I have deep sympathy for parents struggling with picky eaters, especially at food-centered gatherings. The coming holidays can particularly taxing, as parents worry that family and friends will be judging them for producing a non-eater, and on top of that, for how they’re dealing with the situation.
Quick coping tip: Most people are busy with their own plate, their own thoughts and conversations, and wouldn’t notice if little Jonny eats his green beans at the Thanksgiving meal – unless you point it out and fuss over it yourself.
And just one more comforting bit of fact-based assurance: Much if this food avoidance is genetic, and well beyond what parents did or didn’t do! Have you noticed how many of the siblings of picky eaters are adventurous and not picky at all? A recent study of 1,932 sets of twins, 626 of whom were identical, measured food fussiness by a 35-item questionnaire. If pickiness were a totally environmental – learned at home – behavior, you’d expect the fraternal and identical twins to have the same level of pickiness. But that’s not what the researchers found. There was a higher correlation of food fussiness between the identical twins.
Having said that, there's lots you can do make the situation better – and things you should avoid so it doesn’t get worse.
Is my picky eater going to starve?
Which brings me to a new study that followed picky eaters from age 3 years to age 7.5. The study, like many before it, found that picky eaters do get enough calories, and enough protein and fat from their limited choices – they might be eating a little less than their non-discriminating peers, but they’re getting plenty.
What they don’t eat enough of is fruits and vegetables, so that when the researchers looked at what’s missing as far as nutrients, carotene, iron and zinc were at the low end.
What they eat too much of is added sugar.
While all kids tend to exceed the recommended daily sugar allowance, picky eaters exceed it by a lot.
The authors, led by Caroline Taylor conclude:
“Emphasis should be placed on allaying parental concerns about their picky children being prone to inadequate nutrient intakes and on encouraging all parents to gradually extend the diets of their children to include more nutrient-rich items from the compromised food groups, especially fruits and vegetables, and less of the nutrient-poor sugary foods.”
A few bits of advice for the holidays:
Eat well and enjoy yourself: Modeling healthy eating is the most effective way to get your kids to eat well
Don’t try too hard: Avoid power struggles, please don’t force or pressure kids to eat. It just doesn’t work. Instead, try serving that food you want your kid to eat again at another time – after the holiday meal
Don’t give in to sweets and junk food: Parents of fussy eaters worry so much about their kids becoming malnourished that they’re sometimes happy to have the child eat practically anything. Remember, picky eaters don’t starve; their challenge is that they eat poorly, and offering sweets instead of real food only makes it worse. Instead, make fresh healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables available and accessible
Remember, this too shall pass: Fussy eaters do outgrow it.
Wishing you happy, and stress free holidays,