How to Stop Picky Eating Once and for All

Getting kids to eat is a common struggle around many dinner tables. Learn how to stop picky eating and help your child eat a variety of food.

How to Stop Picky EatingFood 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 her repertoire of favorite foods and refuses to try others. But then you hear of other kids who eat calamari and kale, green beans and gouda. Meanwhile, you just want your kid to eat a mango.

So, how do they do it? How do parents raise kids willing to try anything (other than dessert) and even enjoy it?

My kids almost always try different foods, and likely will for the rest of their lives. But it didn’t always start this way, especially during those early toddler years when my worries started to grow.

They’ve rejected food in one way or another, and at times were hard to convince to even try something. Sometimes, they’d reject half the meals I offered them.

Still, I wasn’t deterred. I knew that, with a different approach, they weren’t destined to be “picky eaters.” Thankfully, it worked.

I don’t expect them to love everything, even now (just last night, they couldn’t muster finishing the rest of the spaghetti squash I made). But with these best practices, we can help kids see food differently and give them a chance. Here’s how:

1. Cook good food

Sometimes kids don’t take to our food because maybe it’s just not that 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 he got used to convenience food and now refuses anything else. Filled with tastes-good-now-but-bad-for-you-later ingredients, these sweets and treats can make anything else unappealing. Dial back on fast or processed food to make room for more wholesome ones.

Find good ingredients, too. Have you compared a tomato or an egg from the grocery store to the ones from a farmers market? You might notice the latter is much richer in color and tastier too. Good ingredients mean delicious food.

Prepare simple, home-cooked meals, 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 one of his food preferences is plain pasta. Don’t start with onion soup—introduce spaghetti sauce on the pasta instead.

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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 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 again. 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 (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 even try—are now a favorite of his.

Kids can acclimate to any flavor or texture when they’ve tried it several times. According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia:

“Research says it takes eight to 15 times to introduce a new food before your child will accept it. Yet parents typically offer a food three to five times before deciding their child is never going to like it.”

Imagine how many types of food kids miss out on because we stopped offering it that first or even seventh time. Giving them exposure many times is key.

Keep offering your child food he has rejected before—he just might need a few tries before he enjoys it.

3. Sneak food in

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“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 kids to see a carrot… and like it.

That was all well and fine until my toddler began refusing meals. He wanted the same things over and over and wasn’t giving us many opportunities to vary our meals. But after a few tries of incorporating vegetables into kid-friendly meals, we were back on track.

4. Negotiate

What happens if your child doesn’t even want to taste the food? See if he’ll take at least five bites before you offer another choice (that meets your standards). And give a reason why he should try the new food. Kids (and adults) respond well to reason since they feel like they’re “in on the know.”

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 as an alternative. At least he had given the sandwich a try.

You and I, we’re not always hungry when it’s time to eat, and we certainly have our own preferences. 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.

5. You decide what your child eats…

…and she can decide whether to eat it and how much.

Don’t want her to keep eating grilled cheese sandwiches every day? Stop making it. Instead, offer choices you’re okay with.

On the flip side, agree with her choice of whether to eat it and how much. You can’t control when or how much she’s willing to eat, but you can decide what to offer her.

When preparing dinner, don’t always ask her what she wants to eat—assume the role of chef and choose your own menu. It’s fun to involve her in the meal planning, but you decide what makes the cut or not. That way, she’s not disappointed when donuts and pizza don’t make it to the list all the time.

Instead of asking what she wants every night (an unfair task to ask of her anyway), plan the meals yourself.

And try not to be a short-order cook. Everyone should eat the same food as much as possible—don’t make her a separate meal of chicken strips when everyone else is eating salmon salad.

You might negotiate and pick your battles (impromptu PB&J’s are worth avoiding arguments sometimes). But she can see that everyone eats the same food. She’s more likely to try it than if you have that alternative, kid-friendly meal at the ready.

6. Make mealtimes a positive experience

My husband and I take any chance we get to eat together for any meal. We’re planted around the table for weekend breakfasts and nightly 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 of eating at the same time at the same place every day. For us, breakfast is at 6:45am and dinner at 5pm, and always at the dining table (except for eating outdoors on our patio or at restaurants and outings).

7. Cook with your child

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 your child has in the preparation, the likelier she might give the meal a chance. Encourage her to rinse the broccoli and peas or stir the veggies into the soup. She knows the process that went into preparing the meal and wants to relish the fruits of her hard work.

hard working kids

8. Model good behavior

Much of how your child behaves is a response to your own choices and behaviors. The more you model healthy eating habits, the more eager she feels about eating. For instance:

  • How do you react when you taste food you don’t like? If you talk about how “disgusting” it is, you’re passing the same table manners onto her. 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 that you’ll give it a try. Discuss why you don’t like it—the texture, the taste, the smell—but keep it respectful.
  • Eat a variety of healthy food yourself. She’ll follow suit when she sees 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.

9. Bridge the gap between accepted and rejected food

One way to widen your child’s palette is to introduce foods that are similar to the ones she enjoys.

Note which foods she likes and try to find a similar meal but with a slight twist. For instance, if she likes chicken nuggets, offer breaded chicken. Build on it until you can introduce breaded fish or grilled chicken.

Look for similar foods to what is already accepted that differ in just one way: color, flavor, shape, texture, or the way food is prepared or presented. Then, make one small change to build acceptance toward new foods.

10. Introduce food through experiences

Rather than offering the typical fare on your dining table, try new food experiences. With meals like fondue, having a picnic, or cooking over a pit fire, your child can focus more on the experience and be more willing to try new food.

Conclusion

Meal times should not be a source of frustration for either you or your child. You can learn how to stop picky eating and help him take to a variety of food.

Start by cooking good food and ensuring that what you offer actually tastes good. Offer it multiple times, giving him many opportunities to take to it. Sneak healthy food in his usual fare, and meet him halfway from time to time.

Decide what he eats, but let him choose whether to eat it and how much. Keep meal and snack time a positive experience, starting by inviting him to the kitchen to cook with you. Model good behavior by watching how you react to food. Find new food by starting with what he already likes and changing it up slightly. And finally, introduce new food through different experiences.

Mealtimes can be pleasant once again—no more clamped mouths or food thrown all over the floor.

p.s. Check out the children’s book How to Feed Your Parents by Ryan Miller. You’ll meet little Matilda who tries to convince her parents to eat more than chicken nuggets and grilled cheese sandwiches.

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2 Comments

  1. As a mom of a an ARFID child, you included many of the strategies we were taught in dealing with picky eating. Bravo!! Bridging the gap between food that had been accepted and food that is rejected is another strategy. (see Food Chaining by Cheri Fraker) Ex., if a child will eat chicken nuggets then try breaded chicken strips, breaded zucchini, breaded fish, breaded chicken breast gradually moving in small steps to grilled chicken. Make one small change building acceptance with food while moving towards new foods. Look for similar foods to what is already accepted that differs in just one way: color, flavor, shape, texture, way food is presented, etc. Food experiences are another strategy: fondue, cooking on a stick over an open fire, hobo stew, picnic, raclette, etc.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Thank you, and your tips are awesome as well. So good I think I’ll edit the post to include your suggestions! Thanks so much for commenting! ~Nina