Picky eating is a normal stage of child development, but it can still be frustrating and worrisome. In this post, our pediatrician shares tips for picky eaters.
As a parent, dealing with picky eaters is almost a rite of passage. Somewhere around 18 months of age, you might notice that your child has developed some strong opinions about what will go into her mouth! This is a normal stage of development that reflects your child’s growing independence, and commonly lasts through 4 years of age. Once children enter this picky stage, a child might reject a new food 8-10 times before being willing to try it, while parents often give up after the 3rd or 4th attempt. Whether your formerly amazing broccoli eater has now suddenly decided that they hate all green things, or your child has decided he’s going to live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, it can be enough to try the patience of a saint. The good news is that you’re not alone. Check out these road-tested tips to help families with picky eaters.
Twelve Tips for Picky Eaters
1. Avoid the most common cause of mealtime sabotage: Grazing and unscheduled snacks.
Children who have constant access to snacks between meals often don’t feel hungry when it’s time for a main meal. The old saying is true: hunger is the best appetizer! Children’s bodies are growing rapidly, and while they do need a snack between meals to keep them going, keep it on schedule. A mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack is the perfect timing to keep energy up and crankiness down. Don’t let snacks be empty filler – make the most of snack time to help provide young bodies with nutrition that keeps them strong and healthy. Avoid processed snacks and opt for real foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein sources. Offering two food groups at each snack time (try string cheese and apples, whole grain crackers and nut butter, veggie sticks and hummus, or yogurt and berries) gives your child more chances to get the nutrients her growing body needs.
2. Limit certain types of beverages.
Many of us don’t realize that the easiest category of calories to forget is liquid calories. Children who drink large amounts of juice throughout the day may fill up with it, leaving little room for other foods. And while milk is an important source of nutrients (cow’s milk and non-dairy alternative milks), too much of a good thing can be, well, too much. When in doubt, water is always a great way to keep the body hydrated. How much should a child drink of these other types of beverages?
- Milk: Limit milk intake to no more than 24 ounces a day. Avoid regular use of chocolate or strawberry flavored milk, which adds extra sugar and empty calories.
- Fruit juice: Due to the high concentration of sugar – naturally occurring or added – found in juice, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that juice not be given to infants under 12 months unless advised by a medical provider. For older children, any juice consumed should be 100% fruit juice. Maximum daily juice intake for children 1-3 years is 4 ounces, 4-6 ounces for children 4-6 years, and 8 ounces for children 7 years and older. Water may be added to juice to dilute the sweetness and “stretch” out the juice.
- Minimize sugar-sweetened drinks and sodas. Don’t forget to read labels – some versions of “healthy drinks” have significant amounts of added sugar to them, e.g. some brands of coconut water, flavored vitamin-enhanced water, and sports drinks.
Note: Sometimes, even excessive water drinking may negatively impact food intake. In these circumstances, water drinking may not necessarily only be triggered by thirst but be more behavioral. If your child habitually carries a sippy cup throughout the day as a comfort measure, and drinks excessive amounts of water with limited intake of food at meals and snacks, consider limiting fluid access to meal times/snack times and periods of significant physical activity or outdoor exposure.
3. Share mealtimes with your child.
Eating alone is hardly fun for most children. Eating is a naturally social event, and an important way for families to reconnect throughout the day. Keep meals focused on family time and conversation, not on the food. Avoid relying on technology (smart phones, tablets, television) as a distraction technique to feed your child, and keep mealtimes a tech-free zone. Remember: Most of the eating happens in the first 15-20 minutes. If your child is losing interest and getting creative with food play, it’s okay to excuse her from the table!
4. Don’t be a short order cook.
Serve one meal for the family and resist the urge to make another meal if your child refuses – it only encourages further picky eating. In doing so, you’re also setting a good example of eating the variety of healthy foods you want your children to put into their bodies. But try to keep at least one kid-friendly nutritious option on the table that you know your child will enjoy. Not making your child’s favorite main dish tonight? Include a kid-acceptable side dish to go with it.
