Picky eating research aims to help family mealtimes - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Picky eating research aims to help family mealtimes

16 Sep 2021

New USC Australia research has identified the most common external factors likely to increase or decrease picky eating in children under 10.

The findings of Laine Chilman’s first PhD paper Picky Eating in Children, with co-authors from USC, the University of South Australia and The University of Queensland, are published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Ms Chilman, a USC student and academic who worked in Australia and England as an occupational therapist and nurse, reviewed 80 health industry studies largely based on parents’ reporting of their children’s picky eating.

“The health benefits and importance of family mealtimes have been extensively documented but picky eating can impact this complex activity and has numerous extrinsic (external) and intrinsic (internal) features,” she found.

“The research found that external features which appear to increase the likelihood of picky eating are authoritarian parenting, rewards for eating, and pressuring the child to eat.

“The most commonly reported external features that decrease the likelihood of picky eating are family meals, responsive parents, and involving the child in the preparation of food.” 

Ms Chilman, who is continuing her PhD on the topic, said this first study also found that a child’s personality and increased sensitivity, particularly to taste and smell, were the most common internal features of a picky eater.

“I’m looking at the whole issue through the lens of occupational therapists who consider external and internal influences when they work with children and families,” said the Maroochy River resident.

“I’m the mother of three children aged 12, 10 and 9, including a picky eater. As a parent, you really appreciate how difficult it can be. You want to feel empowered to manage things.

“I hope my research provides insights that help support – not blame – parents, caregivers and health professionals.” 

She said picky eating was an umbrella term for consistent behaviours such as rejecting substantial amounts of food based on texture, novelty or appearance, with associated practical or psychological impacts for parents/caregivers.

“The issue is about far more than weight or nutrition. It’s about emotional and social needs, parent and sibling relationships, family wellbeing.

“Many parents feel pressure to have perfect family mealtimes, which aren’t always possible. They can be encouraged by these findings because external features have the potential to be changed.”

USC Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy Dr Michele Verdonck, who was Ms Chilman’s principal supervisor, said picky eating was an exciting research topic because so many parents could relate.

“As academics, it's our responsibility to translate the literature into useful messages for our communities – and for our Occupational Therapy graduates working in these communities,” Dr Verdonck said.

“Laine has done a great job of sharing findings that can foster good mealtime habits as well as acknowledging things that may be out of our control as parents.

“This is her first study so we look forward to sharing future findings aimed at increasing the understanding of picky eating in children and exploring things we can do to manage these.”

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