There are few things more frustrating than spending the better part of an hour cooking a meal only to be met with a chorus of “Ewwww!” and “I don’t like that!”
Even with the most adventurous eaters, it is difficult to find dishes that please everyone.
Add in a picky eater (or 2 or 3…) and the dinner table can become a battleground, picky vs parent.
How do you handle this mealtime melee?
And when do you know if your child’s picky eating is a cause for concern?
Here are 9 tips to help the picky eater in your house, as well as information on when to seek professional intervention.
1. Make Mealtimes Pleasant
Mealtime should be relaxing and enjoyable.
As Jerry Greenfield (of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream) says, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
This is especially true for toddlers, and picky eaters of all ages.
Use mealtime to talk about the highs and lows of the day, play trivia games, or brainstorm fun things to do over the weekend. To facilitate interaction, many parents enforce a “no electronics at the dinner table” rule.
Other families make exceptions for sports playoffs or other televised events. It’s okay to be flexible, especially if it increases the fun factor. Just make sure you are all watching the same screen!
2. Don’t Get Caught in a Power Struggle
It’s easy to double down on rules like “you can’t leave the table until you clean your plate,” but these power struggles often backfire.
Unless you are prepared to force-feed your child, (which is not recommended), there is a strong chance that you will lose the fight.
I have heard stories of kids hiding food in their napkins, feeding it to the dog, even falling asleep at the table and still not eating their broccoli.
Too often, these power struggles teach kids to be sneaky or stubborn instead of underscoring the importance of good nutrition.
3. Focus on Your Priorities
In the thick of a mealtime battle, it is easy to lose track of priorities.
We become focused on winning or teaching a lesson instead of helping kids develop healthy eating habits.
Take some time to clarify your goals.
Most likely, you want your child to have a good relationship with food, be well-nourished, and open to trying new things.
These are long-term goals, not things that will be accomplished at one meal. It’s important to look at the big picture. Maybe your kid just ate bread for dinner, but his snack was carrots and dip.
Or maybe your child has been in a “white food only” phase, but her previous phase was all apples all the time.
Bottom line, kids are not going to starve or develop nutritional deficiencies if they don’t follow the food pyramid. It is much more important that they maintain a positive association with food and mealtime.
4. Trust Your Kids When They Tell You They Are Hungry or Full
In order for kids to have healthy relationships with food, they need to be able to trust their bodies to tell them when they are hungry or full.
This means parents also need to respect their kids’ hunger signals.
Sure, there may be times when kids say, “I’m full” in order to avoid eating their vegetables, but if you override this with commands to eat anyway, you are teaching them that their bodies shouldn’t be trusted.
Similarly, if your child says, “I’m hungry,” and you say, “You can’t be hungry– you just ate,” you are teaching that eating is governed by schedules or other external factors, instead of internal cues.
5. Don’t Be a Short Order Cook
The flip side of a power struggle is overaccommodation.
We want our kids to be happy and well-fed, so we offer to make them whatever they want. At the apex of my own kids’ picky eating, I essentially became a short-order cook.
If they didn’t like what was being served, I took orders for mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Then I read Ellyn Satter’s book How to Get Your Kid to Eat… But Not Too Much. Ellyn’s website is full of helpful tips, but the “division of responsibility” method is an important cornerstone.
In short, division of responsibility means that parents decide what their kids eat, and kids decide whether and how much to eat.
Ellyn recommends serving meals “family style,” so that kids can take what they want.
She also suggests having at least one thing on the table that your kids like, (e.g., bread, fruit), so that they don’t feel stressed that there is nothing for them to eat.
6. Encourage Your Kids to Play With Their Food
Yup, you read that correctly!
Research shows that allowing kids to play with their food increases comfort, decreases anxiety, and ultimately makes them more likely to try and like new foods.
Think of food play as a type of rehearsal for more adventurous eating.
Let them get creative by giving food silly names, animating their food, or turning their plate into a canvas of food art.
