10 Tips to Help Your Picky Eater
Written by Gabrielle McPherson, MS, RDN, LDN
Got a toddler who has not touched a vegetable in months or one who survives solely on buttered noodles? We feel you! Picky eating often begins to disrupt eating habits at around one year, just when little ones are just starting to feed themselves. Picky eating can be hard to handle for concerned parents. While it is normal for young children to be fussy eaters, it is also natural to worry about whether your child is getting enough vitamins and minerals to stay nourished and to grow. So, take a deep breath, know you are not alone, and follow these 10 tips to help your child ease up on the picky eating and experience—and even enjoy—a greater variety of foods.
Picky Eating Strategy No. 1: Keep mealtime positive and pressure-free.
When children skip over certain foods on their plate or flat-out refuse to try anything at mealtime, it can make a parent anxious. And that anxiety can push you to pressure, coerce, or coax your toddler or big child into eating. Perhaps you say something like…
'Come on, take another bite!'
'Good boys eat all of their green beans.'
'If you finish your meal, you will get ice cream after!'
You may not think you are coaxing, but saying these types of phrases creates tension and stress around food…which is not good for anyone! To take the pressure off eating, start building healthy and positive mealtime conversations about the flavours and textures of your meal. But do not let the positivity stop there: Talk about everyone’s favourite activities, the awesome characteristics each family member possesses...you can also each share what you’re grateful for. At the same time, consider adopting the division of responsibility (DOR) approach to eating. Here, parents and children each have a specific job in feeding and eating…and we all stay in our own lane.
Your job? Choose what and where to serve food to your children. And your child’s job is to choose how much and whether they will eat. The DOR approach can help you begin to trust your child’s ability to eat when hungry and their ability to stop when full. (Sounds nerve wracking, but know that your toddler will not starve themselves. Promise.)
Picky Eating Strategy No. 2: Make mealtimes exciting!
Sometimes children can become picky eaters out of sheer boredom. So why not try to excite your picky eater’s palate by changing up how you offer food? Try things like setting up a living room picnic for lunch or offering a make-your-own mealtime bar where everyone customises their pizza, pasta, tacos, or grain bowls. You can also simply make food look more exciting by arranging them in a fun fashion, like bell pepper faces and flower-shaped pancakes. Another idea: Serve some meals in a muffin tin. Fill each compartment with a different food, like veggie sticks, sliced fruit, rolled deli meat, and special dips like chocolate hummus or ranch yogurt dip. (According to sciencedaily.com, toddlers tend to enjoy any food involving a dip.) The new-found fun of the muffin-tin approach is also a great way to introduce a new food or two to your toddler.
Picky Eating Strategy No. 3: Raise a little chef.
When you and your children make meals together you are not only creating long-lasting memories in the kitchen, you are helping to curb picky eating. Research shows that picky eaters are more likely to try foods they prepare themselves. Here are a few things your toddler might be able to do up to age 5:
At around 2 years old, children can practice saying the names of ingredients and pour pre-measured ingredients from measuring cups into mixing bowls.
At around 3 years old, children can help wash produce, tear lettuce for salad prep, and even use a crinkle cutter to cut soft foods like cucumbers and melons.
At around 4 years old, your little one can measure ingredients and cut using a child-safe plastic knife, and help knead dough.
At around 5 years old, children can peel fruit, crack eggs, and grease a cake pan or baking sheet.
Picky Eating Strategy No. 4: Make one meal for the whole family.
It is tempting to whip up multiple meals at one time to please your picky eater…but that can be time consuming and draining. Plus, if your child knows they can order whatever they want at dinnertime, they will become more and more reluctant to try other foods. Instead, simplify meal prep to just one meal to serve everyone. You will spend less time in the kitchen (yes!), expose your children to new tastes and textures (woot!), and you will have a bonding mealtime experience since you are all eating the same thing (also wonderful!). While it can be hard to move away from making a kid meal and an adult meal, it is truly necessary in order to combat picky eating and to promote healthy family mealtimes.
Picky Eating Strategy No. 5: Serve meals that can be deconstructed.
If you have been making a separate meal for a child for a long time, preparing one family meal for all may feel impossible. To make the process less daunting, create meals that can easily be deconstructed. For example, if you are making taco bowls, serve the grownups as you normally would, then serve your child a small portion each of shredded cheese, black beans, rice, diced tomatoes, shredded chicken, and chopped peppers. This approach often makes meals less intimidating. You can also serve meals like this family-style, where children and grownups can serve themselves or assemble what they want in their own plate.
Picky Eating Strategy No. 6: Offer a 'sample' of a new food.
Serving a large portion of a new food to a child can be scary and overwhelming. Just imagine if you were at a friend’s home and they put a whopping scoop of mystery mush on your plate and expected you to eat it all up. Not fun! Instead, offer picky eaters new foods in small amounts. Pretend you are at supermarket getting a sample or at a cocktail party tasting hors d’oeuvres. That is the size you want to stick with.
Picky Eating Strategy No. 7: Establish a 'no thank you' bowl.
Place an empty bowl on the dining table during meals and call it the 'no thank you bowl.' Here, your child is allowed to make the conscious decision to not eat a particular food and place it in the designated bowl. This can help children feel autonomous and it can create healthy conversations about what they have put into the bowl and why. For instance, if your child placed cauliflower florets in there, you might say something like: 'I see you are not interested in your cauliflower tonight. Did you know there is choline inside of them? Choline gives you brain power! Maybe you will be interested in tasting cauliflower tomorrow.'
Picky Eating Strategy No. 8: Rename your child’s food.
Your child might show zero interest in shredded coconut, raisins, or edamame, but they might like to try coconut confetti, chewy black bugs, and green goblin bites. And some toddlers may respond to new names that tout the power a food has, like x-ray vision carrots, others may favour a rebranding approach (apple slices become apple fries). Get creative and come up with funky new food names to pique your child’s interest.
Picky Eating Strategy No. 9: Reframe your mindset.
If you say the words 'picky eater' out loud to your child—even just a couple of times—it just may be enough to set them on a path to take on that identity, refusing to open up to eating certain foods in the future. No one wants that! A better approach is to ditch the term 'picky' and trade it for 'food explorer' or 'food adventurer.' While your toddler might not be the most adventurous eater at the moment, hearing more positive labels can increase their willingness to explore different foods.
Another reframing strategy involves tweaking the way you talk about your child’s behaviour to yourself and others. For instance, many parents ask, 'How do I get my child to eat X, Y, and Z?' But 'getting your child to eat' sounds kind of forceful and controlling, does it not? Instead, ask: 'How can I help my child eat X, Y, and Z?' At the same time, if you find yourself talking to another adult about your child’s fussy eating, instead of saying, 'Oh, she does not like broccoli,' say, 'We are working on exposing her to more cruciferous veggies right now.' This subtle shift in thinking and speaking reinforces the DOR approach—and it is a good reminder that you and your child are on the same team.
Picky Eating Strategy No. 10: Read stories about food together.
There is a whole host of children’s books starring food. Some stories capture fruit and veggies having kitchen disco parties. Others are about children or animals who start as picky eaters but are eating their way through new foods by the end of the book. The sillier the book, the better! Your child may even ask to try a food they saw in the book, so it may be time to get to the library! Some to consider, include Food Faces, We’re Going to the Farmers’ Market, Dragon’s Love Tacos, and chidlren-focused cookbooks, like Busy Little Hands: Food Play!: Activities for Preschoolers are great, too!
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.