As many parents know, children can be notoriously picky eaters. In some cases, their chronically fearful approach towards food amounts to what is considered a serious psychiatric condition known as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID).
But a new survey of adults who were, and continue to be, finicky eaters suggests that rather than forcing a child to eat foods they don’t like, parents will probably make more headway by embracing a non-confrontational approach at mealtime.
What not to do with picky eaters
“Let’s start with what didn’t work,” co-senior study author Nancy Zucker, director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, in Durham, N.C. says.
“When individuals perceived that they were being forced to try or eat something — for example, that they were being made to stay at the table until they finished or that they were making their parents angry or disappointed if they did not eat the thing that they were asked — adults with ARFID symptoms recollected that this was not a helpful eating environment to promote food adventurousness,” Zucker says.
“Alternatively, when adults recollected that their parents really understood how hard it was for them to try new things — and conveyed that they understood what they are going through — this was an important, helpful strategy that allowed for collaborative problem-solving between parent and child, to figure out ways to expand their dietary variety,” Zucker adds.
The dangers of picky eating
When surveyed, all participants said they were currently picky eaters to some degree.
But about half said their chronic eating issues had triggered serious weight loss and/or malnutrition, while also undermining their ability to work and maintain relationships. And the study team determined that this group most probably suffered from ARFID, a psychiatric condition first officially identified back in 2013.
What is the best way to respond to picky eaters?
Still, about four in 10 survey respondents said that their attitude towards food was somewhat improved as children when their parents chose positive, encouraging and engaging tactics.
Such tactics included framing meals in the context of cultural or nutritional learning; engaging the child in meal preparation; focusing attention on particular food groups, and always offering children “safe” food-flexible options that didn’t pose a perceived threat.
In addition, parents also seemed to get good mileage by “exposing children to novel cuisines, or experimenting with ways to hide the taste of