Picky eating is common among many dinner tables. Learn how to get rid of picky eating and help your child eat a variety of food.
Food thrown on the floor. A mouth clamped shut. Plates pushed away at the dinner table. These are the scenes of a typical picky eater, one who has his repertoire of favorite foods and refuses to try others. But then you hear of other kids who eat calamari and kale, rice and rhubarb. Heck, you just want your kid to eat a mango. This is picky eating at its finest.
So how do they do it? How do parents raise kids willing to try and enjoy everything?
First, two points:
- Some kids have food or texture sensitivity. I’ve spoken with a few parents whose kids have a diagnosed condition where they can’t eat much beyond a select menu. Check with your doctor if you suspect your child might have picky eating because of that.
- Second, all kids are different. One child will eat anything and another will only eat grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes food exploration is part of our temperament. Those kids aren’t destined to eating sandwiches all their lives, but we should understand this about them and offer food at a different pace than perhaps another child more willing to try anything.
How to get rid of picky eating
My eldest doesn’t seem to have a problem with trying different food for the rest of his life, but my twins, at one-year-old, are a bit harder to convince.
They’ve rejected food in one way or another. Just this past week they wanted no part in half the meals I offered. And so I plunge on, doing whatever I can to keep them from picky eating. Here’s what seems to work:
1. Cook good food
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If you’ve ever tried eating plain chicken breast, even ketchup won’t do anything to flavor it. Sometimes kids don’t take to our food because maybe it’s just not good.
You’ll have your one-off meals, of course, but if your child refuses food all the time, look at what you’re offering. You might need to switch up the recipes and meals you’ve been cooking. Consider finding simple recipes from a trusted cookbook or website.
Or maybe your child got used to convenience foods and refuses anything else. Filled with tastes-good-now-but-bad-for-you-later ingredients, these convenience foods make your kids addicted to them.
Find good ingredients, too. Have you compared a tomato or an egg from the grocery store to the ones from the farmers market? You’ll notice the latter is much richer in color and tastier too. Good ingredients leads to delicious food.
Prepare simple, home-cooked meals for your kids, and a variety of them as well. This mindset creates an expectation and a culture of eating good food that’s harder to turn down.
And start with child-friendly options to make the transition easier. Let’s say all your child eats is pasta. Don’t start with eggplant soup—introduce spaghetti sauce on her pasta instead.
2. Offer food multiple times
If I had given up that first time, my 15-month-old wouldn’t be eating cherries right now. You see, I had offered him the fruit several weeks ago, and to my surprise, he spat each one out of his mouth.
Who doesn’t like cherries?! I thought.
That dinner, I kept the cherries in front of him and available in case he wanted to try them. No luck.
I could have stopped then, but I didn’t. The next time I got a hold of a basket of cherries, I offered it to him again, this time sliced smaller. He took a few bites (still a few more than the first time) but still, he wasn’t all too enthusiastic.
I still didn’t let that stop me. Every time we had cherries, I offered it to him, and eventually the flavor caught up to him. He started finishing his bowl of cherries, and before long, he liked it. Cherries—once too strange to swallow—is now part of his regular menu.
I’ve heard that we can acclimate to any flavor or texture… when we’ve tried it at least eight times. Imagine how many types of food kids miss out on because we stopped offering it that first or even seventh time.
Keep offering your child food he has rejected before. He just might need a few tries before he enjoys it.
3. Sneak food in
“Psh,” I scoffed, when I first heard about Jessica Seinfeld’s book, Deceptively Delicious. The concept—incorporating “good food” vegetables into kid-friendly meals—seemed like a farce. “I want my kid to see a carrot… and like it.”
That was all well and fine until my then-toddler began refusing meals. He wanted the same things over and over and wasn’t giving us much opportunity to vary our meals.
In stepped Jessica Seinfeld. After a few meals of incorporating vegetables back into his palate, we were back on track.
I’m not so snobby about sneaking food anymore. Heck, I’m willing to try anything. I’ve mixed and matched my kids’ food between the ones they love and the ones they’re hesitant about.
What happens if your kid doesn’t even want to touch the food? See if he’ll take at least five bites before you offer another choice (that meets your standards).
One morning I offered my kids croque monsieur for breakfast, and none of them took to it much. I asked my eldest if he’d take a few bites, and he did. Then he ate his banana instead and left the sandwich more or less untouched.
The next morning, I offered his leftovers again, to see if he’ll take to it this time. No luck. At that point, I picked my battles and gave him a bowl of oatmeal, a meal I had no problem with him eating instead. At least he had given it a try.
