Picky Eating: A Toddler's Approach to Mealtime

Mary Cathey; Nan Gaylord

Pediatr Nurs. 2004;30(2) 

In This Article

The Role of the Family

Much of the research regarding the development of eating patterns and picky eating in young children addresses the influence of the family, particularly that of the parents. The concept of the parent as a role model cannot be overlooked in a comprehensive discussion of the roots of the picky eating phenomenon. A quantitative meta-analysis looking at early research findings found that food preferences of parents were positively correlated to children's food preferences. The analysis at that time included only five published studies meeting the criteria of specifically addressing food preferences and comparing the preferences of each parent/child pair. The authors of this analysis concluded that further studies investigating the correlation of food preferences of children with related and unrelated adults should be conducted to further our knowledge of the development of dietary habits and food consumption (Borah-Giddens & Falciglia, 1993).

Since then, several studies have been published to support the notion that parents exert a great deal of influence on the development of dietary habits in their children. A quantitative study published in 1998 examined whether food preferences of toddlers were in concordance with the food preferences of their family members (Skinner et al., 1998). The researchers administered a questionnaire regarding personal food preferences to each parent and to each older sibling of 118 children aged 28 to 36 months. In addition, the primary caregiver completed the same questionnaire for the toddler in the study. Statistical analysis determined a high concordance for liked foods between the toddler and other family members, while a low concordance was found for disliked foods. In addition, the most limiting factor related to toddler's food preferences were those choices never offered by the parents (Skinner et al., 1998).

A slightly larger longitudinal study of 351 Mexican-American and non-Hispanic White children in the San Diego area set out to determine the influences of intake patterns by comprehensively examining 35 variables including those of the social/parental domain (Zive et al., 1998). Statistical analysis revealed that parents who avoided fat and salt in their diets were found to have children who consumed less total energy in the form of calories. The researchers also concluded that strict parental control over dietary intake may inhibit the child's ability to learn self-control, thus leading to overeating and obesity (Zive et al., 1998).

Messina, Weidner, and Connor (2002) hypothesized that parental attitudes toward nutrition and parental dietary habits influence their children's choices. They believed that parents' poor attitudes and habits could result in adverse health outcomes for their children. In a study of (AU: HOW MANY?) mothers and their daughters, the authors found that a relationship existed between mothers' attitudes toward nutrition and daughters' cholesterol levels. The study suggests that it may be of great importance to plan intervention programs to improve parents' attitudes concerning health and nutrition in an effort to improve the health outcomes of their children (Messina et al., 2002). Obviously, parental influence is a critical factor in the establishment of children's dietary patterns.

Carruth and Skinner (2000) report that mothers who model food neophobia influence the neophobic behaviors of their children. A young child will probably be less willing to try a novel food that his or her mother has not tasted. Young children will be less accepting of unfamiliar food items if they observe their parents' picky eating behaviors. These types of maternal behaviors will continually influence the child's neophobic behaviors beyond the picky eating phenomenon of toddlerhood (Carruth & Skinner, 2000).


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