Letters from Maine

The demise of family dinners may play role in picky eating


My wife and I have dinner together almost every evening. There is a candle on the table regardless of the menu. And the meal begins with a toast, usually “To this chance to be together.” I can hear you muttering to yourself, “They must be one of those sappy, sweet hand-holding couples that appear to be joined at the hip.” Far from it, we lead very busy, active, but separate lives that only rarely intersect. But we make it a priority that one of those intersections occurs at a meal. For us, an evening dinner works best.

Listening to our friends, we have learned that an increasing number of them have drifted away from sharing a meal together. This phenomenon is surprising because most of them are retired, and time is not an issue. Of course, it is no secret that, for young overscheduled families, sitting down for a shared dining experience is becoming increasingly less frequent. Like some of you, I would like to claim that a return to family meal times would solve all of society’s ills. But some of the literature supporting this claim suggests shared family experiences in general, not particularly those associated with eating, may be just as important in supporting emotional health. But because everyone needs to eat, meals seem to me to be the easy target, low-hanging fruit if you will.

A boy who refuses to eat Yuki KONDO/Getty Images
I recently encountered some observations that suggest family meals may play an important role in the outcome of picky eating in the article “When New Means No: Picky Eating as a Normal Toddler Phase,” by Perri Klass, MD (New York Times, June 4, 2018). Dr. Klass describes a study presented as an abstract at the recent Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in Toronto in which Dr. Megan Pesch of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Ann Arbor, Mich., and her associates say that by 4 years of age, the children in their study were moving along “three stable trajectories” on a picky eating scale (high, medium, or low), and did not move out of their track for the next 4 and a half years. This finding suggests that we should reconsider our timeworn advice that picky eaters will outgrow this “stage.”

It is interesting that parents’ reports of their children’s eating patterns were validated by the behaviors videotaped by the researchers. But what is really interesting is that children who grew up in households where mealtimes followed a routine were more likely to be in the low–picky eating group. Routines included things like having a specific place times for eating, a habitual way of serving food, and other rituals such as saying grace.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

In other words, meals were not so much about the food as they were about the event itself. This often means giving the concept of mealtime for the family a higher priority. In my experience, the successful management of picky eating often comes when parents can shift their focus away from what and how much their child is eating and onto the social and communal aspects of the meal.

Unfortunately, because this Michigan study began at age 4 years it doesn’t tell us if the worst picky eaters were that way from the beginning. I suspect that some were. But my hunch is that picky eaters who are managed in a home environment that includes mealtime rituals and puts dining together as a high priority are more likely to outgrow their pickiness.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “Coping with a Picky Eater: A Guide for the Perplexed Parent.” Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

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