What happens when picky eaters become teenagers?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

If you've ever despaired over the fact that your toddler won't eat anything but chicken nuggets and plain rice then you're not alone - the struggle is real. But does such a restrictive diet in those early years have any long-term impacts? Well, the answer is yes - and no, depending on just how fussy your little one is.

A new study, published in the journal Nutrients found that while overall nutrient differences between groups of children, some of whom had been picky eaters, were small and unlikely to have any physiological relevance, there were some other differences. Children who were "persistent" picky eaters had pronounced differences in food intake at age 13 including lower protein and higher sugar.

Researchers from the University of Bristol looked at records from the Children of the 90s study, a long-term research project that enrolled more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992. The team examined food questionnaires and records to determine if those identified as picky eaters when they were three, had differences in their diet at age 10 and thirteen, compared to those who weren't picky eaters.

"Studies of picky eaters are usually of cross-sectional design and so have not been able to explore the long-term effects on dietary intakes," the authors wrote of their research, adding that it was the first study to look at the diet of picky eaters at two time points and compare it to information at age thirteen.

"We know that picky eating is a common behaviour in three year olds and is usually resolved by the time children start school. However, very little is known about the diet of picky eaters as they develop into teenagers," said lead author Caroline Taylor.

So what was the outcome?

"While we found that there were some differences in nutrition at the ages of 10 and 13, they were not large and are unlikely to have adverse effects on general health and development," Professor Taylor said. "However, there was a low intake of fruit and vegetables in the diets of the majority of children even those who were not picky."

According to Professor Taylor, there's a need for more support for parents to help their child widen their food choices as toddlers so it continues through to the teenage years. "There should be strategies developed for use in pre-school years to support parents. As well as the development of tools to help identify children who are likely to become fixed in their picky eating behaviour so that extra support can be given."

She and her colleagues suggest the following strategies to help overcome picky eating before it becomes persistent:

  • Provide repeated exposure of food
  • Have realistic expectations of portion sizes
  • Take a positive approach
  • Don't provide snacks between meals or let your child drink excessively
  • Provide social food experiences and consistency

It comes as the findings from another study published this week encouraged parents to use child-centred nutrition phrases to get their kids making healthier food choices. The research, published in Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour found that using affirmative phrases such as "eat your lentils if you want to grow bigger and run faster" was more effective at getting kids to eat healthy foods than presenting the food repeatedly without any conversation.

"Every child wants to be bigger, faster, able to jump higher," said Associate Professor and lead study author Jane Lanigan. "Using these types of examples made the food more attractive to eat."