Picky Eaters

Is Your Child a Picky Eater?

Are you concerned that your child refuses to eat vegetables or any green food? Sometimes a child won’t eat an entire meal if a single green pea is on the plate.

Does your preschooler suddenly react to an all-time favorite food with “No!” or “I don’t like this”?

Has your child ever wanted to eat the same food meal after meal? They only want to eat peanut butter sandwiches, yet last week they wanted nothing but grapes and bananas.

Does your child get upset because one food on their plate touches another food?

The preschool years are characterized by bouts of independence. You might think that your child is a picky eater, but their behavior may be an awkward first step in learning to make decisions. This is a natural part of growing up.

Most children go through periods of being finicky eaters. This phase doesn’t last long, so treat all of these reactions to foods very casually.

Ways to Handle a Picky Eater

Parents and caregivers need certain skills and techniques to ease mealtime struggles with picky eaters. Even the most finicky eaters can be encouraged to try a few bites of new, different, nutritious foods at every meal.

Follow these tips for handling a picky eater.

  • Be patient if your child wants to eat the same food over and over. This is called a “food jag,” and it doesn’t usually last long enough to cause harm. If the food that the child eats repeatedly is a healthy food, then allow them to eat it until the food jag passes.
  • Offer a variety of healthful foods to your child, and they will learn to eat them.
  • When introducing new foods, do more than ask your child if they want a serving. Let them see it in their plate, cup or hand.
  • Be patient and allow your child to explore foods. If they aren’t ready to taste it yet, allow them to just look at it. It is normal for them to want to touch or smell food on their plate before they are willing to taste it.
  • Introduce only one new food at a time. Let the child know whether the new food will taste sweet, salty or sour.
  • Seat a reluctant taster beside a friend, brother or sister who is a good eater, especially when a new food is introduced.
  • Let the child decide the amount of food to try, and wait for them to ask for more. Give permission to eat small amounts. A “taste” can be as small as ½ teaspoon.
  • Encourage your child to at least taste food, but never force them to eat it. If the food is not eaten after a reasonable time, simply take it away and bring it out again later.
  • Serve an unfamiliar food with familiar ones. This will increase the likelihood that the child will taste the new food. For example, serve a peanut butter sandwich made with one piece of white bread and one piece of whole wheat bread.
  • Give the child the option of not swallowing a new food. Show them how to carefully spit the food into a napkin if they decide they don’t want to swallow it.
  • A child’s “No” doesn’t always mean no. Continue to offer a new food and don’t give up. Many young children must be offered a food 10 times or more before they will take a bite, according to recent research.
  • Serve food plain, because many children like foods that they can easily recognize.
  • Respect the “no foods touching” rule if that is important to your child.
  • Remember that most children prefer bright colored foods with interesting textures.
  • Don’t become a “short-order cook.” Expect a picky eater to eat what the rest of the family eats. Offer the same foods to the whole family, but always serve at least one food that everyone will eat.
  • If a child doesn’t like a certain food, consider substituting a similar food (e.g. sweet potatoes instead of squash).
  • Trust your child’s appetite. Forcing them to clean their plate encourages overeating.
  • Read stories about food to and with your child. They may be more likely to try a food that has been introduced in a story.
  • Include your child in meal planning, grocery shopping and food preparation whenever possible. Even the most finicky eater is more likely to try a food they helped prepare. This sense of ownership creates interest and curiosity to help “sell” that first bite.
  • If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force a meal or snack. Likewise, don’t bribe or force your child to eat certain foods or clean his or her plate. This might only ignite — or reinforce — a power struggle over food.
  • Preparing a separate meal for your child after he or she rejects the original meal might promote picky eating. Encourage your child to stay at the table for the designated mealtime — even if he or she doesn’t eat.
  • Make Eating Fun: Serve broccoli and other veggies with a favorite dip or sauce. Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. Offer breakfast foods for dinner. Serve a variety of brightly colored foods.
  • Minimize distractions: Turn off the television and other electronic gadgets during meals. This will help your child focus on eating. Keep in mind that television advertising might also encourage your child to desire sugary or less nutritious foods.
  • Don’t offer dessert as a reward: Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food, which might only increase your child’s desire for sweets. You might select one or two nights a week as dessert nights and skip dessert the rest of the week — or redefine dessert as fruit, yogurt or other healthy choices.

Be a Good Role Model

Imitation is a powerful force in learning. If you want your child to drink milk or eat their veggies, make sure they see you drinking your milk and eating your veggies.

Buy and try new fruits and vegetables. Always make healthful foods available for snacks as well as meals. Your child soon learns these are the foods in your home and will eventually come to eat and enjoy them.

