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By the time your picky-eater toddler reaches his or her early teenage years, chances are they'll turn out to be fairly typical eaters, according to new research published in the journal Nutrients.
Putting out an APB to parents worldwide: we can now breathe a collective sigh of relief! (And move on to worrying about something else we're doing that's messing up our kids.)
It's true that picky eaters typically fall short on key nutrients. Think: protein, fiber, iron, zinc and carotene. But, until now, most of the most of the research around picky eaters has really only focused on what preschool-age children eat. This new study, out of the U.K., is one of the first, if not the first, to look at how picky eating plays out when kids near the end of their elementary school education and transition into their teenage years.
When kids who were picky eaters during the toddler years were reassessed at 10 years old, they still fell short on most of the same nutrients, except for iron. But around the time they celebrated their 13thbirthdays, they had caught up on all of those crucial nutrients except for zinc. But—and there's a big but here—a percentage of all children in all of the age groups assessed, regardless of pickiness, fell short on zinc.
So, yes, dial back the anxiety a notch or two because your child is, first, likely to catch up nutritionally and, second, also likely to come up short on a nutrient that most other children in their grade or soccer team or ballet class, regardless of diet diversity, needs more of.
But do take note of one particularly interesting finding: In the study, kids in all of the picky-eater groups ate more added sugars on average than children deemed "never" picky. And intakes of some sweet foods—particularly chocolate—were higher in picky eaters of all ages compared to their nonpicky counterparts.
"When a child is picky, it's natural to take the path of least resistance and give in to what you know they'll eat. And often what kids want are hyperprocessed, super-palatable foods with more added sugars (because they're tasty!)," says Jenna Helwig, food director at Parents and the author of Baby-Led Feeding. "And for busy parents—already stressed out by their kid's picky eating habits—getting their kid to eat anything (even a sugary cereal, say) can seem like a victory."
That said, don't overthink it too much. Yes, one of the challenges with offering advice for picky eating is that picky eaters tend to be picky about different things! But, "Pasta is often a universally loved food," says Helwig, "and it's actually pretty healthy! One serving of regular white pasta has 7 grams of protein and is an excellent source of B vitamins. Plus, it has 10% of the Daily Value of iron." Then there are bean-based pastas like Banza, which contain even more protein and iron. If that's a no-go for the little dictator you're feeding, try adding just a little to your child's serving of pasta to start and gradually increase the proportion as your child becomes accustomed to it.
Overall, though, if you're eager to get your kids to improve the healthfulness and diversity of their diet, know this: putting more pressure on them very rarely works, says Helwig.
Pictured recipe: Healthy Oven-Fried Pork Chops
It's our job as parents to establish the where, what and when for our children's eating. We should, of course, aim to serve food that is healthy and tasty, but a meal should also include at least one food your kid likes (think as simple as cut-up apple or slices of whole-wheat bread). From there, your child gets to decide what they eat at the meal and how much. Skip the cajoling and bribing. Once everyone knows their job, mealtime becomes much less fraught and kids are actually more likely to eat healthy foods—in due time.
Kids who graze all day—even just on milk—are less hungry at mealtime and then less likely to eat or try foods that aren't their favorites. Try to shut down snacking 90 minutes to two hours before a meal. Or, set out cut-up fruits or veggies as an appetizer so you can at least attempt to sneak in some extra nutrients before dinner.
Instead, wax poetic about how delicious the food you're serving is. That's because research shows that kids are less likely to want to try foods that have been described as "healthy." And to be fair, similar research has also been published about adults.
This might irk you to no end. But, as it turns out, it makes more than just the family dog happy: Letting little kids play with their food breeds familiarity, and that familiarity is a big part of the equation when it comes to healthy eating. Kids can become more comfortable with fruits and veggies by playing with them, smelling them or even licking them—and, in theory, that will make them more likely to eat them, right?
It's really easy to see picky eating as a personal affront or even a failure, especially if you tried your best to do all the "right" things. But remember, "Picky eating is a normal phase that almost every child goes through, even if they ate everything as a baby! While most kids grow out of their picky phase, even if they don't, it's important to keep studies like these in perspective," says Helwig. "Unless a child is a severe picky eater or it's causing them anxiety or physical problems (in which case you should talk to your pediatrician or a registered dietitian), it's probably going to be fine."