New research suggests battling your picky eater may be a fruitless fight for parents.
University of Michigan researchers analyzed toddlers over the course of a year and found their weight was stable on the growth chart whether they were picky eaters or not. Picky eating was also constant, regardless of how much parents pressured their children to eat.
We went to registered dietitian Emily Mardell for her take on the research and advice to parents navigating meals with selective eaters.
Laurel Gregory: What were your initial thoughts when you saw the study’s findings? Did it mirror what you see in your practice?
Emily Mardell: For sure. Definitely the study findings echo what is the collective body of research. If we look at when parents micromanage if and how much their children eat, often times that really negatively impacts their relationship with food.
LG: Do you also find picky eating doesn’t impact children’s weight?
EM: Well, it depends. Sometimes if we are really pressuring a child to eat more, they often eat less. Or if we are encouraging them to eat less, sometimes they eat more.
Really, anytime we are doing something that is disregulating a child or causing them to mistrust their own sense of hunger or fullness, that can have a definite impact on growth, whether that is overgrowth or undernutrition and undergrowth.
LG: So how can we navigate this?
EM: I think if you are doing something, whether that is rewarding, bribing, distracting, coercing short-order cooking to try to get your child to eat more or less, that’s a really good sign that that might be pressure. So I think looking in your own home environment, trying to pinpoint those pressure points that are unique to your family and finding strategies that are going to help you reduce that pressure. Because in my clinic, I see that when parents can successfully do that, their child starts to eat better.
LG: Can you describe some of those pressure points?
EM: Pressure can be hard to detect. It can sound like good parenting. More often than not, it would be something like, “Three more bites or no dessert.” It could even be positive pressure and I have to watch this as a dietitian myself.
It could sound like, “Good for you! You ate all your broccoli. That’s so good for you!” That sounds like good parenting but it’s actually teaching a child that they’re eating to please you. Their food relationship should be between them and the food.
LG: You look at it with the long game in mind versus the daily dinner battles.
EM: One of my mentors, Ellyn Satter, she says when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers. So if we are battling, if we are having mealtime mayhem, if I see my child upset to be at the dinner table, then I know I need to take a step back because I need to create an environment for success. So sometimes that means creating other ways where they can be successful. We have a rule in our house called, “sit to visit.” So if my six-year-old sits at the table and says, “I’m not eating this,” I always have one thing on the table that’s familiar. It could be buttered bread or a piece of fruit. And she knows that if she doesn’t want to eat supper she has to sit to visit for five minutes. So it takes the pressure off right away. Sometimes she settles in, I can see she kind of relaxes. Sometimes she approaches the meal and eats and other times she just shares. But she knows that dinner time is family time and if she dials in and just talks, she can feel like she’s done something to be part of that meal for the day.
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LG: What do you say to parents who would respond, “Well, then she will just eat the fruit.”
EM: I think it’s important to think of the long game. That might be one meal and one snack but if we look over the collective of a longer period of time, kids do eat more variety.
The key principle for getting a child to have more variety in their diet — and where there is variety there is nutrition — is role-modelling. So if you are able to role model eating that salad or eating that vegetable (that green veggie!), they’re going to become green veggie eaters as well.
There are times where you might be worried if children only eat dessert or only eat a certain food, but really, if I’m in charge of the menu, if I’m that concerned about dessert, maybe I just need to reduce how frequently I’m offering dessert.
LG: In general, is picky eating related to food or is it a behaviour?
EM: I think sometimes we give too much attention to what we would call picky eating. Sometimes it’s just normal developmental behaviour. I think it’s important we identify food jags are normal. It’s normal for children to be meal-phobic or scared of new foods, so really, it’s our job as parents to almost treat a food relationship or building a food relationship like riding a bike.
If your child attempts a two-wheeler for the first time and they fall down, you don’t say, “I don’t think bikes are for you.” You know, it’s the same sort of thing with trying peas for the first time. If they don’t like them, you wouldn’t say, ‘You’re picky and you don’t like peas,” and then not serve peas to them the next time.
You’re going to create an environment where they are going to be able to try them in a different way. My son absolutely did not like peas the first time he had them but as a teething food loved frozen peas. So if you play with the time, texture temperature of things, sometimes they surprise you.
LG: Is there a certain age where you see kids growing out of this?
EM: I see when children have an opportunity to be around their peers different food environments, whether it’s school, daycare, field trips, whatever it might be, they tend to be a little bit more adventurous and have those brave bites because — again — the power of role-modelling, but it’s through peers. You can see it that way. Often times too, when kids have more of an ability to self-feed. So if you have a child who is 18 months old, who is just kind of navigating how to pick up things, how to use a spoon, a fork — that’s about building their self-esteem around food. Then, when they are two and a half… they’re completely adept at feeding themselves. If we empower them to do that, they tend to want to eat more.
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