developing or to lessen their impact over time.
First it’s important to understand that kids develop disgust responses to most foods rather late in childhood, after the preschool years. This is good in a sense, because it allows for flexibility in what they will accept on their plate. The only danger here is that they might eat something that could potentially hurt them, as they have no problem attempting to eat potentially poisonous foods, and research has shown that preschool aged kids have no problem eating applesauce that has been sneezed in, or even drinking juice that has a dead bug floating inside.
Importantly, children learn what kinds of foods are acceptable by watching other people. In fact, watching moms demonstrate picky eating habits is related to more picky eating behaviors in children, and the types of foods parents have at home and make available to their children tend to be the types of foods that children prefer to eat. In this way, how you eat can play an important role in what your child will and won’t eat. So modeling good eating behavior is important at home. Also, having siblings or even peers around seems to help, so making eating a fun social event where your kids can learn from others’ example is a good place to start.
Second, forcing kids to eat or punishing them for not eating might make a picky eating problem even worse. Research suggests that children with eating problems oftentimes have parents who try to force their kids to eat, and strict parental control over mealtimes can lead to negative behaviors like overeating. On top of that, children who are forced to eat may not learn to use their own hunger signals to adjust their portion size, which could eventually lead to problems like obesity. Similarly, offering rewards for eating might not work either: In a study where children were either rewarded for eating a new vegetable or simply exposed to a new vegetable on multiple occasions showed that children who were not rewarded eventually ate more of the new food. It’s important to keep in mind that for toddlers and preschoolers, eating can be a power struggle, or a place where kids are looking to assert some independence in controlling their own behavior. Forcing kids to eat teaches them that eating isn’t fun, and as a result, mealtimes will become a place for anxiety and frustration for both the child and the parent.
One researcher offered particularly good advice about how to approach mealtimes that has totally changed the dynamic at my own dinner table—she pointed out that it’s a parent’s job to determine what a child is offered and when it is offered, but it’s the child’s job to determine how much food he decides to eat, if any. That means you don’t have to stress, or play the role of a short-order cook; it’s fine to just offer your child a few foods at dinnertime, some new, some familiar, and eat together in a relaxed friendly environment. If you child doesn’t eat that much in one sitting, there isn’t necessarily a reason to worry; children (especially toddlers) have small stomachs and it’s not unusual for them to eat small amounts of food at any one time. And don’t take offense if they don’t like that new meatloaf recipe right away either: Research suggests that for children to accept a new food, they often have to try it between 10 or even 20 times before they decide they like it. The incidence of picky eating behaviors decreases dramatically over time, so although dealing with a picky eater is often painful, it is usually something most kids will eventually grow out of, and one day your kids will probably be dreaming about that Thanksgiving turkey and sweet potato pie just as much as you are.