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Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Founder and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Barbara Howard, MD

Is Picky Eating a Problem?

Is picky eating a problem? Well, yes and no. We have all had parents come to us with concerns about their child’s picky eating. At this point in history, we may feel grateful not to be facing another of the myriad of our child patients who are seriously overweight. So, should we just tell parents to not worry about it?

About 18% of young children are picky eaters; 7% of older children, even adolescents, are still picky eaters. The lack of variety eaten can limit growth and nutrition — in particular iron, and vitamins A and C — and limit them socially at older ages because people think they’re weird because they don’t eat typical foods. The crying, tantrums, gagging, even vomiting at the sight of certain foods that may be part of picky eating is hard on families and may make them all less welcome as guests/friends. We know that if eating issues are not addressed early, they tend to persist. For example, the fruit variety eaten is actually higher at 27 months than it is at 60 months without intervention. The fruit variety eaten at 2 years of age actually predicts what the child will eat when they’re 6-8 years old. About 40% of irregular eaters at age 5 are still irregular eaters at age 14.

Practical Advice for Dealing With Picky Eating

There are some things you may not know about this common condition that could change your approach. Infants in the first year of life will naturally turn away from the bottle or breast when sated. But babies need to learn to eat solids, and it is actually stressful. Pushing food out is their first response. If progressively more textured foods are not provided between 6 and 10 months of age, the baby may struggle with accepting solids subsequently. Babies around 8 months want to grab everything, including the spoon, and want to feed themselves. If parents push the spoon and thwart participation, refusal to be fed — the so-called Battle of the Spoon, the most common reason for stalled weight gain at this age — may ensue. Instead, caregivers need to give the baby his/her own spoon to hold, and allow finger feeding, no matter how messy! The parent’s job is to provide healthy food in reasonable amounts, and the child’s job is to eat what they want of it.

But, often suddenly, typically around 21 months, children may become picky. What happened? This is an age of perceiving differences and developing a strong sense of autonomy. Foods recently eaten without protest may now be dramatically rejected. Whole food categories or textures (think slimy) may be refused, especially vegetables and meat. Food cut in their preferred shape, their favorite brand, or delivered in the same cup may be demanded with alternatives refused. Foods that touch together on the plate or are covered with sauce may cause a tantrum. Some of this pickiness may reflect sensitive or intense temperament. Some food preferences are cultural (borscht?), or familial (no fruit), but others are nearly universal because of the heightened sensitivity of taste at this age (spinach, for example, as it contains oxalic acid).

Young children refusing foods can have their autonomy honored by providing only healthy foods on a low table to eat as they please without commentary, but continue seating them with family for meals, allowing exit (no return) from that meal if they choose. The desire to be social and removal of pressure results in eating regular meals within a week in most cases.

Any of these new reactions may persist for years. In most cases, picky eaters get adequate nutrition and grow fine without any intervention. Removing the power struggle or parental discord is generally more important than getting the child to accept a few more foods. Keep in mind that children may have picky eating because mealtime interactions are aversive or in order to get attention or a special menu — both reinforcers to avoid.

But there are some ways food selectivity can be reduced. Modeling eating a variety of foods can make a difference but is best done without comment (seen as pressure). Seeing heroes or peers eat the food that might otherwise be undesired by a picky eater (recall Popeye, who ate his spinach), is based on this. Having a peer come over who will eat that specific food (Mikey likes it!) can be very helpful.

There are other practices that can improve picky eating and are good general feeding advice. Maintaining three meals and three snacks, always at the table with adult company, can reduce grazing on perhaps tasty and filling foods or drinks (milk being the worst) that replace the drive for eating less desired foods once seated. Providing the child a multivitamin can help parents avoid showing panic or pressure when working to increase food variety. All the foods prepared for the family should be put on the plate to increase exposure, along with at least one item the child is known to eat. Family meals have many benefits (eg, language development), and it has been shown that children who sit at a meal for 20-30 minutes eat significantly more undesired fruits and vegetables than those seated for less time. Boredom helps with exploration!

Sometimes a new brand or new way of preparing a food that they currently won’t eat, or sprinkling a new food on a currently accepted food (eg, chocolate on a fruit) will encourage eating it. Adding a food similar to one they are already eating may help.

It is wise to avoid supplements, however. While nutritionally sound and supportive of growth, supplements are usually calorie dense, and they remove the drive to eat at meals, as well as not providing the variety of components needed to reduce selectivity.

Advice for Severe Cases

If picky eating is severe or growth is impaired, and the eating pattern does not respond to these adjustments and parent counseling, more may be needed. One of the main things known to increase the variety eaten is repeated tasting. Looks are not enough. A proven method includes giving praise and sticker rewards for eating a little piece of the same undesired vegetable/food presented to them each day for at least 14 days in a row. This method may expand the range of foods eaten as well as the range of those liked. Even a microscopic amount, the size of a grain of rice of an undesired food, if ingested regularly and repeatedly, will increase acceptance!

A feeding program for serious problems with food selectivity at Penn State has the child given A) a pea-sized amount of an undesired food and B) a bite-sized amount of an accepted food. The child is required to eat A in order to get B, plus a small drink. This is done repeatedly for about 10 minutes. If the child does not eat anything, they don’t get anything more until the next meal. An alternative to this is insisting on one bite per meal or one bite per day of an undesired food. One can also mix in, in increasing amounts, an undesired liquid into a desired liquid. While families travel far for this special program when selectivity is extreme, the “praise and sticker” method has been shown effective done at home.

In extreme cases of food selectivity or refusal, we need to consider medical problems as a potential cause, especially if choking, gagging, or vomiting occur or if there is poor weight gain or complications such as rash, abdominal pain, or diarrhea. An episode of food poisoning or an allergic reaction (anaphylaxis can present as diarrhea) can trigger onset of a lifelong aversion to that food. Omitting foods that have sickened a person is reasonable. Gastroesophageal reflux and eosinophilic esophagitis, oral-motor incoordination and choking, dental caries, tracheo-esophageal fistulas with aspiration, constipation, sensory issues, and sometimes lactose intolerance all may cause food refusal through the conditioned responses to the discomfort. Children with autism often have a combination of these factors producing severe food selectivity for which the above methods can be helpful.

Parents everywhere take feeding their children as one of their highest priorities. Along with empathy for their concern, understanding potential contributing factors and some practical prevention and intervention steps for picky eating can help you partner on what can be a long journey. On a positive note, you can reassure parents that studies also show that picky eaters are less likely to go on to be overweight!

Pediatric News, Publish date: April 17, 2024

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