Picky Eaters

Picky Eaters

Many children go through phases of food preferences.  They want to eat the same food as often as possible, even at every meal, and completely refuse other foods.

Studies show that up to 50% of children become picky eaters for a while, peaking at about 2 years old.

For a smaller group of children, eating does not become easier, and they do not become open to more foods.  This group includes children up to 11 years of age and older.  For up to 40% of these children, the problem lasts 2 years or more, and isn’t as simple as a phase.

Scientific American recently reported on a study which was done to help understand why some children have more problems with eating than others.  Four types of picky eaters were identified:

Four Types of Finicky Eaters

  1. Sensory-dependent eaters reject a food because of its texture or smell (“Yuck, slimy!”).
  2. Preferential eaters shun new or mixed foods.
  3. General perfectionists have specific needs, such as foods not touching one another.
  4. Behavioral responders may cring or gag when right is not “right” (“Ham and cheese should be on white bread, not brown!”) or may refuse to come to the table before they even know what’s for dinner.

170 children age 2-4 years old were given the same diet for two weeks, and parents recorded a number of responses from their children, which were used to develop these four groups.  In general, about half the children ate comfortably, without difficulty, and ate larger volumes of food than the other half of the children.

This second half showed significant problems with eating, including:

  • refusing to come to the table
  • suspicion of foods
  • gagging

A small number of children in the second group showed resistance not related to foods, such as refusing to come to the table or eat because of being upset that they have to stop playing.

It is important to note that these studies did not include children with some specific causes of eating problem, such as cerebral palsy, cleft palate, hypotonia or celiac disease.  These create feeding problems which are more complex and require specific supports not reviewed here.

How can I help my child?

You need to see your family doctor or nurse practitioner if your child is a picky eater and:

  • is underweight or
  • has any other developmental delays

If your child is a picky eater but is still gaining weight and developing on time, you can first try some of the ten suggestions developed by dietians from Eat Right Ontario, summarized in this link.

– Dr G Paul Dempsey

Image credit: David Goehring


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