How to End the Picky Eating Struggle

Medically Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on April 22, 2016
4 min read

Last week, your child pushed away that plate of veggies. Today, they refuse to taste a bite of your casserole. Sound familiar? “With young children, a certain level of pickiness is normal,” says Angela Lemond, a dietitian in Plano, TX. “After all, they’re experiencing new foods and flavors for the first time.”

Research shows that about 20% of parents say their 2- to 5-year-olds are picky eaters. Most will eventually outgrow it, but what’s a parent to do in the meantime? The first step is to understand why kids can be fussy when it comes to food.

1. It really tastes yucky. “In general, children are hardwired to like sweeter flavors,” Lemond says. “Because they’re growing so quickly, they naturally want higher-calorie foods.” Plus, 1 in 4 people are born with a gene that makes them more sensitive to bitter tastes. That may explain why your kid shuns Brussels sprouts or cauliflower.

How to handle it: Don’t write broccoli off the menu for good. Keep serving it in different forms, Lemond suggests. “Try it as a soup, in a salad, or as a puree.” Research shows that kids may need to get a food on their plates five to 10 times before they eat more of it. You can also try mixing a new item with a tried-and-true favorite. “If your child likes iceberg salads, add in a few leaves of romaine,” Lemond says. A dip on the side can up your chances of success, too: In one study, kids were three times more likely to eat raw veggies when they came with a favorite dip.

2. They aren’t hungry. After around age 2, kids’ growth slows down. “So it could be that your child doesn’t have much of an appetite on a particular day,” says Maryann Jacobsen, RD, a San Diego-based dietitian. As long as their weight and height are on track at doctor’s visits, don’t worry when picky eating pops up every now and then. Kids also may not want meals if they get snacks and drinks too often, Jacobsen says. “If children are eating crackers and juice an hour before dinner, they’re not going to be hungry.”

How to handle it: Stick to a regular schedule with three meals and a morning and afternoon snack time. “This helps children get enough to eat while building an appetite for meals,” Jacobsen says.

3. Your child wants to assert their independence. Many parents know that one of toddlers’ favorite words is “no!” At mealtimes, pushing away that plate is another way for them to feel in control. “It’s a natural part of development,” Jacobsen says.

How to handle it: Don’t turn meals into a power struggle. Resist the urge to order your kid to eat their peas. They might end up wanting to avoid that food for life. The same goes for pressuring or bargaining with them -- “you can only have dessert if you clean your plate.”

Instead, let them make their own decisions. “You can discuss the benefits of certain foods,” Lemond says. “With my son, I explained how eating broccoli could help him with his goal of being a good soccer player.”

4. Your child has a medical problem. It’s not common, but some kids are picky eaters because of a health condition. “If your child seems overly anxious around food or often refuses to come to the table, that may be a red flag,” Jacobsen says. They may have a food allergy or a problem with the way their brain interprets information from their senses, called a sensory processing disorder.

How to handle it: Talk to your pediatrician. Mention if your child tends to refuse foods with a specific texture, such as crunchy chips and crackers, or often says they are itchy or has an upset stomach.

Along with addressing any specific food issues, some general habits can help your child get past a picky eating phase.

Offer options. A few different dishes on the table can keep meals from becoming a battleground. For example, if you’re having pasta, set out the noodles, sauce, meat, salad, and bread, family-style. “Your child might just end up having the noodles and sauce, but that’s OK,” Jacobsen says.

Cut down on distractions. Kids can be more interested in playing than eating. So power down TVs and phones during mealtime and keep the focus on food.

Avoid the “short-order cook” syndrome. If your kid won’t eat what you’re serving, you may think you need to whip up a PB&J to keep them from going hungry. But that can create a cycle where they order every meal on demand. Instead, clear those dishes without offering another option. “If she’s hungry, give her some fruit to tide her over until the next snack or meal,” Jacobsen says.

Get kids in the kitchen. Let your children join you when you’re cooking or planning meals. It helps them feel in control and encourages them to eat what they helped cook. At the grocery store, they can pick out fruits and vegetables to try. At home, even toddlers can help wash vegetables, get bowls, and help big brother set the table.

Be a role model. Kids tend to follow their parents’ example, so lead the way with what you put on your plate. “You can also make trying new foods fun,” Lemond says. Set out a number of dishes and have a taste test, where everyone in the family rates the foods on a scale of 1 to 10.