Whether you were a picky eater yourself or now parent one as an adult, most of us have come across a child who simply refused to expand their food palette beyond chicken nuggets and carrot sticks. New research from Duke University suggests that rather than using coercion or force, the most effective way to get kids to try new foods is through encouragement and positivity.
The research related specifically to adults who experience Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)—a psychiatric condition defined in 2013 which refers to a general avoidance of many food groups. The study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, surveyed 19,200 people who defined themselves as “picky eaters.” The researchers asked patients to describe the tactics used by their parents to get them to try new foods and then used an AI system to interpret the strategies as helpful or not helpful.
What the researchers found was that 39 percent of the responses regarding helpful strategies were in reference to positive emotional context, such as using food to teach cultural or nutritional lessons, being flexible about food, providing “safe” foods, helping with cooking, or presenting foods from specific food groups. Essentially, when parents provide support, context, and reasoning for different foods, children are more likely to try them.
As a fairly recently-defined concept, research on ARFID is pretty limited, with few action plans designed for children who go beyond expected food avoidance to a clinical diagnosis. Fortunately, research like this provides a starting point for designing nutrition plans for these children so they get the nutrients they need without forming negative associations with certain foods or meal times.
“Figuring out the best way to feed a child with severe food avoidance can be exhausting and stressful for parents, so providing guidance is essential to improve the social and emotional eating environment for their children and reduce the distress that both parents and children have at mealtimes,” said study co-author Nancy Zucker.