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Katherine Martinelli

How To Deal With Picky Eaters

Have a picky eater on your hands? You’re not alone. Here’s why toddlers are often so selective about their food—and what you can do about it.

There are few things as frustrating as working hard to prepare a delicious, nutritious meal, only to have your child refuse to eat it—especially when you know he’d like it if he’d just try a bite. When picky eaters constantly turn down food, it’s all too easy for mealtime to devolve into an all-out battle—or for you to reach for the chicken fingers yet again just to get your child to eat. Even if baby seemed to be on the foodie track, it’s completely normal for him to morph into a picky eater once he hits the toddler years—and all the organic food in the world wouldn’t have saved him. So what’s a mom to do? Luckily, medical experts and experienced moms have a few tips and tricks for how to deal with picky eaters.

In this article:
Why are kids picky eaters?
How to deal with picky eaters

Why Are Kids Picky Eaters?

There are a number of factors—running the gamut from nature to nurture—that can cause kids to become picky eaters, says Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, a pediatric feeding specialist and coauthor of Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater. Often, when it happens is closely intertwined with why it happens. Regardless of the reason, it’s a phase most kids undergo and, fortunately, eventually outgrow.

When do toddlers become picky eaters?

Picky eating can be a natural part of your child’s development as her growth spurts start to slow and she begins to test her autonomy and boundaries. It can begin as early as 18 months, but kids typically become selective about what they eat between 2 and 5 years old, says Adina Pearson, RD, the registered dietician behind the blog Healthy Little Eaters.

Part of coping with your child’s behavioral shift, she says, is to manage expectations. “At that point, they might even reject foods they used to like,” Pearson says. “Parents need to expect that around [this age] kids are going to start rejecting some things.”

What causes picky eaters?

There are a number of reasons why kids might become picky eaters. Some of the most common causes of picky eating are:

An instinct for self-preservation. Some studies suggest that kids’ rejection of new foods—particularly leafy greens and bitter vegetables—is actually an evolutionary survival mechanism to keep small children from sampling poisonous plants, stemming all the way back to our hunter-gatherer days.

A slowdown in growth. From birth to age 2, children undergo extraordinary growth—and when that growth rate naturally slows, so does the toddler’s appetite, Pearson says. Parents often misinterpret this dip in food consumption as picky eating.

A need for independence. As kids enter the toddler phase, there’s an increased desire for autonomy, Pearson explains—and exerting control over food is one of the easiest ways to claim some independence.

A tendency to pick up bad habits. Studies have shown that the eating habits of caregivers and even peers have a noticeable impact on how and what kids eat. The more they see those around them refusing to try new foods or maintaining unhealthy eating habits, the more likely they’ll mimic those behaviors.

A medical issue. There could also be medical and physiological reasons behind your child’s picky eating habits, including tongue tie (in which the connecting skin under the tongue is too short); poor oral motor skills (like trouble chewing or swallowing); gastrointestinal trouble; sensitivities to textures, smells and flavors; anxiety disorder and autism, to name a few. It’s always worth checking in with your doctor if you have concerns about your child’s picky eating.

How to Deal with Picky Eaters

We can’t help it: As moms, we feel an instinctive need to make sure our children are wellfed. (In fact, studies say this maternal response evolved over thousands of years when food was scarce.) But these days, especially in the US, overeating is the greater threat to our children’s health, and that natural impulse to feed—whether we’re forcing kids to finish their food, feeding them after they’re full or just catering to their every whim—can often have the unintended consequence of solidifying poor eating habits.

When dealing with picky eaters, Pearson recommends following the Division of Responsibility in Feeding model developed by Ellyn Satter, a respected registered dietitian nutritionist. Under this popular approach, parents determine what, when and where children eat, while the kids are responsible for how much they eat. “It’s about establishing that you’re going to have family meals and there’s going to be food on the table, but that it’s a child’s right to choose how much to eat of everything,” Pearson says. “It’s saying, ‘We’re not going to change our eating habits to cater to you, and we’re not going to force you [to eat].’ It’s authoritative parenting as opposed to permissive or authoritarian parenting. It’s laying boundaries.”

Plus, how hungry kids are can change on a daily basis. “Appetites are going to come in waves,” Pearson says. “There are days when it seems like a child is a ‘breatharian’ and living off of air or eats like a bird. And then days when they suddenly have this huge appetite.” Kids are more in tune with their bodies than perhaps adults realize, she says, and forcing them to eat when they don’t want to can backfire later on because it teaches them to bypass their own hunger cues.

When offering food to picky eaters, Potock relies on what she calls “the three Es:”

Expose. Keep exposing picky eaters to new foods not only by serving different things but also through experiences like gardening or going to the grocery store.

Explore. Let kids explore food by allowing them to have fun and get messy with it. Don’t be shy about involving young kids in the cooking.

Expand. Once kids’ food curiosity is established, Potock says, it’s much easier to expand on it and start introducing new foods to picky eaters.