You might want to explain that this type of play is only appropriate at home versus at restaurants or formal dinners, but beyond that, relax the rules and let your kid explore!
7. Try Food “Chaining”
Food chaining is taking a food that your child already likes and finding foods similar in color, texture, smell, or taste.
It exposes them to new foods in a way that feels safe and approachable.
My son virtually lived on Dino Nuggets for 2 years of his life. I food chained to chicken patties, panko-crusted chicken breasts, and eventually plain chicken breasts.
Other examples of food chaining are french fries to sweet potato fries or zucchini fries; potato chips to banana chips; yogurt to dips or smoothies, etc.
8. Avoid Categorizing Foods As “Good” or “Bad”
The media is full of hype about “superfoods” and warnings about “sugar addiction.”
It is easy to develop the misconception that there are “good” and “bad” foods.
But food is just food, and research indicates that the healthiest and most sustainable diet is one of variety and moderation.
Moreover, categorizing food as “bad” due to its relative nutritional value makes it more likely that our kids are going to feel bad for eating it.
Instead of exclusive labels, try talking with your children about how different foods make them feel. I will never forget when my son did not like the school lunch one day, so instead ate 16 Oreos from the vending machine.
You can imagine how awful he felt when he got home that afternoon!
However, it did provide an excellent opportunity for us to talk about moderation and the importance of feeding our bodies lots of different things.
9. Don’t Restrict Foods
It can be tempting to limit or even forbid our kids from eating certain foods. But pediatric dietician Jill Castle cautions against food restriction.
Like adults, kids want what they can’t have.
Some children even become obsessed with forbidden foods, seeking them out whenever they are away from their parents.
As kids get older and more independent, they increasingly access these foods at school, friends’ houses, the movies, etc.
If we don’t teach our kids how to moderate their consumption of sweets and other treats, they are more likely to binge on them when given the chance.
Normal, Extreme, or ARFID?
Okay, so we’ve established that it is normal for kids to be picky when it comes to eating, and we’ve gone over strategies for helping them branch out while also maintaining a positive relationship with food.
But what if your child’s pickiness goes beyond what can be remedied with a few strategies?
Or what if you’ve tried everything, but the pickiness persists?
How do you know when your child’s picky eating requires professional intervention?
“Normal” Picky Eaters
- Eat at least 30 different foods consistently
- Eat at least one food from each food group
- Go through food “jags,” often wanting only 1-2 foods for several days/weeks
- Stop eating a previously desired food, but then start eating it again later
- Eat inconsistent amounts of food– sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot
- Are able to handle the presentation of new foods, even if they don’t eat them
“Extreme” Picky Eaters
- Eat less than 20 different foods
- Refuse entire food groups
- Permanently stop eating previously desired foods
- Do not make anticipated weight gains
- Show signs of sensory aversions– for example, avoiding “mushy” foods
- Become highly emotional when new foods are presented
- Avoid situations where disliked foods may be served or refuse to eat in these situations
- Almost always eat something different from the rest of the family
Kids with ARFID
- Lack interest in food or eating
- Avoid mealtime due to sensory issues or other aversions
- Often show impairments in social functioning
- May fail to make expected weight gains
- May show signs of nutritional deficiencies
- May depend on enteral feeding or oral supplements
If your child shares characteristics with the second or third group, you might want to seek advice from a professional.
Start with your pediatrician, who can then provide a referral to a pediatric dietician or other specialist.
You may also want to rule out any sensory issues, food-related anxiety, or oral motor deficits that could be interfering with your child’s eating habits.
Parents have a biological and social mandate to feed their kids.
Perhaps this is why it is so easy to get pulled into mealtime battles. We all want our kids to be healthy, physically and psychologically.
Good nutrition is a key part of that. But going to war with your picky eater can have adverse consequences, like meal avoidance, food refusal, and sneaky behavior.
As difficult as it may be to cede control and let your kids choose what and how much to eat, doing so fosters trust, independence, moderation, and ultimately, more adventurous eating.