How to help your kids get over picky eating
It's a frustrating but natural phase of development.
If a playdate lasts long enough, parents’ conversations almost always come around to our kids’ eating habits. We love sharing what our children will and won’t eat and the latest “favorite food” that one of our precious little angels inexplicably decided to reject. There’s comfort in commiserating and sharing tips and triumphs around this daily challenge.
Our children’s pickiness is in part a natural phase of their development. They’ll most likely grow out of it, but we still need your guidance establishing a healthy and flexible relationship with food.
Being able to try unfamiliar flavors and textures will help them be comfortable in any culinary environment, and discover new favorite dishes. This will also teach them to value food beyond taste, and appreciate it for the nutrients it provides and how good they are for us.
What makes kids picky?
There’s not one answer for this.
Cindy Herde, a clinical specialist at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital specializing in feeding and swallowing, says children quickly learn that eating can be negotiable, and they often exercise control by rejecting foods. When parents respond by no longer offering those foods, children can fall into a habit of pickiness.
But it’s not only behavior—biology may also be a culprit. At around 1 year old, children stop growing as rapidly, resulting in a drop of their energy needs and a decrease in their appetite. What parents then see as sudden pickiness in their previously voracious children may simply be their children listening to their bodies, says Kacie Barnes, a registered dietician nutritionist and owner of Mama Knows Nutrition.
[Related: FYI: Why Do Kids Hate Brussels Sprouts?]
People are also born with a biological tendency to be cautious of new foods, says Nicole Avena, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai Medical School and author of What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. Many foods in the wild are poisonous or deadly, so children’s suspicion of new foods is a natural defense mechanism.
Conventional wisdom isn’t always helpful
People offer all kinds of well-meaning advice for how to stop your kids from being picky, but some of it can do more harm than good.
Most of the experts we spoke with specifically called out the “clean plate club” that many of us grew up with. Instead of asking them to finish everything, encourage your children to listen to the cues from their bodies. Forcing a child to eat past the point when they aren’t hungry anymore can create unhealthy habits around eating, Barnes says.
Herde agrees: “You decide what, when, and where to eat. Let your child decide how much.”
As many of us parents already know, negotiating with or bribing our kids to try or finish some foods can also backfire. If you convince them to eat broccoli with the promise of dessert, then they’ll have no incentive to eat it when there’s nothing sweet at the end of the meal. Additionally, bribery teaches your kids that veggies simply aren’t good on their own, and ice cream or any other junk food they like, are the ultimate goal of eating.
And because any self-respecting 3-year-old would never want anything other than cookies and ice cream for dinner, Avena also recommends avoiding asking them what they want to eat. Instead, offer them two or three specific choices. By providing options, you’re giving them the sense of control that they crave, within nutritious choices you can approve of.
[Related: How to keep your kid from ordering four pounds of cookies with Amazon’s Alexa]
Finally, don’t force your child to eat a specific food, either physically or through a battle of wills that keeps you both sitting at the table at 10PM. A 2002 survey involving over 400 college students found that participants remembered feeling a lack of control and helplessness during forced feeding episodes, and 72 percent of them still wouldn’t eat foods that they were forced to eat as children.
How to help your children expand their culinary horizons
You won’t convince your picky eater to try sushi on day one. Broadening your child’s horizons is a process of consistency and communication. Here are some ideas to help your kids start the process.
It’s all about exposure
The more your children experience new flavors, smells, and textures, the more willing they will be to try new things. If your child rejects a food during a meal, even if they don’t take a single bite, don’t give up. Let them experience it again the next time it’s on the menu.
It’s also not all about eating. Simply interacting with new food is exposure and should be celebrated. You can start when they’re babies, handing them age-appropriate pieces to squish and smash. As they get older, you can grow vegetables together, or bring the kids food-shopping and have them help pick out the groceries. You can also have them help you make dinner, and let them serve the food to everyone at the table. My kids love to help stir spaghetti or cut vegetables with their kid-safe plastic knives, for example. They’ll almost always try something they helped prepare.
You have to be patient, though—it can take as many as ten exposures to a particular food before their brain can form an opinion about it, says Nicole Beurkens, a licensed psychologist and nutrition specialist.
Model the behavior you want to see
Your kids take their cues from you. If you want them to eat their vegetables, then they should see you eating your vegetables, says Beurkens.
This doesn’t just apply to the food itself, either. Once you’ve established a mealtime routine and rules, follow them yourself. Try a bite of everything. Stay at the table until everyone is finished. By consistently modeling expected behavior, over time they will follow your lead.
Make mealtimes a good experience
Meals are an important social gathering. Fill them with fun and positive energy rather than arguing and pressure. Herde suggests finding ways to turn these occasions and the introduction of new foods into a game. A good example is having a competition to see who can put together their weirdest bite from what’s on your plate.
My wife got our kids eating chilli and baked potatoes by making it an art project. Every time we make it, she and the kids turn their potatoes into houses, boats or spaceships, and then build scenes around them with chilli, cheese, onions and sour cream. In one night, that game switched them from refusing chilli to looking forward to it.
[Related: Is there a single food that you can survive on forever?]
Also make sure your kids have opportunities for success at every meal. Don’t only serve new foods—make sure they always have something on their plate that they are comfortable eating.
Be careful with your words
If you label your kids as picky eaters, or they overhear you talking about it with friends and family, then they will self-identify that way. Likewise, if you say they don’t like a certain food, then they are going to internalize that dislike.
Instead, Nicole Beurkens suggests that parents embrace the power of the word “yet.” Use phrases like “It’s OK that you don’t like that food yet,” or “It’s OK that you’re not ready to try that yet—you just need more practice!” The word “yet,” she says, leaves the door open for change, which is the first step toward flexibility.
Sometimes a small change can do the trick
Exposing our children to variety is crucial, but that can mean many things. Beurkens says that simply changing the presentation of foods can be a good first step. Start simple, for example, serving crackers on a plate or a cup rather than in a bowl. Barnes adds that variety can also be trying a new brand.
Another way parents can create variety is by slipping new flavors into foods that your kids already like. Avena recommends adding a bit of carrot or broccoli puree to a picky child’s macaroni and cheese, for example.
This will help open their culinary palette and become more comfortable with new flavors. In my family, we do this by putting spinach in fruit smoothies, upping the amount slowly over time
How to know that it’s more than pickiness
In many cases, parents worry more about their kids’ pickiness than they need to. But occasionally, difficulty eating may be sign of a situation that requires medical intervention.
[Related: Why are so many kids allergic to peanuts?]
There are some warning signs that parents should look out for.
- Not gaining an appropriate amount of weight for their age
- Regular and excessive gagging, choking, or vomiting while eating
- Extreme distress and anxiety around mealtimes
- Willingness to eat fewer than 20 foods total, including variations on food (raw green beans and canned green beans count as two).
- Not showing signs of hunger at all
- Difficulty sleeping
Herde also advises parents not to discount their natural instincts. If you are worried about any of the above, or if you just feel like something might be wrong, your best bet is to talk to your pediatrician.
It’s never too late to start
At the end of the day, picky eating is not permanent, and parents can always help their children expand their palate to new flavors. There’s no point at which they are too young, or threshold through which there’s no point trying.
“It’s not too late,” Beurkens says. “You can start making shifts tomorrow no matter how old your kids are.”