DEFINING PICKY EATING

Father With Toddler

Do You Have A Picky Eater At Your House?

Does your child fuss and reject food once in a while or do you have daily battles at meal times?

Every child is unique with his or her own particular likes and dislikes, which can sometimes change on a daily basis. Their overall appetite may also be equally unpredictable. Toddlers and pre-schoolers (& sometimes older children) commonly go through a stage of being very “picky eaters”.

Studies show that as many as 1 in 4 toddlers can be defined as ‘food rejecters’ and refuse to eat what has been prepared for them at least half of the time. They may reject anything that is in any way different to what they are used to or that may be presented in a different way or they may have food “fads”, eating only very specific and limited favourite foods – their “flavour of the month”. As long as these are relatively healthy choices there is little need to worry.

How is “picky eating” defined then?

I see picky eating on a continuum with the occasional toddler or ‘fusspot’ eating at one end and more difficult selective eating and food rejection at the other and many variations in between.

Let’s look at some definitions.

The term picky eater has been defined in a number of different ways.

For instance, Marchi and Cohen (1990) defined picky eating by the presence of three of the following child behaviours:

  • does not eat enough
  • is often or very often choosy about food
  • usually eats slowly
  • is usually not interested in food

To me, this definition covers the milder (left) of my continuum and is very typical of toddlerhood. It could cover those children who do actually eat most of the time but may only eat a couple of very specific meals and nothing else. For instance, won’t eat any vegetable, won’t eat any fruit, will not eat “green” things or will only eat “white” foods.

On the other hand, Timimi, Douglas and Tsiftsopoulou (1997) looking at children aged 4 to 14 years defined fussy and picky eating as; “a specific and persistent pattern of behaviour consisting of a refusal to eat any foods outside of a limited range of preferred foods”.

They also included accompanying behaviours such as resisting attempts as self-feeding, gagging, spitting out food, mealtime disruptive behaviours, playing with food at mealtimes, excessively slow eating and difficulties swallowing or chewing food. This definition seems to be more toward the more severe end of the continuum.

Picky with real food vs processed ‘food like substances’

Once, a picky eater was defined as one who would only eat a limited number of foods but, for the most part, those foods would have been “real” foods. For children today the risk is that picky eating may mean that they will only eat highly processed, high energy but nutrient devoid fast foods and convenience snacks such as crisps, crackers, processed cereals and such. So at a time when the food that your child does choose to eat may be highly processed, additive laden and not containing the vital nutrients that a small body needs to grow and develop, it is vital that fussy or picky eating is addressed as soon as possible.