Picky Eating

Created by: Hali Obray, Dietetic Intern

Though it can feel overwhelming and downright exhausting when your child is a picky eater, all children are picky eaters to some extent. All foods are new to children and it can take multiple tries and experiences before they may be comfortable enough to eat them without issue. There are many ways to address picky eating and help your child be relaxed and comfortable during meals and around food in general. By using these strategies to create a comfortable mealtime environment for your child, sooner or later they will be willing to eat almost everything you do.

Learning to eat unfamiliar foods can be daunting for some children. Children who have a harder time with unfamiliar foods may:

  • Get upset when they see unfamiliar food (cry, throw tantrums, refuse to eat)
  • Only ever eat their short list of favorite foods
  • Worry they won’t be able to eat away from home
  • Have special meals prepared in order for them to eat

If you have a picky eater, here are a few strategies to create a comfortable mealtime environment for them and reduce your own stress:

  • Children, particularly younger children, do well with meal schedules. Having regular, designated meal and snack times can help your child be hungry, but not starving, at meals. Don’t let them eat or drink (other than water) between those times. 
  • Don’t cater entire meals to your child’s picky preferences. Instead, be considerate by including 1 or 2 side dishes that they usually eat. Don’t make special food for them.
  • Don’t pressure your child in any way to eat. This includes bribing, encouraging, cheerleading, rewarding, forcing, glaring, punishing, depriving, deceiving, making a big deal out of loving the food, and talking about their food likes/dislikes. This can create and reinforce negative associations with new foods.
  • Let your child know that they don’t have to eat, then show them you mean it. Let them eat what they want from the meal and ignore the rest. As a parent, your responsibility includes what food is served and when it is served. Your child’s responsibility includes how much they choose to eat.
  • Make meals a pleasure and a privilege. Tell your child that they need to behave at mealtimes, say “yes please” and “no thanks.” No whining or asking for special food or saying “yuck.” Then show your child you mean it. This strategy is most effective when the whole family is on board.

When you try one or more of these strategies at home, the following will likely happen:

  • Your child will test the rules, so stay firm. After they test the rules, they will behave better and feel good about their eating.
  • Your child will be more relaxed and happier at mealtimes and other times.
  • You will enjoy family meals more.
  • If all goes well, you will stop worrying about what your child eats.

Content adapted from ellynsatterinstitute.org

Image: Shutterstock

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