A nutritional concern is frequently the main reason why parents seek help for their picky eaters. With a limited eating repertoire, it is quite understandable to think that kids are not getting enough nutrition to grow and develop optimally.
But are our nutritional concerns valid?
Well, first of all, let’s define who are picky eaters. Picky eating is not an official diagnosis but rather a common umbrella term to describe a variety of feeding issues.
Feeding issues can range from a typical and mild picky eating phase that children outgrow quickly to a serious disorder with many underlying issues. Extreme picky eating often requires a team of health professionals, from Occupational Therapists to Psychologists.
Because picky eating is widely used as a term but not clearly defined, kids with different degrees of severity of feeding issues may be lumped together, both in media and research.
With this in mind, it is clear that a very small number of selective eaters, particularly those who eat an extremely small selection of foods (15 or less) and struggle with chewing, swallowing or processing sensory information from food, maybe indeed at nutritional risk. But does it include your child?
Nutrients that may be a problem for both picky and typical eaters
Well, first of all, not only picky eaters may struggle with nutrition. According to national dietary surveys, a few nutrients can be a problem for most children, whether they are considered picky or not. These nutrients include fiber, DHA and vitamin D. Below I included a few best sources of each of them.
The best sources of fiber are fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Fiber helps prevent constipation and also supports the balance of digestive flora. To help your child get enough fiber, you can try cooking more whole grains, serve fruit and vegetables with the peel and add flax seeds or oat bran to smoothies and baked goods, among other options (I have 20 for you here!).
To get enough DHA (a type of Omega 3 fatty acid), children and adults have to eat two servings of fish a week, including one serving of oily fish. DHA is especially important for brain development and retinal health of kids under 2, but not every country has established a recommended daily amount of this nutrient. Find out how much DHA the WHO recommends for kids and adults.
Vitamin D is very difficult to obtain through diet and, especially in northern latitudes, supplement is the best option. The best dietary sources of vitamin D are fatty fish and dairy products. Here is how to find out whether your child needs a vitamin D supplement.
Nutrients that are not an issue for picky eaters
Research shows that the vast majority of picky eaters seem to be getting all or most of the nutrition they need through their seemingly limited diet. In fact, the nutritional makeup of the diet of picky eaters and regular eaters may be quite similar.
It is especially obvious when we compare macronutrients – fats, protein and carbohydrates. Despite not eating many protein-rich foods, most picky eaters are likely to get enough and even too much protein, simply because there is protein in many foods like vegetables, rice and pasta.
Calories are also rarely a concern. In fact, most picky eaters are likely to grow just as well as typical eaters and gain weight predictably.
Which nutrients can be a problem for picky eaters?
At this point, we have very few longitudinal studies comparing nutritional intakes of children who are picky and those who eat a varied diet and how nutrition early in life may impact their future health.
But the limited research we have right now shows that although picky eaters are more likely to get less of certain nutrients, their level very rarely translates into true deficiencies and quite often is still within the recommended daily amounts.
But some nutrients may become a problem. Because kids are more likely to struggle when learning to eat meat and vegetables, iron and zinc may become challenging nutrients for some.
In the case of iron, the absorption rates may play a bigger role than the actual amount. To improve the absorption of iron, try combining iron-rich meat and pulses with fruit and vegetables that contain vitamin C helping more iron get absorbed. More on iron absorption in this article.
If you suspect that your child is not getting enough iron, always check with your doctor and follow the supplement recommendations.
Some research shows that getting enough of carotene, a plant precursor of vitamin A, may also be difficult for picky eaters. This is not surprising since the best sources of carotene are bright yellow and orange fruit and vegetables and dark greens. To help your picky eater who struggles with veggies get enough carotene, focus on serving more carotene-rich fruit like cantaloupe and mangos.
I hope this post helps clear the confusion around nutrition for picky eaters. Your child may be getting more nutrients than you think, but if you have doubts and concerns, always check with your doctor or a registered dietitian.
They will help you develop a plan to ensure that your child gets the nutrition they need, without you spending $$$ on different supplements or losing your sleep at night.