"Jack will only eat white food, nothing else."
"The only way I can get Simone to eat her vegetables is if I bribe her with ice cream."
"Elia is so picky. I have to serve everything on separate plates so nothing is touching."
These are all sentiments, or variations of, spoken by exasperated parents of finicky eaters each day in all parts of the country. And the well-meaning advice often passed along is typically less than helpful:
"In my day, there wasn’t enough food to be picky. If you didn’t like what was served, more for the rest of us."
"Mash them up and sneak them in her macaroni and cheese - she’ll never notice."
"He’ll grow out of it, just ignore it."
The truth is, some children embrace new foods heartily while others, not so much. Being choosy about food is often a stage children go through, common when children are experimenting with control. And it is true that many children will grow out of it, at least to a manageable level.
But what is also true is that many children become choosy because of the way we introduce and consume food. And those children often remain choosy, at least to some extent, into adulthood. This means they will spend a lifetime missing out on important nutrients and food experiences. Of course, there may be a medical reason a child is a finicky eater and this deserves professional attention, but typically it is a choice they are making.
While picky eating can be a battleground, there are a few things you can do to minimize it from starting or getting out of control. Remember that each child is different and has varied preferences; celebrate progress, rather than hold out for perfection. At the same time, know that turning a child who picks at their food into a willing and eager eater is quite possible.
- From infancy, introduce a variety of food to expand your child's palate: flavors, textures, smells, and temperatures.
- Cook together. Making something always makes it more appealing. Even better, let your child chooses what to make (out of a few healthy options you provide, of course).
- Try to avoid kid's meals at home or restaurants. They typically have minimal nutritional value and do nothing to encourage diverse eating. Kids can and should eat what adults are eating.
- Do not avoid foods you don't like—let your child have a chance to develop his own tastes.
- Avoid heavy snacking (including beverages) between meals to ensure your child is hungry at mealtime.
- Don't save room for dessert; it sends the message that other food is what you have to get through to get to the good stuff. Healthy food should be the prize. Dessert should be for special occasions and moments only.
- Don't bribe your child to eat. Their focus shifts from the food to the reward. This is a form of emotional eating; a bad habit to start.
- No cutting crusts. It's a short-term win, but a long-term loss. Avoid food preparations that encourage being picky. Sometimes parents do this before a child even asks, starting a habit without thinking about it.
- Clean plates are over-rated. Sure, you don't want to encourage wasting food, but forcing children to finish an item or meal teaches them to ignore their internal 'full' signal and potentially associate a bad memory or feeling with a specific food. Start with small portions and offer seconds.
- When serving a new food, keep your expectations small: one spear of asparagus, one shrimp, etc.
- Replace one thing at a time. For example, don't stop baking cookies altogether, just switch to whole-wheat flour. Don't eliminate juice; just try cranberry, peach, or mango instead of apple (100% juice, of course).
- Create balance. Include a favorite at each meal when you're serving something new.
- Take the pressure off and introduce new foods away from the table: a whole-grain bread or cheese taste test, a "name that fruit" challenge, a French or Greek themed picnic at the park, grocery store sample challenge, etc.
- As a last resort, introduce new things in favorite ways—if you have to fry zucchini once or twice to get your child to try it, it's okay. They'll be less hesitant when you add it to a salad or grill it later.
- Do not, do not, do not make a face when you don't like something. Be a good role-model.
- Trying should be for everyone in the family—consider incorporating these 'rules' into your routine.
- Family rule—try everything at every meal, even if it's only one pea and even if you've tried it before.
- Respect preferences. If a child doesn't want to eat more, don't force him. He may hesitate to admit he likes something in the future if he feels pressure.
- Everybody tries. That means mom, dad, big sister—everyone.
- Trying a food item one day does not exempt anyone from trying it again another day. It often takes ten or more tries to develop a taste for something.
- Let kids not like a few things. No one likes everything. If a child clearly doesn't like something, be okay with that.
To the parent of a choosy eater, this may seem impossible. But in actuality, most children respond to these methods. With a strong commitment to lifelong healthy nutrition and the willpower to withstand a few days of whining, you can turn your child's eating habits around.
NOTE: If your child complains of physical symptoms after eating, doesn't eat much of anything, is underweight, or has other potential medical symptoms related to eating, consult a physician.
- Our parenting webinar, Food for Thought, includes strategies and tips for growing a healthy eater
- Visit Meal Makeover Moms for family friendly recipes, weekly podcasts, cooking videos, and more
- Read Nourish Mom's adventures in growing a healthy eater and see how she is trying to makeover her daughter's school lunches now that she's in kindergarten
- Join the chat on our community about whether to cater to picky eaters...or not