Parents the key to tackling kids’ picky eating: research findings

University of the Sunshine Coast
Five years of UniSC-led research into the pesky problem of picky eating by children suggests that therapists should focus more on empowering parents to ease family angst at the dinner table.

The collaborative research led by Dr Laine Chilman of the University of the Sunshine Coast also highlighted the effectiveness of an online coaching intervention for parents to improve children’s mealtime behaviours.

Dr Chilman, an occupational therapy academic who graduated this month with her PhD, said the findings were novel because previous research focused on how to fix picky eating from the perspective of the child rather than the parent.

Healthy habits: Ivy, 13, Darcy, 11, and Lewis 15, celebrate with mum Laine Chilman at her graduation on campus at UniSC Sunshine Coast this month

“Picky eating is a common problem for many young children, potentially affecting their nutritional intake with consequences into adulthood, but the impacts also extend to the family unit,” said Dr Chilman, a mother of three children aged under 15.

“With this strain on family relationships at mealtimes, parents may inadvertently reinforce the problem through their behaviours, such as pressuring the child to eat.

“We worked directly with a sample group of Queensland parents, using a structured online program called Occupational Performance Coaching (OPC).

“It is a goal-oriented approach that combines education and support for parents, positioning them as the agents of knowledge and change.”

Family mealtimes: Laine Chilman and her children at dinner time several years ago.

‘We sought to better understand the parent experience and the factors that may influence them to change behaviours’ – Laine Chilman

The trial of an online intervention for parents emerged from the findings of four previous internationally published studies based on Dr Chilman’s doctoral research, and co-authored with colleagues from UniSC, the University of South Australia and The University of Queensland.

“We identified that parents perceived health professionals as minimising or undervaluing their concerns around picky eating, so we sought to better understand the parent experience and the factors that may influence them to change behaviours,” she said.

“With the evidence also showing parents’ inventiveness when tackling the issue, we adapted the online program to these circumstances.

“The results were encouraging, with improvements in both children’s food intake and parental satisfaction. Parents also appreciated its flexibility and accessibility.”

New PhD graduate, occupational therapy academic Dr Laine Chilman

Dr Chilman, whose research was supervised principally by UniSC Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy Dr Michele Verdonck, officially graduated with her PhD at a UniSC ceremony on 11 April.

The most recent paper was also co-authored by Professor Pamela Meredith, Dr Ann Kennedy-Behr, Associate Professor Thuy Frakking, Dr Libby Swanepoel and Nicole Southon.

An event for health clinicians will be held at the UniSC Innovation Centre on 10 May to discuss the OPC intervention with its creator, Associate Professor Fiona Graham from the University of Otago. Details at this link.

Links to Dr Chilman’s published papers:

Australian Occupational Therapy Journal March 2024

Appetite journal November 2023

Australian Occupational Therapy Journal May 2023

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 2021

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