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How to Help Your Picky Eater

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 20, 2021

If you've ever watched your child pass over every vegetable on the table and nosh on nothing besides their chicken nuggets, you've probably wondered if they're doomed to picky eating forever. But don't worry — many children have phases in which they are picky eaters. In fact, it's more common than not.

Picky eating is common in toddlers, and usually not a cause for major concern. However, there are some things that you can do as a parent or caregiver to help a child expand their food horizons.

While most kids outgrow their picky eating phases without intervention, a small number of children need professional help. Around one or two percent of children need medical intervention to support their nutritional wellbeing. If you are concerned about your child's eating, contact their doctor.

Stay Calm

It's easy to get frustrated or triggered by your child's picky eating. Remember that in most cases, picky eating is completely normal. If you escalate into anger or yelling, it can cause more stress and make the problem worse.

Whether you're asking your child if they would like to taste the new item at dinner or cleaning up their untouched food, handle it with as much patience as possible. Don't shame your child, and don't call them a picky eater.

You can also demonstrate to your child that it's okay to dislike a certain food and move it aside calmly. Whether it's pickles on your burger that you’d rather not eat or an extra onion slice on your salad, use the opportunity to show your child that you can move that food item aside with no major fuss.

Don't Force or Bribe

Demanding or forcing your child to eat when they don't want to can cause more harm than good. This kind of power struggle can cause conflict and family stress, which can create negative associations around food. Forcing your kid to eat when they don't want to also teaches them to not follow their own body and hunger cues, which can cause lifelong problems.

Though it might be tempting to dangle dessert as a reward for finishing their veggies, experts recommend against using bribes to motivate kids to eat things they don't want to. Like the tactic of forcing, it can create stress and frustration.

Make a Shared Meal Part of Your Routine

Eating a meal together as a family — without TV, tablet, or phone screens — creates an opportunity to model healthy eating to your child. Make only one meal that everyone eats. Resist the urge to make a separate meal for your picky eater.

A family meal is also a great opportunity to model eating healthy foods. Whether you notice it or not, you're a role model to your child, and if they see you enjoying a variety of healthy foods, they're more likely to try some.

Serve both meals and snacks at around the same time each day. That way, if your picky eater chooses to skip a meal, there's a regular snack time that will give them another chance. Offer plenty of water, but make sure that your picky eater doesn't fill up on milk or juice between meals.

Make Food Fun

Finding new ways to present and eat food can sometimes be enough to change a picky eater's mind. Cutting food into unique and fun shapes, offering finger foods, and presenting some kind of accompanying dip are creative ways to engage kids in meals.

Some ways to add a splash of silly to your kid's plate include:

  • Arrange cut-up fruit and veggies into shapes or silly faces on your child's plate.
  • Use cookie cutters to make fun shapes — as long as they're sized safely to prevent choking.
  • Invite your child to name a food or combination of foods they helped to create.
  • Let your child play with their food (a bit). Try stacking crackers or making shapes and letters with dry cereal.

Get Kids Involved

Including your picky eater in the process of meal planning, food shopping, and cooking can help them get excited about what's on their dinner plate. Invite your child to pick out something new at the grocery store that looks good to them. Look through a cookbook and ask your child to help select a new recipe to try.

Allow your child to participate in safe cooking tasks while you're preparing food. For toddlers, aim for things like stirring, counting ingredients, tearing up lettuce or fresh herbs, or "painting" olive oil onto a sheet pan. Steer clear of tasks that involve heat or blades that could cause injury. 

Another simple way to involve your child in food preparation is to offer choices. Instead of asking, "Do you want broccoli?", try something like, "Should we have peas or broccoli with dinner tonight?".

Keep Trying and Celebrate Wins

If your picky eater doesn't like a new food the first time they try it, don't stress. Many times, it takes a few repeated exposures to a new food before they will start to explore, taste, and accept something new on their plate.

When your child tries something new — whether they like it or not — celebrate their willingness to try something new. This positive reinforcement will help them be more willing to try the next new dish that they encounter.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Keep Kids Out of the Clean Plate Club."

ChildMind: "How to Help Kids Who Are Picky Eaters."

HealthyChildren: "10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters."

MayoClinic: "Children's nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters."

Michigan State University: "Preschoolers: Making food fun for the picky eater."

Stanford Children's Health: "Helping Picky Eaters Expand Their Palates."

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