Picky eaters can be a tough challenge to crack.
Most parents feel it’s their responsibility to get their children to eat a large variety of foods, vegetables included.
And from what I hear in my office, most also feel a sense of personal failure when their children only want to eat peanut butter and chocolate chips!
Helping picky eaters enjoy a wide variety of foods can quickly turn into a frustrating process for parents and a stressful one for children.
So in this article, I’ll be sharing some helpful tips that can help your picky eaters expand their palate while keeping mealtime stress to a minimum.
The psychology of picky eaters
Picky or fussy eating is very common in childhood.
The good news is that many children outgrow picky eating as they get older. In one large study which included over 4,000 children, around 28% of them showed signs of picky eating at age 3, while only 13% of them did at age 6 (1, 2).
So patience appears to be key, as is often the case when it comes to parenting. But that’s not to say there’s nothing you can do to help your picky eaters along.
For starters, it can be helpful to know that children can be picky with foods for a variety of reasons. This includes their age, genetics, personality, as well as the culture they grow up in, and the feeding approaches used by their parents (2, 3).
Some children may also become picky eaters due to medical issues, chewing or swallowing difficulties. Others have sensory difficulties which can cause certain tastes or textures to feel too intense or not intense enough, influencing what they choose to eat and avoid.
Out of these factors, the one easiest for most parents to change is the approach they use when feeding their children. This is what this article will focus on.
IN SUM – Picky eating can be caused by a variety of factors. Many children outgrow picky eating as they get older. Parents can help their children become less picky around foods by changing the feeding approach they use.
How to fix a picky eater
Let me start by saying that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with picky eaters. For many children, picky eating is simply a stage they will go through during their development.
But since many parents seem to google this specific question, I thought I’d title this section accordingly!
Like I just mentioned, the approach parents use to feed their children is one factor parents can change to help their picky eaters enjoy a wider variety of foods.
One approach to feeding that’s often praised for helping kids become less picky with foods is called the division of responsibility.
This feeding approach was pioneered by dietitian and feeding expert Ellyn Satter more than three decades ago. She fully describes it in her book Child of Mine, which is one of the child nutrition books I recommend all parents read.
In short, the division of responsibility suggests that parent and child have defined roles when it comes to feeding.
- Parent’s role: to decide when, where and what foods to offer.
- Child’s role: to decide whether and how much of each food to eat.
The idea is that as long as parent and child each focus on their respective roles, picky eating behaviors will be minimized.
IN SUM – The division of responsibility is a responsive approach to feeding developed by dietitian and feeding expert Ellyn Satter. Research links this feeding approach to a lower likelihood of picky eating.
How to feed a picky eater
The division of responsibility sounds simple enough, right? Yet, putting it into practice isn’t always easy.
In the video below, I describe how I personally make this feeding approach work for my family to help my child enjoy a larger variety of foods. I also share some troubleshooting tips to help you deal with commonly arising resistance from strong-willed toddlers!
If you need ideas on how to ensure your child’s meal is well-balanced, check out my article on the 3-step formula to making balanced meals for kids. You can also download a free printable list of the best food combinations below.
IN SUM – The video above shows you how I personally make the division of responsibility work for my family. It also shares ways that I respond to my toddler when she’s not pleased with the foods on offer.
Why I’m a fan of the division of responsibility to feeding
The division of responsibility approach to feeding is definitely not the authoritarian style of “eat what I put on the table or you’ll eat nothing” you may be thinking of.
That’s because for this concept to work, there should be no stress around mealtimes, and your child should not feel pressure to eat foods that they don’t want to eat.
As a parent and registered dietitian, I’m a big fan of this approach to feeding for several reasons.
It helps reduce mealtime stress and frustrations
This approach to feeding gives parents the permission to stop planning their family meals solely based on what they think their picky eaters will eat. It also gives them permission to stop acting like a short order cook only to ensure that their picky eaters eat something.
This makes a parent’s life so much easier, and helps take some of the stress out of meal planning and preparation.