Drink plenty of water between meals. Eat meals and snacks on a routine schedule. When eating on the run, use grab-and-go containers for convenience.

Make mealtimes pleasant. Turn off the TV and enjoy some good family conversation without arguing. Avoid conflict when handling eating challenges so that your child won’t learn to use food as a way to control you.

Most importantly, relax and be patient! Focus your attention on your child’s positive eating behavior, not on the food. Avoid criticizing them or calling them a picky eater, because a child believes what you say.

Parents’ Top Ten Feeding Mistakes

10. Withholding dessert if dinner is refused, or using other foods as a bribe.
9. Expecting a child to sit at the table and eat for longer than 15 minutes.
8. Becoming a “short order cook” to accommodate everyone’s food preferences.
7. Catering to a child’s narrow choice of foods, then wondering why they do not like or eat a wider variety of foods.
6. Sending inconsistent messages to a child about acceptable food choices, snacks and table manners.
5. Failing to define or set house rules for mealtime behavior.
4. Failing to enforce house rules for mealtime behavior.
3. Worrying that a child will starve or go hungry when they refuse a meal, then giving them junk foods “just so they will eat.”
2. Forcing vegetables on a child.
1. Ignoring how feeding responsibilities should be divided. Parents should control the when, where and what of feeding, and children can determine whether or not they will eat a food and how much.

This countdown of mistakes was compiled by Ellyn Satter (registered dietitian and author of several books on feeding children) and extracted from Picky Predicament: at the Koniskys, an All-Too-Common Tantrum Turns Dinner Into a Drama, Jennifer Gish’s article in the Albany (NY) Times Union on November 14, 2006.

Nutrition Needs of Preschoolers

Preschool-age children may have smaller appetites than toddlers due to a slower rate of growth and development. If left alone, most preschoolers become hearty eaters again when their body’s growth pattern requires more food for energy.

Consider what your child eats over several days, not just at one meal. They may eat more food one day and less the next, and most children eat a wider variety of foods than parents realize. If you think your child is eating too much or too little, talk with your doctor, health care provider or a registered dietitian.

Children and adults need the same nutrients but in different amounts. Children also need a certain amount of fat in their diet in order to grow.

Nutrients should come from foods. Multivitamin supplements can be given to children, but supplements should not be used as a safety net against unhealthy eating.

Consider these nutrient-dense foods:

  • Protein. Choose seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans, peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Fruits. Encourage your child to eat a variety of fresh, canned, frozen or dried fruits — rather than fruit juice. If your child drinks juice, make sure it’s 100 percent juice without added sugars and limit his or her servings. Look for canned fruit that says it’s light or packed in its own juice, meaning it’s low in added sugar. Keep in mind that one-quarter cup of dried fruit counts as one cup-equivalent of fruit. When consumed in excess, dried fruits can contribute extra calories.
  • Vegetables. Serve a variety of fresh, canned, frozen or dried vegetables. Aim to provide a variety of vegetables, including dark green, red and orange, beans and peas, starchy and others, each week. When selecting canned or frozen vegetables, look for options lower in sodium.
  • Grains. Choose whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, or brown or wild rice. Limit refined grains such as white bread, pasta and rice.
  • Dairy. Encourage your child to eat and drink fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese or fortified soy beverages.

Aim to limit your child’s calories from:

  • Added sugar. Limit added sugars. Naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit and milk, are not added sugars. Examples of added sugars include brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, honey and others.
  • Saturated and trans fats. Limit saturated fats — fats that mainly come from animal sources of food, such as red meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products. Look for ways to replace saturated fats with vegetable and nut oils, which provide essential fatty acids and vitamin E. Healthier fats are also naturally present in olives, nuts, avocados and seafood. Limit trans fats by avoiding foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil.

Is it Food Fussiness or a Food Allergy?

Thirty minutes after your child’s morning snack, they are cranky, they are crying, and their eyes are swollen. How do you know if they have a food allergy or if they are just acting picky about what they eat?

A food allergy is an abnormal reaction to food, confusing the body’s immune system. Within minutes (or in up to two hours) the reaction triggers symptoms that may seem like an illness:

  • sneezing, runny nose, coughing, difficulty breathing, wheezing (asthma)
  • itchy skin or eyes, rash, swelling
  • nausea, diarrhea, gas, pain, cramps

Never try to diagnose a food allergy yourself. If you suspect that your child has a food allergy, take them to your doctor or health care provider. Most allergic reactions are just uncomfortable. However, a small percentage of people have severe reactions that can be life threatening.

Originally published 02/08

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at or 1-888-656-9988.

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