If you’ve ever spoken with a parent of a young child, they have probably regaled you with stories about their child’s picky eating. Picky eating is often stressful for parents because we want our children to eat a balanced diet. As a parent, it can be frustrating when your child only seems to want to eat foods like chicken nuggets, hotdogs, and sweets. Popular culture reassurance that children will outgrow picky eating (“Don’t worry, it’s just a phase”) abounds. However, research supporting this maxim has been scarce. Do children really outgrow picky eating?
To answer this question, my team from the University of Michigan followed a cohort of 300 lower-income children over a five-year period from ages four to nine. We asked their mothers to rate their child’s picky eating. We then generated trajectories of picky eating and child growth over five years.
The children in our study followed three persistent picky-eating trajectories: high, medium, and low. Children’s eating habits stayed stable throughout the study. In other words, we found trajectories of children outgrowing their pickiness. For example, children who were high picky eaters at age four remained high picky eaters at age nine.
In terms of child weight over time, our study found that high and medium picky eaters were more likely to have body mass indices in the healthy or normal range. Furthermore, no children in the high and medium picky eating groups were underweight. Picky eating may incur an advantage for some: a lower risk of childhood obesity. Children who were low picky eaters, meaning they were more open to eating different and larger amounts of food, were more likely to have an overweight or obese weight status.
While no one would recommend allowing children to only eat junk food, the results of our study suggest that parents may not have to fight every dinner-table battle.
Perhaps there is a silver lining to picky eating in childhood. Pickier children may naturally be more attuned to their own hunger and satiety cues, which in turn may foster better regulation of caloric intake and healthy weight gain. Learning mindful eating skills (paying attention to hunger and satiety cues) are the focus of many adult weight management programs. Could it be that adults now struggling with our own weight are trying to re-learn some of those picky eating behaviors of our childhood?
Eating a wider variety of foods has been associated with a higher risk of obesity. This raises the question as to whether and how parents of picky eaters should encourage their children to increase their food variety and intake. Many experts agree that pressuring a child to “clean your plate” or “finish your peas before you can have dessert” may backfire in the long run since they may increase a child’s negative reactions to those foods. For parents who still want to fight the fight, strategies such as role modeling eating vegetables and involving their children in food preparation — activities that foster positive reactions to eating new foods — may be healthier in the long run. But our findings suggest that battle-weary parents can accept their child’s preference for fish sticks over broccoli with a little less guilt.
Parenting a picky eater can be challenging. While no one would recommend allowing children to only eat junk food, the results of our study suggest that parents may not have to fight every dinner-table battle.