Finicky kids' eating habits can pose a tough challenge for parents, but there are steps that can be taken to solve the problem -- or prevent it in the first place.
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updated 12/11/2003 6:18:43 PM ET 2003-12-11T23:18:43

Kids’ “picky eating” is a common complaint among parents, many of whom worry that their children’s nutrient intake suffers as a result. According to a recent study, fussy eaters may actually fall into two distinct groups — one unwilling to try unfamiliar foods and the other unwilling to eat a variety of relatively familiar foods.

Children classified as neophobic — those unwilling to try new foods — tend to score higher on measures of anxiety than other kids. They often have mothers who are also reluctant to try new foods, according to this new research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Researchers suggest that “food neophobia” may be either a relatively stable personality trait, or a somewhat natural part of childhood that kids grow out of as they age and encounter more foods.

In contrast, picky eating — being unwilling to eat many different familiar foods — is reportedly not so much a personality characteristic as a development from life experiences. This pickiness could reflect a genuine dislike of the scorned foods or an effort to resist parental attempts at control.

In the new study, children who scored high as picky eaters were more likely to have mothers who felt they did not have enough time to eat healthfully and lacked a variety of vegetables in their own diets.

Variety at a young age
This new study, combined with past research, suggests the following advice: Don’t assume that children will grow out of picky eating. The number of foods kids like does not change much from the age of two or three to age eight.

In fact, new foods are often more likely accepted at age two to four than at four to eight. Don’t hold off a wide variety of foods, assuming children are too young.

To establish enjoyment of good eating, offer a wide variety of healthy foods. Surprisingly, babies are often offered more vegetables as baby food than they receive as toddlers. Later, vegetables are restricted by dislikes of mothers and other family members, frequent complaints that preparing vegetables takes too much time, and unfounded beliefs that children don’t eat particular foods. Finding quick-fix ways to serve vegetables benefits everyone and should be a priority.

To broaden your children’s tastes, let them watch you enjoying many different healthful foods. Children are far more likely to decide they like foods when caregivers show enthusiasm for those foods. In one study, if caregivers simply ate foods without comment, the positive impact was much less than when they enthusiastically consumed the foods.

Avoid power struggles 
To further reduce the chance of picky eating, don’t let mealtimes become a power struggle. Behavior scientists see control issues promoting picky eating at least, in some children.

Let there be a division of responsibility: parents and caregivers should decide what foods are offered and when. Kids should have sole responsibility for deciding how much to eat. This teaches them to use internal hunger signals to eat only what they need — something many adults raised in the “clean your plate” style find difficult.

Finally, as you implement all these ideas, be patient. Some aspects of individual personality and personal food preferences, as well as normal childhood behaviors that kids do outgrow, can be involved in fussy eating. Do what you can for them. Then make sure their fussiness is not keeping you from healthy eating.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive Reprints

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