Picky Eating: A Toddler's Approach to Mealtime

Mary Cathey; Nan Gaylord

Pediatr Nurs. 2004;30(2) 

In This Article

The Picky Eating Phenomenon

Three primary components play a role in the picky eating phenomenon. These components are development, personal preferences, and the family.

To develop appropriate recommendations, it is necessary to gain an understanding of the determinants of dietary patterns in young children. The literature provides support for the idea that picky eating is a developmental process for toddlers. Johnson (2002) described food acceptance patterns and the emergence of eating patterns in relation to physiologic growth, age, and emotional development. In infancy, a child is a depletion-driven eater who consumes only milk and has no desire for other foods. As the child grows, he or she develops a physiologic need for more nutrients and is, therefore, transitioned to solid foods. This is followed by the stage of food neophobia and the "terrible twos," when the child attempts to assert his or her independence and to establish some sense of autonomy. Johnson (2002) sees this as a normal part of development that leads to frustration, anxiety, and power struggles between the parent and child. Eventually, the child develops cognitively in the preschool years to begin to understand physiologic and social cues needed to respond appropriately to adults and will not engage in these power struggles as readily (Johnson, 2002). This clearly represents a stage of development that resolves as the child matures.

Martins (2002) describes toddlers' neophobia as a developmental phase that is rooted in a historical practice, which has remained ingrained despite the evolution of our culture. She purports that this may be an innate phase that may have served a protective function during the time when humans foraged for food. A fear of unfamiliar foods decreased the likelihood of inadvertently eating a harmful toxin at a time when this was a significant threat. Even though this is no longer an ominous threat to survival, toddlers are innately programmed to be a bit skeptical of unfamiliar food items and, thus, demonstrate picky eating habits for a period of time (Martins, 2002).

Picky eating, though it may appear to be dangerous to the child's well being, will not, in most cases, be a detriment to the child's health. Birch and Fisher (1995) report that almost all children will self-regulate the ingestion of the appropriate amount of nutrients needed to sustain growth and further development. In other words, the toddler will eat what is needed to support his or her growth. Satter's (1990) work indicating that a child will assume responsibility for whether or not he or she will eat and what amount will be ingested further supports this notion. This innate or automatic mechanism demonstrates that the child's picky eating behavior is to some degree internally mediated, which implies that there is a developmental component.

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