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Parenting the Picky Eater

Why Johnny won't eat

Don't Label

Severe reminds parents that, more often than not, kids under 5 are going to be selective eaters.

"It's rare to have a child that will eat anything you put in front of them. Being selective is actually normal," he says. Ward agrees. She prefers the phrase "limited eater" instead of "picky" because it is less negative.

Catharine has asked that her family not focus on Fenner's eating habits. "I don't want her to become known as the famous family picky eater," she says.

Nor does Catharine want Fenner to be lavished with praise for every bite she eats. "I don't want her to get the message that she's good or bad based on what she eats," she says.

Build on the Positives

"Often when I sit down with parents, we'll often find that their child actually does eat two or three things from each food group," says Ward. Just as children can get great comfort out of reading the same story over and over, they also enjoy having a set of "predictable" foods.

"Even though they aren't getting a wide variety of foods, they are actually doing OK nutritionally," says Ward. When the child goes through a growth spurt and has a bigger appetite, use that opportunity to introduce new foods to their list of old standbys, she says.

Expose, Expose, Expose

Ward says a child needs to be exposed to a new food between 10 and 15 times before he or she will accept it. But many parents give up long before that, thinking their child just doesn't like it, she says. So even if your child only plays with the strawberry on her plate, don't give up. One day she just may surprise you by taking a bite. However, don't go overboard and try to introduce three new foods at every meal, says Severe. Limit exposure to one or two new foods a week.

Don't Bribe

Avoid using sweets as a bribe to get kids to eat something else, says Johnston Pawel. Doing so can send the message that doing the right thing should involve an external reward. The real reward of sound nutrition is a healthy body, not a chocolate cupcake, she says.

Beware of Over-Snacking

Sometimes the problem isn't so much that the child doesn't like new foods, it may be that they are already full, says Ward. A common culprit is fluid. "Kids can consume a lot of their calories from milk and juice," she says.

The same goes for snacks that provide little more than calories like chips, sweets, and sodas. "If you are going to offer snacks, make sure they are supplementing meals, not sabotaging them," Ward says.

Establish "Bottom-Line Limits"

Having a set of bottom-line limits can help a parent provide some consistency, says Johnston Pawel. For example, some parents may have the rule "nutritious foods before snack food." Or that kids have to at least try a new food before rejecting it.

"Consistency only works if what you are doing in the first place is reasonable," she says. So try to avoid overly controlling or overly permissive rules. If bottom-line limits are healthy, effective, and balanced, they'll pay off, she says.

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