5. Avoid power struggles and food fights.
Your child is developing a sense of control over her own body, which is important. Power struggles and negative eating experiences may cause mealtimes to become more associated with stress for both of you. In addition, appetite slumps are common and normal in toddlers and preschoolers. Some days a child may eat a lot, and the next day mysteriously less. Parents have control over the food options and meal schedule, but let the child have control over how much to eat. Keep mealtimes positive, praise your child when they eventually decide to try a taste of something new, and don’t worry: while you may doubt it, the hunger-drive works. They won’t starve.
Check out this helpful guide from EatRight.org to find out more about typical portion sizes for young children.
6. Make it a team effort!
- Menu plan together. Getting your child involved in the meal-planning process can be a great way to make him feel like he has some control over food choices, and can help him to better accept the days when it’s not his favorite food for dinner. With my children, we have a saying: “You may not get to eat your favorite food every day, but at least most days somebody in the family gets their favorite!”
- Let your child be a kitchen helper. Getting your child involved in the food preparation process helps her to feel more interested and even proud of the final result. Make sure this is an age-appropriate task. Toddlers can help tear salad greens, dump ingredients into a mixing bowl, stir, and throw away produce peels and skins. Preschoolers can help mash potatoes, shuck corn, name and count foods, sprinkle cheese, measure out ingredients (with some help!), and set the table. Older children can help read the recipe, peel vegetables with a peeler, use a can opener, chop vegetables (with supervision), crack eggs, and sauté foods in a pan. If you need more ideas for kid-chef-friendly meals, there are so many wonderful cookbooks for kids available – check them out at your local library or bookstore!
7. Keep meals fun.
- Eat the rainbow. (And we’re not talking about the artificially colored kind!) Talk to your child about “eating the food rainbow.” Make it a game with your child to see how many colors of the rainbow he can eat in a day or in a week! Try these fun activities or make your own rainbow food chart to help keep your child learning and motivated. The classic children’s story The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle is a fun visual way to talk to children about eating the rainbow.
- Play with your food! Presenting foods in playful ways can make vegetables and fruits more fun to eat. As a child, the only way I would eat celery was when my mother made “ants on a log” – celery sticks filled with peanut butter or cream cheese and lined with raisins or dried cranberries! Try making your own “fairy wand fruit skewers” or English muffin pizza faces for more fun ideas.
- Dip it! For some children, food dips are an easy way to make eating certain things more acceptable. While some children will eat almost anything dipped in ketchup, there are other options, too. Veggies and whole-grain pita chips are an easy vehicle for creamy guacamole (a great source of fiber and healthy fats), or a delicious dip made with black beans, hummus, or cannellini (here’s one of my favorites) for extra protein, fiber, and iron. Peanut butter or ranch dressing (try this easy Greek yogurt ranch dip for a healthier version full of protein and calcium) are great options for veggies as well.
- Make it a build-your-own meal. Try making it part of your regular dinner rotation to have a build-your-own-meal day for the family. Whether it’s a baked potato, taco, salad, pizza, or chili bar, everyone gets to choose their own favorite toppings and experiment with being adventurous. When it comes to children, being allowed to make some choices about their foods can make the difference.
8. Follow through.
While bribery to try new foods isn’t necessarily a good long-term plan for promoting healthy eating habits, many families include dessert as an after-dinner treat. There are many healthier options for desserts, and enjoying things in moderation has always been my motto. If dessert is part of your dinner plan and you tell your child that they can’t have dessert unless they eat their dinner, stick to your rule. Our house rule is that our kids don’t have to finish their dinner if they don’t want to, but if they’re unable to finish dinner, it means there’s no room for dessert (although fresh fruit is always a “no strings attached” dessert option). No lectures, but no negotiating either.
9. Adjust expectations.
Once a child enters the picky eating stage, expect that one day she might only want scrambled eggs and blueberries, but the next day she only wants pancakes and yogurt, while the day after that, it’s pasta and fish sticks. If over the span of a week your child is getting good representation from all the food groups, she’s in good shape. When starting out, just being brave enough to try a taste before rejecting a food is praise-worthy! Be sure to affirm that bravery with some praise for your child. (A fun book to read together that encourages children to try new foods is Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. As my second child has learned through experience and loves to tell us, “sometimes even when you’re afraid to try something new, it just might be your new favorite!”)