Best foods for picky eaters

Because every kid is picky in her own unique way—and that can even vary from meal to meal—it can be hard to figure out what to feed picky eaters. However, there are certain types of foods most kids tend to enjoy, especially since you can customize them to your kids’ tastes. Plus, they’re wonderful vehicles for hiding (and therefore introducing) new flavors—and even veggies! These include:

  • Smoothies
  • Meatballs
  • Pancakes
  • Muffins

But at the end of the day, you want to try to get your picky eaters accustomed to the foods your family often eats, Potock says, whether that’s lasagna or enchiladas. Not sure how to go about doing that? Check out our top tips below.

How to introduce new foods to picky eaters

Besides the stealth food packages above, there are plenty of strategies for exposing new foods to picky eaters in plain view on their plate. Whatever you do, don’t get discouraged because persistence will pay off. Here, some expert tips on introducing new foods to picky eaters:

Try “deconstructing” whatever meal you’re having. Instead of serving tacos or a salad, for example, put a few of the components on your toddler’s plate, Potock suggests. After a while, your picky eater may start putting them together on her own—and, in time, she might even be open to eating an actual taco.

Offer small amounts. When introducing a new food to your child, try not to overwhelm him: Potock typically recommends offering a tablespoon of the food, at the most. (That way, you’re also not wasting food if your picky eater still isn’t interested.) You can also ask your child whether he’d like to use a big spoon or a little one, giving him more control.

Give new foods more than one try. It can take up to 15 tries for a kid to tolerate certain foods—but getting to a point where your child genuinely likes it? That can take months, Potock says. Many parents offer the food three or four times and then give up—but the trick is to stick with it. For Katerina K., mom to a one-and-a-half-year-old who’s a voracious eater, repeated exposure paid off. “I’ve just continued offering foods even if my daughter turns them away the first one or 100 times,” she says.

Make small changes. Another tactic is to take something picky eaters actually like and then change just one thing about it, Potock says—whether you offer a different shape, flavor or filling. Even getting kids to accept chicken fingers if they usually only eat nuggets can be a step in the right direction.

Pair new foods with things they like. Instead of giving your kid a whole plate of something new and expecting her to eat it, pair it with foods you know she’ll enjoy. Emily P., mom of a 5-year-old, says her husband introduced a “strategy of threes” that has been effective. “At each meal, he offered our daughter one food she would definitely eat, one food she might eat (something she had tried and eaten before, but didn’t necessarily love) and one new food to try,” she says. “That took a lot of pressure off everyone, knowing that there would always be something on her plate that she would happily eat.”

Encourage at least one bite. “We have a rule in our house,” says Lychelle H., mom of two boys. “If we ask the kids to try something new, they have to take one bite. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat it. My boys have discovered that they actually like a lot of things they refused to eat in the past.” Potock recommends instituting this only once your children are open to tasting new foods. If trying to get them to take a bite causes a meltdown, they may not be ready for this strategy.

Mealtime tips for picky eaters

Still stuck trying to figure out how to get a picky toddler to eat? Try these tactics from experts and fellow parents:

Get the kids involved. Have your picky eaters join in on various aspects of meal planning, from planning the menu to grocery shopping and actually cooking. Find an easy recipe from a kids’ cookbook to try.

Serve food family style. Potock and Pearson both recommend serving meals family style—meaning everyone serves themselves from the same platter. It’s a technique that’s worked well for Ashley J., a mom of three. “For the most part, the kids choose what they want and how much,” she says. “My 4-year-old is an adventurous and amazingly healthy eater. My 2-year-old is a terribly picky, anxious eater, but he loves dishing himself helpings. He doesn’t always eat it, but I consider him putting salad on his own plate—and occasionally trying it—a win. He’s expanded his palate this way, and while he still has a long way to go, I feel like he’s definitely made progress.”

Serve multicourse meals. “I always offered food in courses, starting with what I knew the kids would want the least,” says Rachel F., mom to a 7-year-old and 15-month-old. “If it was the only thing on their plate, they seemed more apt to eat it instead of skipping it.”

Establish a meal schedule. A lot of parents let their kids snack whenever they want to make sure they’re never feeling hungry. But feeling ravenous when mealtime rolls around is key—so it’s important to keep snacks small and establish (and stick with) an eating schedule.

Learn to let things go. Kids feed off of our anxiety levels, so one of the best things parents can do is not make a big deal out of picky eating, and relinquish some control. Shannon F., a mom of three, has found that “just not sweating it” has been the best thing for her family. “Picking what foods to offer my kids and when—but letting them decide what and how much to eat—is the only thing that’s saved me from the insanity of my middle child’s pickiness,” she says. At the end of the day, learning how to deal with picky eaters often comes down to understanding your child’s temperament. Some kids are simply more headstrong or fearful than others. At a certain point, says Pearson, “rather than feel like you failed, it’s important for parents to just recognize that this is how your child is.”

Published September 2017

PHOTO: George Marks / Getty Images