From the child’s perspective, this approach teaches them to expect that each meal will include a few new foods, that they may not know or be familiar with. Yet, it also teaches them to trust that each meal will also include a few foods that they already love and enjoy.
Children also come to learn that there won’t be any pressure from their parents regarding how much of each food to eat. These expectations helps children feel more relaxed at mealtimes.
Helps kids learn to eat for the right reasons
The division of responsibility approach to feeding prevents your child from learning to eat either to please you, avoid punishment or earn a reward. Rather, it teaches them to focus on their signals of hunger and satiety when it comes to eating.
In other words, it helps picky eaters maintain an internal motivation to eating, rather than developing an external one.
I believe that this can help children grow up into adults which eat because of hunger rather than as a response to stress, boredom or emotions — which is something a lot of the adults I counsel admit struggling with.
Helps prevent that certain foods become more prized than others
This approach to feeding levels the playing field for all foods.
It helps prevent that a reward food becomes more prized than the food that needs to be eaten in order to earn that reward. This can encourage your child to stop viewing dessert as more desirable than the vegetables that need to be eaten in order to earn it.
In short, this approach to feeding can help picky eaters develop positive feelings about a variety of foods – vegetables included – rather than just about a handful of prized foods.
Helps take the guesswork out of feeding
Having a framework when it comes to meals and snacks can help set expectations and take some of the guesswork out of feeding. This can help make mealtimes fun again.
For instance, your child will learn what’s expected of them around mealtimes.
They will learn that once a meal is over, they will need to wait until the next eating moment before they can eat again. This helps prevent grazing between meals, increasing the likelihood that your child will actually be hungry for the next meal or snack.
Your child will also learn that, although they can request certain foods at certain meals, you will ultimately be the one deciding what will be served.
They’ll also come to trust that despite not being the ones choosing what will be served, each meal and snack will include foods they are familiar with and enjoy eating already.
For the parents, it can be liberating to realize that you cannot make your picky eaters eat, no matter how hard you try. Attempting to do so will only result in stress for both you and your child which often leads to your child eating less rather than more (7).
IN SUM – Using the concept of division of responsibility when it comes to feeding can help reduce mealtime-stress and teach your child to eat for the right reasons. It can also take the guesswork out of feeding and prevent certain foods from becoming exceedingly prized.
9 Helpful tips to help your child become less picky around food
Here are a few additional helpful tips to help your picky eater warm-up to a larger variety of foods.
1. Establish a feeding schedule
A set meal and snack schedule can prevent grazing and unscheduled snacks from sabotaging your child’s appetite at mealtimes.
A child that’s not really hungry is less likely to eat or have the motivation to try new foods. I won’t provide you with ideal exact meal and snack times, as these are likely to vary from one family to another.
However, as a general rule of thumb, you can try offering your child a meal or snack every 2-3 hours.
Also try to prevent your child from filling up on fluid such as plant milks or juice between meals. Sticking to water as the beverage of choice between meals can help with this.
2. Keep the eating environment free of distractions
Children tend to eat best in a calm environment that’s free of distractions. For instance, at the dinner table, without toys, and with the ipad or TV turned off.
Eating together with your child can also be helpful as it’ll help model the eating behaviors you want them to develop. Plus, kids are more likely to accept foods if they see others eating them as well (8).
If it’s not practical to eat at the same time as your child, try to at least sit at the table to keep them company while they eat.
This can make the eating environment more pleasant for them, encouraging them to remain at the table for longer, and perhaps eventually trying a bite of that new food.
3. Offer new foods repeatedly
Children need to be exposed to a new food on average 15 times before accepting it.
Remember, this is only an average. This means that some picky eaters may need fewer exposures while others need significantly more to accept the same new food (9).
Research suggests that offering your child the same new foods over the course of several meals without any pressure to eat it is the best way to promote food acceptance. Pressuring your child to eat a new food is counter-productive, and appears to increase pickiness (7, 10).