10. Switch it up!
For some children, the way a food is prepared can make all the difference. A child who doesn’t like fish may adore fish sticks, while another child who doesn’t like the chewy texture of meat may enjoy tender meatballs, meatloaf, or marinara meat sauce. There was a time when my daughter wouldn’t touch zucchini except when I made it into breaded zucchini “coins,” and broccoli in any form usually leads to resistance with my children except when I’ve serve it steamed, tossed in sesame oil and a little salt. Go figure. When meeting resistance, don’t give up – keep experimenting and try, try again!
11. If all else fails, sneak attack!
We do want our children to learn to love variety and eat healthfully because it makes their bodies strong. But sometimes it doesn’t hurt to slip some picky eater contraband into their favorite foods. Here are a few tricks to get more variety into your picky eater:
- Put cooked carrots or roasted red peppers with prepared marinara sauce and blend smooth for extra beta-carotene and fiber, to use as a topping for pasta, pizzas, or as a dip. The natural sweetness of carrots and roasted red peppers is easy for picky children to accept, and the blended sauce prevents children from picking out the veggies.
- Present unfamiliar vegetables in more familiar forms. Baked sweet potato French fries (found in the freezer section of many grocery stores) or baked zucchini “fries” are an easy win, especially when there’s ketchup nearby!
- Does your child love meat but hate veggies? Try incorporating thawed frozen chopped spinach (prepackaged in the freezer section) or sautéed finely chopped mushrooms into your next meatloaf or meatballs recipe. Even for the most eagle-eyed toddler, they won’t be spotted.
- Attention, families with macaroni & cheese lovers! Butternut squash puree blends invisibly into the cheese sauce in this delicious butternut squash macaroni & cheese recipe that comes together in 30 minutes. (Can’t find butternut squash puree? Trader Joe’s carries canned butternut squash puree, a staple in our cabinet.)
- Canned pumpkin boosts the beta-carotene and fiber in this pumpkin pancake recipe that my children love. For added fiber without changing the taste, swap out half the all-purpose flour with whole-wheat flour.
- This moist chocolate zucchini bread recipe uses 4 cups of shredded zucchini in 2 loaves, and makes a frequently requested entry into my children’s lunchboxes. (This is another recipe that does well with replacing half the all-purpose flour with whole-wheat flour.)
- Smoothies or “milk shakes” are a fun treat for children, and an easy way to get more fruits and vegetables into their diet. Try putting sliced cucumber, baby spinach, or kale in a blender with naturally sweet fruits like sliced bananas, apples, berries, peaches, or pineapple, the milk of your choice, and crushed ice to make a refreshing, healthy, and delicious snack. For an extra special treat, add a small scoop of frozen yogurt to the mix. If your child needs more fiber in their diet due to constipation issues, this is an easy place to add a tablespoon of chia seeds or crushed flax seeds for extra fiber.
12. Most of all, remember patience.
If your child refuses to try something, don’t give up. Respect that choice in the moment, and don’t be afraid to try offering it again after a little time has passed. Picky children aren’t trying to be difficult, and some children just take time to get used to something new. Our tastes change over time, and being patient but persistent allows your child to give something a try when they’re ready. And when they do, celebrate it!
When Picky Eating Is Something More
For some children, picky eating may be more than just a developmentally normal picky eating stage. If your child experiences significant anxiety when it comes to eating, is extremely restricted in his diet, has significant sensory or social difficulties, or has difficulty handling certain textures beyond what is age-appropriate, please talk to your doctor.
Additional Resources for Families with Picky Eaters
- CookingLight Healthy Kids’ Recipes and Meals is a great free on-line resource for healthy and delicious recipes for children.
- Visit org’s 10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters for more tips and additional resources for picky eaters.
- org is a great resource for reliable diet and nutrition information. Check out their Kids nutrition section for articles and videos related to infant, toddler, and child nutrition, special diets, healthy eating for children with food allergies, and more.
- Annabel Karmel is a prolific cookbook author of nutritious and kid-friendly meals for children. Recipes categorized by age group and food allergen avoidance needs are also available on her website.
Note: The information contained in this article has been provided as general health information and does not constitute specific medical advice for your child.