Have a Picky Eater at Home? Try These 12 Tips
Help quell the mealtime battleground!
Does mealtime tend to become a battleground? You’re in a standoff with your child, neither one of you willing to budge. Logic doesn’t work; neither does trying to reason with them. Even pleading with your kid to eat what you’ve made for them (or just try something different for a change) can seem like a futile effort. Know that you’re not alone—we’ve been there, too, as have many others.
By the age of two, around half of all children (boys and girls) become picky eaters, and that prevailance becomes even higher in older grade school children. Fortunately, most kids are not fussy eaters forever. But that doesn’t mean you're trapped while you wait for their tastes to evolve.
Keep reading to learn more about what makes picky eaters tick and, most importantly, 12 tips to try to help make new foods for picky eaters their friends instead of enemies.
What Causes a Child To Be a Picky Eater?
So, the goal is to get your child to expand their culinary horizons. But why are they so particular in the first place? Toddlers and older children may get a bad mealtime rap, yet, as we touched upon, picky eaters abound. The cause behind their finickiness can be just about anything, but there are a few recurring themes.
Babies usually triple their weight during infancy. As they hit toddlerhood, their growth rate slows down, and their appetite follows. At the same time, they’re also beginning to develop their own food preferences, which can change on a dime. Your picky eater’s food-faves may be limited to just one or two things. And what’s their sole food(s) of choice one day may be completely undesirable the next. Frustrating as this constant will they or won’t they eat (fill in the blank) dilemma may be, it’s important to remember that it’s normal behavior, and as with any phase in childhood, these picky eater food-resistances, too, shall pass.
Our kids also can and do learn to manipulate—and food preparation can be a prime target. One day, you’re the parent, making healthy meal choices for your family. The next, you’ve somehow become your child’s personal short-order cook. Try not to succumb to this common kerfuffle. By preparing a separate meal for your child when they refuse what you’ve already offered, it can actually encourage your kid’s fussy eating and perpetuate the issue. Instead, hold your ground and insist that your child stay at the dining table for the duration of mealtime, even if they don’t end up eating anything at all.
Of course, aside from your child’s blunt “I don’t want to” when it comes to eating a frequently rejected food, be sure that there’s not something else going on, like a tummy ache. Belly issues are common in kids, and certain foods may upset them more than others. Ask your child if they have a tummy ache. If they do, we can help there, too.
New Children’s Mylicon Tummy Relief For Kids are chewable tablets that treat multiple symptoms of upset tummies in children ages two to 11. These include bloating, gas discomfort, acid buildup, indigestion, and even uncomfortableness from overeating (though we’re assuming the latter doesn’t apply to your picky eater). One or two tablets, according to their age, will help quickly soothe your child’s tummy, which may help with their appetite.
If tummy issues aren’t to blame, proceed with your picky eater negotiations. Ahead, find some do’s and don’ts to help grow your child’s food repertoire, followed by picky eater strategies to try. First up: what you should avoid.
Should You Trick a Picky Eater?
Kids are people, too, and though they may test our patience at times, it’s good to keep that in mind. Just as you likely wouldn’t enjoy being tricked into eating something, chances are, it won’t go over well with your child either. Plus, it can actually be counterproductive.
Sensory exploration of new foods includes, but also goes beyond, your child’s taste buds. Kids benefit from learning about food before it crosses their lips. Touching, rolling, poking, and smelling are all important ways children learn about different food. (So maybe, sometimes, it may be OK to let them play with it—though the goal is still to eat it.)
It may also be tempting to resort to good ‘ol bribery—but resist the urge, as it can only intensify the situation. Dessert is a prime example. When you try to placate your fussy eater with a promise of a sweet snack like dessert if they eat, you shift the dynamic of mealtime. Now, your child is hyper-focused on getting that reward, as opposed to some nutrition. It also implies that the sweet is the “best” food, while making eating the food on their plate even less appetizing. Ultimately, this kind of tactic can add fuel to your daily food-related fiascos. Ditto with forcing your child to eat something. Both no-no’s can intensify the power struggle between you and your little human.
How To Get a Picky Eater To Eat
We know how frustrating it can be to find more food options for picky eaters. So now that you know a few things not to do, let’s focus on what the best way is to encourage a fussy eater to eat. Below, learn 12 parenting tips for your picky eater.
1. Keep emotions in check: As we discussed, it’s never a good idea to force food on your child; this includes being forceful in your interaction. In addition to fanning the flames in the moment, aggressive tactics can make mealtimes stress- or anxiety-inducing for your kid. Elevating their emotions as they relate to food may also impair their understanding of their own hunger and fullness cues, which can lead to further problems down the road.
Fighting over food, pressuring your child, or punishing them for not eating are also not advisable. Actions like these may have the opposite effect, and make your child actively dislike the food in question; whereas, if the situation were calmer, they might actually grow to like it. Everyone’s appetite is different. And we all feel less hungry on some days and vice versa. Appreciate that your child is no different.
