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Researchers categorise definable preferences and mealtime behaviours of picky eaters

Posted:  Thursday, February 12, 2015

Picky eating in children is a matter of anxiety and concern for parents and health professionals alike. Although picky eating is hard to define, parents vouch that they can identify it when they see it. Now, a study conducted at the University of Illinois has pinpointed definable preferences and mealtime behaviours of picky eaters.

The new study published in the Journal of Sensory Studies confirmed that children labelled as picky eaters by their parents actually responded differently to common foods and showed peculiar behaviours at mealtime compared to children whose parents did not find their children picky. The researchers observed significant differences across 16 assessed behaviours among the picky and non-picky eaters.

The two-week study assessed differences in behaviours and food choices of picky and non-picky eaters. Parents of 170 two- to four-year-old children monitored their children's responses to five standardised meals delivered to their homes. The children’s behaviours were reported in real time and not from memory. Eighty three children were considered by their parents to be picky eaters, whereas 87 children were thought to be non-picky.

Based on the specific behaviours displayed, the researchers categorised the picky eaters into four types:

•    Sensory-dependent eaters, who tend to reject a food if it is mushy, slippery, bitter, or lumpy

•   Behavioural responders, who cringe or choke if food is not offered in an acceptable way or refuse to come to the dinner table

•   Preferential eaters, who refuse foods that are new or mixed or have complex ingredients

•    General perfectionists, who have very explicit needs, minimal variety in their diet, and are very particular that foods stay separated from each other

The researchers suggest that identifying emerging patterns among picky eaters can be used to develop specific targeted strategies and recommendations to address such behaviours in children. They recommend certain strategies that parents could adopt to broaden their child's eating horizons. Encouraging children rather than forcing them to eat healthy foods as a means of earning rewards and repeatedly exposing them to a variety of flavours, textures, and food groups are some of the approaches that parents could employ.

Sharon Donovan, a Professor of Nutrition at the University of Illinois sums up the study by saying, “Trust your child's ability to eat what and how much they need. The best thing parents can do is be gatekeepers over what food comes into the house, then let the child decide what she is going to consume, and allow for the occasional treat.”

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