So don’t get discouraged if your child consistently refuses the spinach on their plate. Simply continue to offer the vegetable in various forms and trust that your child will likely taste it when they’re ready to.
4. Let your child eat with friends
Research suggests that children are more likely to try new foods when they eat with other children.
You can make this work to your child’s advantage by packing together a selection of “safe” and “new” foods in your child’s school lunch.
Alternatively, try offering a combination of your child’s safe foods together with a few new ones as a snack during your child’s next playdate.
However, whatever you do, do avoid comparing your child to others. Each child has their own temperament. Some are naturally more adventurous while others are naturally more cautious — and this applies to foods as well.
5. Keep meals short
Experts suggest that meals should take, on average, between 20 and 30 minutes. After that time, it’s ok for parents to put the food away until the next eating opportunity (6).
If your child appears disinterested in his meal, isn’t eating, or asks to leave the table during a meal, it could be because your child was not truly hungry for that meal.
In such a case, ask your child if they’re hungry. If they say no, I suggest allowing them to leave the table, making it clear that the food will be put away, until the next scheduled eating opportunity.
For example, if this happens during a family dinner, you could let your child know that their meal will remain on the table until you are done with yours. Let them know that they are free to return to the table to eat during this time period.
However, clearly communicate that after that period of time, their meal will be put away so they can eat it at a later time, when they’re truly hungry.
If your child asks for a snack before bed, you can then take out their leftovers from dinner and offer it to them as a bedtime snack.
6. Avoid labeling foods as “good” or “bad”
When helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food, no foods should be off-limits.
Certain foods are obviously richer in vitamins, minerals and nutrients than others. However, labelling the nutrient-poor foods as “bad” or “off limits” can result in your child craving them even more.
Developing a “good” versus “bad” mentality when it comes to foods can also cause your child to develop an unhealthy relationship with foods.
I’m not suggesting that you let your child have only candy, chips and pretzels for dinner. After all, it is your responsibility, as the parent, to decide what foods will be offered at meals or snacks.
However, your child is likely to come into contact with less nutrient-dense foods at some point; be it at a playdate, visit to grandma’s and grandpa’s or a summer fair.
In such instances, I recommend not pointing out that a food is “junk” or that they shouldn’t have too much of it because it’s bad for their health.
Simply let your child eat as much of it as they wish, and make sure to offer a nutrient-rich meal or snack at their next eating opportunity.
7. Use creativity when presenting meals
Sometimes, presenting a food in a new context is all it takes to motivate picky eaters to give it a try.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Dips: children love dipping foods, so offer fruits or vegetables together with a dip.
- Homemade trail mix: bonus points for getting your child to help you mix it.
- Fruit or vegetable kabobs: get your children to help you make them.
- Frozen fruit: some children may prefer the texture and temperature of frozen fruit over that of fresh fruit.
- Smoothies: it can be an appealing way for your child to eat leafy greens like spinach and kale. Alternatively, try making popsicles from said smoothies.
- Self-assembled meals: getting your child to assemble their meal themselves can make them more interested in eating it. For instance, you can try letting them add their favorite toppings to a homemade pizza or their afternoon yogurt.
8. Involve your child in food decisions
Involving your picky eaters in meal planning, grocery shopping and meal preparation can spark their interest in trying new foods.
You can do this by allowing your child to pick fresh produce at the supermarket or choosing a recipe to make for dinner.
There are plenty of other age-appropriate ways to involve your child in the meal preparation process starting from as early as 0-18 months. I strongly encourage you to give them a try.
9. Avoid using food as a punishment or reward
Tactics that use food either as a punishment or reward will teach your picky eaters to eat either to please you, avoid punishment or earn a reward.
Learning to eat as a result of these external motivations may cause your child to lose touch with their internal motivation to eat. By this, I mean that they might lose touch with their internal signals of hunger and satiety.
Children that lose the natural ability to eat when hungry and stop eating when full risk growing up into adults that struggle with this too.
