6 Strategies for Picky Eaters

It isn't easy to parent a picky eater. These six strategies may help your picky eater have a more varied diet, and may ease your mealtime stress.
It isn’t easy to parent a picky eater. These six strategies may help your picky eater have a more varied diet, and may ease your mealtime stress.

Picky eating is a common problem. It affects about one-quarter of children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. Some children accept more new foods beginning about the time they start school. Others remain picky eaters longer.

It isn't easy to parent a picky eater. Remember what you can and cannot control. You are in charge of when and where your child eats and what foods are available. Your child controls his or her food intake. Trust your child to eat when hungry and stop when full, just as you do. But if you would like for your child's diet to be more varied, these strategies for picky eaters may help.

1. Keep the pressure off at mealtime

During the preschool years, children work hard to become independent. Pressuring them to eat certain things may cause greater resistance. Praise, tricks, rewards, and punishments are likely to backfire, too. Resist turning meals into power struggles.

Instead, try making mealtime pleasant and low-key. Reduce distractions such as television and electronics. Try soft music instead. Don't bring up family issues. Instead, share stories and anecdotes. You might even tell a joke or ask a riddle. The goal is to make mealtime enjoyable without distracting from its main purpose. 

2. Check your own eating habits

Your attitude about foods can affect your child's behavior. One study found that mothers who resist unfamiliar foods often have children who do the same. Don't react to unfamiliar dishes with negative comments, body language, or facial expressions. If you do, your child may decide to copy you.

Instead, try to be a role model for healthy eating. When you choose and enjoy healthy foods, your child may be motivated to try them, too. As your child gets older, friends and siblings will become big influences. Sometimes a child will accept a new food at a friend's house after turning it down at home.

3. Understand your child's eating behaviors

Some children respond strongly to tastes, smells, and textures. They may have a sensory processing disorder, or they may just be extra sensitive. Such children are more likely to be picky eaters. They may hang on to their choosy ways for years, according to one study. Researchers checked children's eating habits at age 4 and again two years later. Those that were picky eaters at age 4 were still choosy at age 6.

If you have a child who is hypersensitive to taste, smell, and touch, don't give up. You can consider your child's likes and dislikes and still offer healthy choices. If a child dislikes soft foods, offer them in a firmer form or use them as a dip for crunchy foods. If your child dislikes the smell of cooked vegetables, serve them raw instead.

Active children who don't like to sit still pose a different problem. Children consume most of their calories during the first 20 minutes of a meal, so don't make your child sit at the table for a long time.

4. Involve your child in meal preparation

Another good strategy is to involve your child in mealtime decisions. Your child is less likely to reject a food after picking it out. Take your child to the farmers' market or to the produce section of the grocery store. (Avoid conflicts about processed foods by shopping those aisles on another day.) Your child can help plan a menu, create a centerpiece for the table, and pick out serving dishes or placemats.

Young children can also help prepare meals. Good jobs for kids include:

  • Tearing lettuce
  • Stirring pancake batter
  • Assembling pizzas
  • Sprinkling cheese
  • Measuring ingredients
  • Pouring in ingredients

5. Give choices, but not a separate meal

Experts say you should not prepare a separate meal for your picky eater. Instead, prepare one meal for the family, but include some foods that your child likes. Your child may be more likely to eat the family meal if you:

  • Limit snacks and high-calorie drinks between meals so your child is hungry
  • Include a favorite fruit with each meal
  • Keep portion sizes small so the amount of food isn't a turn-off

6. Offer foods more than once

If your child rejects a food, don't immediately put it on the list of disliked foods. Children need repeated exposure to new foods before they accept them. Some studies show that trying to food 10 to 15 times may do the trick. Exposure can mean a tiny taste. A child who has tried a food multiple times may finally accept it when he or she is especially hungry, or when a friend or family member is eating it.


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American Academy of Pediatrics: "10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters."

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Feeding a Picky Eater: The Do's and Don'ts."

Eating Behaviors: "Prevalence and correlates of picky eating in preschool-aged children: A population-based study."

International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: "Child and parent predictors of picky eating from preschool to school age."

Nemours Kids Health: "Cooking With Preschoolers."

Proceedings of the Nutrition Society: "Picky eating in children: causes and consequences."

UnlockFood: "Say Goodbye to Picky Eating."

Zero to Three: "How to Handle Picky Eaters."