Published: April 23, 2019

A new study by Life Course Centre researchers has examined the impact of ‘fussy’ or ‘picky’ child eating behaviours in low-income households. It found that mothers in low-income households reporting food insecurity were less likely to have fruit frequently available in the home.

Providing fussy eaters with a narrow range of foods that they will like and accept in order to avoid waste can inadvertently limit children’s exposure to a variety of healthy foods. This ‘risk aversion’ among low-income mothers to food rejection by their fussy children is strongest in food-insecure households, where finances and resources are particularly strained.

The Life Course Centre-supported study represents Stage 1 of the Mealtimes Matter research project that is focussed on structuring early healthy eating habits in young children.

The paper, A comparison of maternal feeding responses to child fussy eating in low-income food secure and food insecure households,’ has been published in the international research journal Appetite. It was authored by researchers from The University of Queensland’s Institute for Social Science Research Dr Holly Harris, Dr Sally Staton, Ms Candice Oakes and Professor Karen Thorpe, as well as Associate Professor Alina Morawska from the Parenting and Family Support Centre at The University of Queensland’s School of Psychology and Professor Danielle Gallegos from the School of Exercise and Nutrition Science at the Queensland University of Technology.

Mothers of pre-school children aged 2 to 5 years old residing in a low-income community in South East Queensland were invited to participate in the study via surveys at childcare centres, playgroups, a local family fun day and an immunisation clinic.

A total of 11% of mothers surveyed reported as food insecure, meaning they ran out of food and were unable to buy more in the last 12 months. This group was less likely to have fruit available in their homes, compared to low-income families that were nevertheless food secure. The latter group were also more likely to prepare alternative meals for fussy children, also narrowing their exposure to a variety of healthy foods.

“Children learn to like a wide variety of healthy foods through exposure in their early food environment and parents are encouraged to re-offer rejected food to their children even if they are ‘fussy’. But for families facing poverty, any foods gone uneaten leads to an even greater strain on household resources,” said Dr Harris, who is currently undertaking a Postdoctoral Research Scholar position with the Center for Childhood Obesity Research at Pennsylvania State University in the US.

“We have shown that food insecurity can be an important factor in early childhood fussy eating behaviours with respect to exposure to a variety of healthy foods through parents’ food provision and feeding practices. Our study highlights the need for more tailored advice from health professionals, researchers and policymakers to the parents of fussy eaters experiencing economic adversity and food insecurity.”

Dr Harris will present the research at the International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (ISBNPA) 2019 meeting in Prague, Czech Republic, 4-7 June, 2019.