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Toddler

Picky Eating: Passing Phase or Parenting Problem?

Jill Castle, MS, RDN
January 3, 2019 . 3 min read

Do you have a picky eater? A child who has a limited variety of food intake because he or she rejects unfamiliar foods? It’s not uncommon for children to go through a “picky phase,” but researchers aren’t clear about exactly how many children experience this common phenomenon.

Picky eating typically begins during toddlerhood, between ages 2 and 6, which also happens to be a time when physical growth slows down. Because growth and appetite are closely tied, the toddler’s appetite naturally declines as growth slows.

Picky eating often overlaps with normal emotional developmental milestones. Many toddlers are just beginning to assert their independence around this age, and food refusal can be another form of inserting independence. Picky eating can also be a way to assert power.

Many toddlers also go through a phase of neophobia (fear of new food). Researchers do not fully understand why this happens.

If you’re worried about malnutrition, it might be helpful to know that many toddlers meet their nutritional requirements in the first half or two-thirds of the day, especially if they are fed with structured meals and snacks. Often, dinner is the time when toddlers are most tired and least needy of nutrients. Some toddlers may eat only one good meal a day and pick at food the remainder of the day. What your toddler eats over the course of a week (21 meals and multiple snacks) is a better indicator of overall nutritional intake.

You should make sure you keep offering appealing and tasty vegetables! Repeated exposure to food is the most studied avenue for addressing picky eating. Young children can require several introductions (up to 15 or more!) before they accept and eat certain foods. However, a 2012 Journal of Nutrition and Dietetics study of preschoolers in school showed that repeated exposure did not increase vegetable consumption. Children were more likely to eat vegetables when they saw their friends eating them. This study highlights the importance of role modeling, peer-to-peer influence, and a need for more research in this area. Nutrient-wise, fruit is a good stand-in for vegetables, so you don’t need to fret about vitamins and minerals.

Letting your child serve himself, staying on a structured meal pattern during the day, and responding to your child\’s appetite are just a few ways to keep the feeding dynamic positive.

Unfortunately, some parents make picky eating worse with practices such as pushing more bites or pleading with a toddler to try something new. These practices, though well intentioned, tend to backfire with toddlers, making picky eating worse.

Sources:

  • Savage JS, Fisher JO and Birch LL
  • Parental influence on eating behavior: conception to adolescence
  • J Med Ethics
  • 2007; 35 (1): 22-34.
    O’Connell ML, Henderson KE, Luedicke J,  Schwartz MB
  • Repeated exposure in a natural setting: A Preschool intervention to increase vegetable consumption
  • J Acad Nutr Diet
  • 2012; 112: 230-234.
    Castle J
  • and Jacobsen M
  • Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School
  • Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA, 2013.

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