Children 0–2 years

“Picky” eating affects all age groups

Picky eating, food aversions or fads can affect people of all ages and can be a major source of frustration for those trying to prepare meals.

Picky eating is common in childhood and a part of normal development however often food fads continue into adolescence and later life. The caregiver may be left concerned about what to do, and may fear that if a fuss is made the problem will get worse or if left unattended will be harder to fix.

Common scenarios

  • The toddler who pushes away the plate of food with a definite “No”
  • The wife of the elderly man notices he is pushing food round his plate, eating less and losing weight
  • The teenager who used to love family barbeques suddenly hates meat
  • The teenager who refuses meat and vegetables, eats junk food and complains about putting on weight. Mum may fear that if she comments about the lifestyle or weight gain her daughter may “go the other way and become anorexic”.

What can you do?

Knowing when to intervene or even comment about another persons eating habits can be difficult.

Coping with “picky” toddlers

Studies confirm that parents do have the skills and can do much to improve the “picky eating” problem. One study of 74 mothers and their toddlers over a two to three-year period confirmed that picky eaters often:

  • Accepted a limited number of food choices
  • Were unwilling to try new foods
  • Totally avoided some food groups (commonly vegetables)
  • Exhibited strong food preferences (including style of food presentation)
  • These toddlers scored worse than other children in terms of the variety and diversity of food consumed
  • The ‘picky eating’ phenomenon is independent of social status affecting children from both high and low socio-economic groups
  • While their overall nutrient intake was not significantly different from non-picky eaters, picky eaters consumed eleven out of fourteen nutrients at lower levels. The differences in iron and calcium intakes were quite significant (this becomes more important to a child’s health as they grow).
  • There was no significant difference in height and weight between picky eaters and their peers (which will be of great relief to parents who may worry about this)

Toddlers can be helped to accept a wide variety of foods if:

  • New foods are introduced on a multiple-exposure basis (10 is recommended)
  • Cajoling with food rewards is avoided
  • Verbal praise is increased
  • A pleasant social eating environment is created
  • Good parental examples regarding likes and dislikes are maintained

Helping older People with food fads

Beyond the realms of childhood most people have some foods that they dislike. Provided that they manage to eat foods from each of the following main food groups, this is not a problem:

  • Bread, cereals, grains
  • Fruit and vegetables
  • Lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, legumes
  • Milk and dairy products or milk alternatives such as goat, soy, rice milk etc.

In addition it is important to have regular exercise and plenty of fluids (around two litres per day in total).

Problems arise when whole food groups are removed, such as when a teenager drops meat out of his or her diet without replacing the iron and protein found in the meat with legumes, egg, nuts or seeds.

Elderly people can be guilty of doing this too especially if they have ill-fitting dentures or are unwell and find it easier to have a jam sandwich for tea than a meal of meat and vegetables.

Possible Causes

Picky eating can often follow mental and emotional upset or the disruption to normal routines such as:

  • bouts of illness
  • states of depression or anxiety
  • the loss of a loved one through death or separation
  • lifestyle changes such as moving house
  • overseas travel
  • a new school or job
  • a new sport or exercise programme

Picky eating, skipping meals regularly or narrowing the variety of food intake over a period of time can compromise mental and physical well-being.

When to take action

If you are unsure when to take action the following tips may help you to recognise a problem:

  • If there is a noticeable weight loss or gain
  • Excessive concern about weight, shape or size
  • Visiting the toilet soon after meals
  • Mood swings, depression and anxiety
  • Classifying of foods as “good” or “bad”
  • Strict dieting followed by binge eating
  • Avoiding social situations where food is served
  • Omission of whole food groups without replacement
  • Excessive fatigue, sleepiness, lack of energy

Obviously many of these signs may also occur quite normally without association to eating disorders or ill-health. For peace of mind consult your doctor or contact us for an appointment and nutritional assessment.

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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