Picky eaters are not created equal. One parent may describe their child as ‘picky’ because they turn their nose up at zucchini and cabbage. Another parent may use the same phrase, but is talking about a child who is hugely anxious at mealtimes and can only eat two kinds of crackers and the same brand and flavour of yoghurt. In other words, childhood feeding problems exist on a spectrum, with severe problems at one end of the scale and totally normal eating patterns at the other. At the extreme end of things, a child may be diagnosed with Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID). At the mild end, they may just be a toddler who is not crazy about green stuff.
This diverse range of eating issues described as ‘picky eating’ makes it very hard to give one simple answer to the question about whether you should worry about your picky eater’s nutritional intake. First of all, let’s think about what nutrients children may be low, whether children are picky eaters or not. In the United Kingdom, National dietary surveys tell us that all children are at risk of not getting enough omega-3 (fatty acids found, for example, in oily fish) fibre, and vitamin D. In fact, in the UK, vitamin D supplements are recommended for breast-fed babies and everyone over the age of one. We get fibre from foods like fruit, whole-grains and vegetables – often low in picky eaters diets.
It makes sense to try and optimise nutrition for all children, but are picky eaters at extra risk? Not according to research, although zinc and iron levels may be lower than for non-picky eaters. And what about weight? Again, research tells us that picky eaters are not in fact at greater risk of being underweight.
This is a mixed picture. While it’s useful to think about serving foods we know are nutritionally dense, if we get too stressed about vitamins, minerals and calories, the mealtime pressure this can give rise to may end up actually making picky eating worse. And just because your child is picky, that doesn’t mean that they are not thriving. A good starting point is to consider just how limited your child’s diet is.
If they are missing out on entire food groups, have issues with chewing or swallowing, or accept 15 foods or less, it is a good idea to consult a peadiatric feeding specialist so that their feeding and nutritional status can be professionally assessed. It may be that specific supplements or a multi-vitamin are a great option for them. Overall though, we recommend a focus on relaxed, stress-free mealtimes. When you get too concerned with nutrition – especially if your child just isn’t ready to eat veggies, oily fish, wholegrains and the like – it is easy to slip into negative approaches to feeding your child that will actually make things worse. We teach Your Feeding Team subscribers a responsive approach to tackling picky eating. If you are interested in our philosophy, you will love this article where we share our top tips for parents of picky eaters.