You and I, we’re not always hungry when it’s time to eat. The same applies to your kids. We don’t like food everyone loves (my husband could care less for papaya, and I’m not one for eggplant. Meanwhile, I love papaya and he, eggplant), yet we feel disappointed when our kids don’t eat what we prepare.
And give a reason why your child should try the new food. Kids (and adults) respond well to reason, since they feel like they’re “in on the know.” You can say, “Try this salad so you can get strong and healthy.”
5. You decide what they will eat…
…and they can decide whether to eat it and how much.
Don’t want your kids to keep eating grilled cheese sandwiches every day? Stop making it. Offer them instead the choices you’re okay with.
On the flip side, agree to their choice of whether to eat it and how much. We can’t control when or how much they’re willing to eat, but we can decide what to offer them.
When preparing dinner, don’t always ask them what they want to eat—assume the role of chef and choose your own menu. It’s fun to involve them in planning the menu, but you decide what makes the cut or not. That way, they’re not disappointed when donuts and pizza didn’t make it to the list all the time.
Instead of asking what they want every night (an unfair task for them anyway), plan the meals yourself.
And try not to be a short-order cook: Everyone should eat the same food as much as possible. If you prepared salmon salad, you and the kids should all eat the same meal—don’t make the kids a separate meal of chicken strips.
You’ll negotiate and pick your battles (impromptu PB&J’s are worth avoiding arguments sometimes), but your kids will see that everyone eats the same food. They’ll be more likely to try it than if you have that alternative, kid-friendly meal at the ready.
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6. Make mealtimes a positive experience
I’m a fan of the family dinner. Heck, my husband and I take any chance we can get to eat together for any meal. We’re planted around the table for weekend breakfasts and nightly evenings for dinners.
We have a good time with one another around the table, and I believe this has contributed so much to avoiding even more picky eating.
Establish a good routine where you eat at the same time at the same place every day. For us, breakfast is at 7am, lunch at 11am and dinner at 5pm, and always at the dining table (except for eating outdoors on our patio or at restaurants and outings).
It’s important to avoid confrontation when it comes to food. Kids will pick up when we’re defensive, frustrated and at our wit’s end. Make food a non-issue, and you’ll have more luck getting your child to agree than if you force the issue.
7. Cook with your kids
My eldest ate the pizza he made with fervor and pride. After all, he stretched the dough, sprinkled the cheese and spread the sauce all by himself.
The more investment kids have in the preparation, the likelier they’ll give the meal a chance. They know the process that went into preparing the meal and want to relish the fruits of their hard work.
8. Model good behavior
- How do you react when you taste food you don’t like? If you talk about how “disgusting” this food is, you’re passing the same manners to your kids. Avoid picky eating by giving all food a fair chance.
- Model how to reject food you don’t like. Say you’re not too fond of it, but you’ll give it a try. Discuss why you don’t like it—the texture, the taste, the smell.
- Eat a variety of healthy food yourself. Your child will follow suit when they see you just as willing and bound to the food served at the table as she is.
- Have a healthy relationship with food. Don’t mention food in a bad way, especially if you’re dieting. Food shouldn’t be a punishment nor a reward for deeds and misdeeds for yourself or your kids.
The more you model healthy food habits, the likelier your kids will feel more eager about eating.
Edit: SSBE reader Rvan made several awesome suggestions as well, such as:
9. Bridge the gap between accepted and rejected food
Note which foods your child likes, and to cook food like it. For instance, if he likes chicken nuggets, offer breaded chicken strips and breaded zucchini. Build on it until you can introduce breaded fish and breaded chicken. Then finally offer grilled chicken.
Make one small change to build acceptance toward new foods. Look for similar foods to what is already accepted that differs in just one way: color, flavor, shape, texture, or the way food is presented.
10. Introduce food through experiences
Rather than offering the typical fare on your dining table, try new food experiences. Things like fondue, having a picnic, or cooking over a pit fire. Your child will be more focused on the experience and will be more willing to try new food.
Thanks Rvan for the suggestions!
And finally, check out the book How to Feed Your Parents by Ryan Miller, a fun book where little Matilda tries to convince her parents to eat more than chicken nuggets and grilled cheese sandwiches:
Get more tips:
- As Frustrating As It Is, Your Child’s Behavior Is Normal
- How to Enjoy a Restaurant Meal with Kids — Even without Screens or Snacks
- How to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables
- How to Raise Kids Who Want to Eat Healthy
Your turn: How do you deal with picky eating? What was the best strategy you used to get over picky eating? Share your ideas in the comments below!