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You Asked: Why is my child a picky eater?

Baby eating solid food

Rare is the child who becomes excited at the sight of broccoli on their plate. No parent wants to fight a battle at the dinner table, but for many families, enticing children to eat a healthy meal is a daily struggle. So, is picky eating a normal part of growing up? Or does it hint at deeper problems?

“Taste acquisition is developmental,” said Lisako McKyer, Ph.D., M.P.H, and assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health who has training in pediatric psychology and specializes in child health. “Kids will often grow into liking different foods and flavors. ”

Science shows children react to different stimuli than adults, and dislike of certain flavors is actually in our genetics. “Kids respond to different stimuli that adults aren’t even aware of,” McKyer said. “A kid’s aversion to certain flavors is part of our genetic code. Pathogens make food taste strange and a baby’s palate will recognize this. It’s nature’s way of protecting our children.”

McKyer said a good example of this is watching a baby’s reaction to sour fruit. “Many people laugh at a baby’s distasteful reaction to the sour flavor of a lemon. A baby intrinsically knows that a sour flavor means a fruit is probably not ripe or safe for them to eat,” she said.

Infants are normally introduced to solid food around six months of age, and McKyer emphasized many future food struggles could be solved by introducing vegetables before fruits. “We need to start kids to prefer healthy foods earlier,” she said. “When introducing solid foods to infants – after they’ve become accustomed to cereals – introduce vegetables and have that habit established before moving on to sweeter foods. The taste for sweets develops quickly, so if we get children to like vegetables first then half the battle is won.”

With toddlers, making lunchtime entertaining may solve many picky eating problems. “Kids love bright colors. Parents should begin offering them vibrant fruits and vegetables to pique their interest. Mealtime for children should be a social and fun time for family interaction, rather than a chore,” McKyer said.

According to McKyer, one reason some children do not outgrow picky eating may be because parents capitulate to a child’s whims at the dinner table. “I believe that many kids labeled as picky eaters are selective because the parents aren’t persistent,” she said. “The majority of parents will only try two to three times when introducing a certain food and then give up. This doesn’t teach the child to try new things.”

McKyer said a good rule of thumb is to put something in front of your child at least seven times before giving up, allow the child to see the parent eating the new food first, and to never try new foods when kids are cranky or tired. “What parents should remember is you shouldn’t expect your child to love all healthy foods. If your kids have seven to eight vegetables they enjoy eating, then they’re doing very well,” she said.

Selective eating can become worrisome – especially when a child’s habits become so severe that they impact their social life. A new study suggested picky eating could be an indicator of future health issues, and children who are severely selective eaters are likelier to develop anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD).

While there may be a relationship between picky eating and the development of these disorders, the causes are not as clear. “Some children could be severely selective eaters because they do have an underlying psychological disorder like depression or ADHD – but the disorder hasn’t manifested yet,” McKyer said. “The picky eating then becomes a symptom of an undiagnosed condition.”

McKyer noted parents should continue to pay attention to their child’s eating habits and have their child assessed by a health care provider if their behaviors result in nutritional deficiencies. “It’s always important to speak with your physician if picky eating becomes a problem that impacts your child’s social life and physical well-being,” she said.

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