For this reason, I encourage parents to avoid the following tactics when feeding children:
- Praise: for example, clapping or cheering when your child tries a new food or telling your child that you’re so proud of them for eating all of their vegetables.
- Shame or guilt: for example, saying something like “be a good boy and take a bite for mommy” or “you asked me to make pasta, now eat it!”
- Bribes: for example, telling your child that they need to take two more bites of their dinner before they can get dessert.
- Distraction: for example, using the television or ipad to entertain your child while they eat. This also applies to parents entertaining their child through other means to eat more, such as “here comes the airplane; mouth open wide!”
- Threats: force-feeding or not allowing your child to leave the table until they take a certain amount of bites of food.
- Pressure: for example, forcing your child to touch, lick or play with a food they don’t want to touch or eat. Trying to get your child to eat by telling them that “this food is good for you” or that “you need it to grow big and strong” can also come off as pressure.
IN SUM – The tips above should help your child become less picky around foods. You can choose to try them all at once, or gradually incorporate them in your feeding routine.
How to avoid worrying about your picky eaters
Worries about poor growth and nutrient deficiencies are two reasons why parents may pressure their children to eat certain foods.
Although both are valid worries, pressuring your child to eat rarely works.
So what can worried parents do?
First, try to remind yourself that healthy children aren’t likely to let themselves starve. Your child may eat a lot one day and seemingly very little another. This is absolutely normal.
If your child is growing and developing normally, according to your pediatrician’s criteria and the World Health Organization growth charts, there’s little to worry about.
Consider tracking your child’s intake
If it helps you worry less, try logging a few days of what your child is eating in an online food journal such as Cronometer. This might help you realize that their average intake does suit their needs.
If you notice that your child’s intake is consistently falling short for the same nutrients, consider compiling a list of your child’s “safe foods” for each corresponding nutrients. For instance, a list of “safe iron-rich foods” and another for “safe calcium-rich foods.”
Then, try to incorporate some of these foods at each meal or snack. If, despite this, your child still gets too little of these nutrients, consider giving them a supplement until they are able to meet their needs through diet alone.
A supplement can help give you the peace of mind needed to avoid resorting to counter-productive pressure tactics to get your child to eat.
Getting help from a registered dietitian to adjust your picky eaters’ diet to best help them meet their nutrient needs can also help.
IN SUM – If your child is growing and developing normally, they are likely getting the nutrients they need. However, you can always double-check this by tracking your child’s intake with an online food journal.
When picky eating becomes abnormal
For some children, picky eating may be more than just a normal developmental eating stage.
If you notice that your child consistently shows extreme anxiety around meals, sensory or social difficulties, finds it difficult to handle certain textures, or has an extremely restricted amount of “safe” foods, contact your pediatrician or a registered dietitian specializing in pediatrics for help.
Red flags that your child’s behavior may be more than a normal phase of picky eating include (11):
- Abnormal growth and development
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Pain or crying when eating
- Vomiting or diarrhea after eating
- Anxiety, sensory reactivity or repetitive behaviors around meals
If you suspect that your child may have a food allergy or intolerance, try keeping track of the foods they consistently refuse eating to see if they have something in common. For example, cruciferous vegetables or gluten-containing foods may cause bloating in some children.
Make sure to also ask your child how they’re feeling when they eat these foods and take their answers seriously.
IN SUM – Picky eating may sometimes signal an allergy, intolerance or medical, sensory or psychological issue. If your child shows any of the red-flags above, seek help from your healthcare provider.
To sum it all up
Picky eating is an absolutely typical, developmentally-appropriate behavior for most children.
If your child is struggling to accept a wide variety of foods, consider helping them by modifying your approach to feeding. The video and tips shared above should help you get started in the right direction.
Over time, many children will start accepting a wider variety of foods. However, if picky eating behaviors do not resolve or only get worse over time, consider seeking out help from a pediatrician or registered dietitian specializing in pediatrics.