How to Feed a Picky Eater
One of the most common parenting struggles is how to get our kiddos to eat good food. You’re probably here because you’re struggling with how to feed a picky eater.
You’re not alone. I’ve been there and so have most parents. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned over the years.
My boys are teenagers now and they eat a variety of healthy foods. Of course, they indulge in junk food sometimes, but I’m okay with that.
In fact, you can read more about why I let my kids eat junk food even though we believe that real food is the only healthy food.
The Good News and the Bad News About Feeding a Picky Eater
Let’s do the bad news first. The good news makes up for it, I promise.
The bad news is that you cannot – and should not – force your child to eat what they don’t want to eat.
The good news is that most children eventually grow out of their picky eating habits and become willing to try a variety of foods.
Fortunately, I’ve got some great tips to help you get your kiddos eating good food sooner rather than later.
Quick question - How many times will you be interrupted before you can finish reading this page?
Go ahead and pin this one for later so you can get back to it easily when you've got a second.
Before we begin, a word of caution: If your child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and/or sensory processing disorder (SPD) or food allergies or intolerances, they may always have an aversion to certain foods and textures.
Work with your child’s pediatrician to discover the most nutritious way to feed your child while taking into account their special needs.
This blog post is not about feeding picky eaters with special needs. If you find that the suggestions offered here do not work for your child, please consider that your child may have special needs that should be addressed.
Special need don’t prevent your child from eating a healthy diet, however. I have two children with special needs who eat well-rounded, nutritious diets with their needs and preferences accounted for.
Please consult your pediatrician for more information.
Toddlers and Preschoolers are Naturally Picky Eaters
Toddlers and preschoolers are notoriously picky eaters. The best way to get through this season of your child’s life is to get used to it and stop sweating it. They’re still experiencing many foods for the first time and can be easily turned off by new tastes and textures. This is completely normal.
So, what can you do during the preschool years to ensure that your child is getting enough nutrition?
First, realize that the survival instinct is strong and your child won’t starve themself.
Secondly, offer healthy options only. Sometimes you may find that your child, who wasn’t hungry enough for broccoli and chicken, is hungry enough for cookies. Not a surprise, right?
The preschool years (ages 0-5) are a great time to introduce your children to nutritious food. It’s not like they can shop for their own groceries. If you don’t buy it, they can’t eat it.
So, use these years to help your children fall in in love with real food.
Don’t make your kiddo try too many new foods at once. If they love broccoli but hate spinach – skip the spinach. At least for now.
If your picky eater will only eat five foods, but all of them are healthy, don’t worry about it.
Try a Kid’s Multivitamin
Of course, you should talk with your child’s pediatrician for multivitamin advice. I’m not a doctor.
I do know that our food (yes, even organic food) isn’t as nutritious as it once was due to large-scale farming practices and soil depletion. That’s why my family takes vitamins and supplements.
These are my favorite vitamins for kids and teens.
Your Elementary-Aged Child May Refuse to Try New Foods
If your child is under the age of 7-8, expect that he or she will simply refuse to try new foods. My oldest son refused to try new foods until he was around 8 years old.
Then one day – quite suddenly, as I recall – he loved broccoli. Each afternoon he would ask what was for dinner and became excited to try new things.
By 10 years old he was willing to try anything I made and enjoyed giving each dish a star or number rating as if he was a restaurant critic. In fact, at this age he wanted to be a chef when he grew up!
Once, when I made jicama-pear salad for the first time I couldn’t figure out what it was missing. My youngest (then 9 years old) stepped up to give it a taste test. He offered suggestions on what the salad needed to round out the flavors.
If you think of your child as having a discerning palate, their refusal to try new things will be easier to take.
Again, offer healthy foods as often as possible and make a deal with your child to have their favorites at least twice per week.
Skip the Food Battles and Save your Relationship (and Your Sanity!)
Don’t engage in food battles with your child. It’s a waste of time and damaging to your relationship. If your little one won’t eat what’s for dinner offer them easy, healthy foods you keep on hand that they can make themselves.
Some of my boys’ favorites included cheese cubes; low-sugar, high fat yogurt; hummus; baby carrots; bell pepper strips; hard-boiled eggs; meatballs; and smoothies.
Don’t play the “just take one bite” game.
Don’t wrap up dinner and serve it for breakfast.
But, also, don’t cook separate meals unless there are dietary restrictions in your home.
Just keep quick, healthy options on hand for those times when dinner doesn’t appeal to everyone.
When my sons went through their picky-eating phases, they eventually got tired of making their own bites for dinner and decided to eat what I’d already made.
They knew they had options, but sometimes choosing an option that required them to do some preparation on their own wasn’t worth it.
Keep Portion Sizes Small
Keep portion sizes small. Your child’s stomach is about the size of their fist. Put tiny amounts of food on your child’s plate. If they finish it they can always have more.
If you’re serving more than a fist-sized amount of food to your child and then insisting that they clean their plate, you are teaching your child to overeat.
Invite Your Children Help Prepare Meals
Involve your children in meal planning and prep. By the age of four, each of my boys could crack an egg easily, knew the difference between stirring and folding, and were begging to practice knife skills.
Speaking of knife skills – If you’ve got a kid from ages two to teen they can learn knife skills. That’s right – you can start as young as TWO. Check out these knife skills for kids.
The meals that my boys helped to plan and prepare were the meals that they were most excited to eat. We solved our picky-eating problem and taught the boys life skills all at once!
I consider Katie Kimball of Kids Cook Real Food the authority on teaching kids to cook. Check out these awesome how-tos from Katie:
10 Snacks Your Preschooler Can Make Today
7 Things to NOT Let Your Kids Do In The Kitchen
Make Eating Fun!
Make eating fun. A little playful parenting goes a long way. (Which is great news, because I generally stink at playful parenting, although I believe the value of it.)
Here are some great ideas for making eating fun for your children.
- Eat outside when the weather permits.
- Incorporate bento meals when possible.
- Use fun colored dishes and utensils.
- Play “Man vs Food”, which was a favorite game for my middle son.
- Play the copy-cat game, where your child gets to copy what you do and wins a small prize (five extra minutes tacked onto bed time, a new bathtub toy or a small amount of money ($.25, for example) if they can copy your every move for 3-5 minutes. When you take a bite, your child takes a bite. When you take a sip, your child takes a sip. When you wipe your mouth, your child wipes his or her mouth.
Food battles are unproductive and harmful to your relationship with your child and their relationship with food. Games on the other hand bring families closer together.
In short, give it time, make it fun, have only healthy food choices available, and be mindful of portion sizes.
Be assured that many parents of picky eaters have found that their children eventually outgrow their disdain for new foods and eventually become varied, if not adventurous, eaters as they get older.