What You Can Do If Your Child Is a Picky Eater

Encourage stress-free, healthy eating

child not wanting to eat

Are peas and carrots unwelcome on your preteen’s plate? Does your toddler eat only brown or yellow foods?

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Picky eating can stem from overly sensitive taste buds or texture aversions, or, more often, it can be behavior based. Either way, picky eating can be extremely frustrating for both parents and children. Avoid the dinner table battles and encourage a varied, healthy diet with a few strategies from registered dietitian Christine Bowen, RD, LD.

Picky eater dos and don’ts 

  • DO make eating a positive experience. Put away the electronics, turn off the television, and try to enjoy each other’s company at mealtime.
  • DO engage your child in food preparation, from selecting fruits at the market to measuring water and stirring a pot, as age-appropriate.  
  • DO feel free to disguise healthy foods. Slip pureed zucchini or squash into a marinara sauce. Serve cut fruits and vegetables in a smiley face or rainbow arrangement. Offer yogurt dip or ranch dressing with fruits and veggies.
  • DO excuse a child who has not cleaned their plate. Parents should encourage at least one bite of every food on a child’s plate, but not demand it.
  • DO give a multivitamin to help ensure vitamin and mineral minimums are met. Supplemental drinks, such as PediaSure, are an option, but, Bowen cautions, can motivate young children in particular to hold out for the supplement drink.
  • DON’T expect your child to eat broccoli if you don’t eat broccoli, says Bowen. It is important for parents to model the eating behaviors they expect.
  • DON’T give up on a food after two or three tries. It can take ten tries before a child accepts a new food. Try different preparations and presentations.
  • DON’T reward food with food. Instead of bargaining dessert for a bite of squash, consider an agreed-upon non-food reward. A video game, e-book or trip to the zoo, for example, could be awarded after completing a sticker chart, with a sticker earned for each new food sampled.
  • DON’T prepare an alternate meal if a child does not eat what is served.
  • DON’T graze throughout the day. Try to maintain a consistent meal and snack schedule, with only two or three snacks a day. This can help program a child’s hunger cues. Be sure that snacks are healthy and not high in carbohydrates, especially when a child did not eat well the previous mealtime. Bowen suggests a protein such as string cheese or Greek yogurt.
  • DON’T stress out. “When you fight about food it just creates tension,” says Bowen. Remember, parents are responsible for serving the food, and the child is responsible for eating the food.
  • DON’T serve all new foods on a plate. Try one new food with two to four familiar foods. Bowen recommends a total of three foods on a plate for a toddler, and four to five foods for older children.

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