2. Set a routine—and stick to it: Children thrive on routines in nearly every aspect of their lives, including when it comes to trying to provide healthy food for picky eaters. Try and serve your kid meals and snacks around the same times every day. That way, they and their digestive systems can learn when to expect them.
3. Favor water as the drink of choice: Another way you may be able to help boost their motivation is to only give them water in between meals and snacks. Though it’s fine to give them other drinks, like milk or juice at mealtime, they may fill your child up and contribute to a poor appetite, and therefore, lack of culinary curiosity.
4. Serve small portions: Stick to small portions, as they can be less intimidating to eat. They may also help lay the path for your child to ask for another serving. (Hallelujah!)
5. Be patient (and persistent) with new foods: It can be easy (as well as the path of least resistance) to only try giving your child a specific new food a few times. But don’t give up. It’s best to go the distance. Perseverance is vital when it comes to introducing new foods. Research shows that trying as many as eight to 15 times helps to improve the likelihood that toddlers will try something new. So don’t throw in the kitchen towel just yet.
Mommy Pro Tip: Give it a week or two between attempts with the same food to help reduce potential waste.
6. Engage your kid with the food: In line with children learning about food through their senses, encourage your child to discuss the food’s attributes, not solely its flavor. Ask them to describe what shape and color it is, as well as how it smells and feels. This closer examination can help distinguish it from something suspect. Once you keep it in the convo, include it on the plate with your child’s favorites. The more familiar they become with it, the more comfortable trying it they may become.
7. Make mealtime fun: For picky eaters, eating healthy food can feel like a chore. Try making it more of an engaging experience by jazzing it up. Toddlers, especially, are easier to ply with creative food displays, finger foods, and dips. Use cookie cutters to make foods, like apple slices, melon, and pancakes, into fun shapes. You can also use a spiral peeler to turn carrots and zucchini into slinky-esque ribbons. Or, break up broccoli florets to look like mini trees, plant them in a mashed potato forest, and sprinkle its floor with shredded cheese. The more colorful the better—possibilities are endless.
8. Set the scene: Minimize distractions while your child eats. That means, no looking at your phone, computer, or television. An added benefit to turning off the tube is that it will prevent commercials for sugary foods from drawing your kid’s attention away from a healthier plate.
9. Partner with your kid on meal planning and prep: Toddlers become increasingly aware that they can exact control over their environment. You can positively influence this growing sense of autonomy by inviting them to help you make decisions on what food to get (just deter them from junk). Reading kid-friendly recipes with your child can also engage them to try something new. Asking for their help prepping, stirring, or arranging the table for meals can be another way to make them feel more involved
10. Help develop their palate: Childhood is all about new experiences. Balancing the flavors in their meals may help your child learn to appreciate ones they otherwise might discount, like sour or bitter morsels. For instance, toddlers tend to prefer sweet and salty tastes. So, pairing the bitterness of broccoli with the salty-sweetness of cheddar cheese may help win them over.
11. Focus on variety vs. quantity: It can be easy to get caught up in how much your child is eating—or not eating. But what they eat is more important than how much they gobble down. Incorporate a broader number of food groups, and use those small serving sizes to help your child get a more balanced diet.
12. Create “food bridges”: When your child buys into a certain food, it doesn’t stop there. Capitalize on the tiny victory by using it as an opportunity to “bridge out” to another one that’s similar in texture, color, and taste. If your child has accepted broccoli (with or without cheese), offer them cauliflower, too. Same with sugar snap peas; if they’re a go, try branching out to string beans. Likewise, pumpkin pie: it can help make a transition to mashed sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and carrots easier.
How Do Picky Eaters Eat Healthy?
A child that’s a picky eater can stoke worry. Rest assured, however, that the majority of children get plenty of nutrition over the course of the week. That said, if you do feel like your child’s pickiness or refusal to eat is affecting their overall nutrition, growth, or development, you may want to keep a food log for a few days and consult your pediatrician.
Ensuring that healthy food for picky eaters gets into them can seem like a challenge. In addition to the above tips, you can also try adding diced veggies to your kid’s favorite spaghetti sauce to help acclimate them to the taste little by little.
Is your child a chicken nugget-worshiper, and won’t try anything else? Try slicing up, breading, and baking chicken from scratch—your child will get the same gist eating it, but without all the processing and additives.
Mommy Pro Tip: Make large batches, then freeze them to keep on hand. They’ll be just as easy to snatch up and heat when time is short.
It’s also key to remember that their eating habits won’t change overnight, but having a consistent mealtime every day can help create a lifetime of healthy eating.
Next: Triggers like stress can contribute to a poor appetite. Learn how to identify When Kids’ Tummy Trouble Is Actually Stress.