The tricks that work for picky children

Being picky about food is common in children. Parental frustration can sometimes be high, but don't give up, says Paulina Nowicka, professor in food studies, nutrition and dietietics. Children can learn to eat a more varied diet.

Boy eating vegetables
Foto: Getty

Text: Maja Lundbäck. First published in Swedish in Medicinsk Vetenskap nr 4 2020

Pancakes, pasta, meatballs. Maybe even sausage and cucumber. According to Paulina Nowicka, professor in food studies, nutrition and dietietics at Uppsala University and researcher at Karolinska Institutet, it is surprisingly common for children not to want or to manage to eat a varied diet.

“When we did a major study of preschool children in Sweden involving 1,500 families, we saw that just over one child in two was a picky eater to a moderate level. In a third of them it was a high level,” she says.

Being picky about food often begins to be noticed at the age of two in children with a strong will, while in children with hereditary sensory sensitivity, who also have problems with loud noises, smells and rough clothing, it can become evident even earlier. Often carbohydrates go well while vegetables are rejected.

By definition, being picky about food means that the child eats in such an unbalanced way that it is perceived as problematic for the family. In severe cases, it can also lead to nutritional deficiencies and affect growth. Paulina Nowicka has also discovered that being picky about food is equally common in overweight children.

Paulina Nowicka. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt.

“We were the first or second team in the world to look at the connection between being picky and childhood obesity. In our data it was also clear that this is a double challenge for parents. In addition to thinking about the child not overeating, they also need to make sure that the child does not eat in an unbalanced way,” she says.

The fact that being picky about food is largely hereditary becomes particularly clear to parents who have a first child who eats everything.

“What was thought to work in parenting doesn't work any more. No matter what the parents do to try to get meals to work, it's not possible,” says Paulina Nowicka.

Children who are picky must be encouraged in a different way.

“With some parents, if the child eats in an unbalanced way it can trigger frustration. Being picky can also lead to anxiety in the child. The way parents act is of great importance, but being picky about food does not arise from the parents' inability to respond to their child,” she says.

The parents' patience is often put to the test, but Paulina Nowicka thinks that some throw in the towel too soon.

"Now we know that it is not enough to try the same dish three times; many children need to try food 10 to 20 times. For children with sensory sensitivity, it often takes 30 times,” she says.

The secret is to do it in small doses.

“Take it step by step, put food on a platter on the table, ask for permission before you put it on the plate. If the child takes a bite, you have to be happy," she says.

She does not recommend trying to use dessert as an attraction.

“Then the child realises that there are two categories of food, the less good one – and the good one that you are rewarded with. My best advice is not to give up and introduce gradually. My next best advice is to be a good role model; show that you eat it yourself, but don't force the child,” she says.