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, green beans and gouda cheese. Meanwhile, 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 anything (other than dessert) and even enjoy it?
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 pediatrician if you suspect your child might have picky eating because of that.
- 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. They’re not 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.
How to get rid of picky eating
I’m happy to report that my kids will almost always try different food, and likely will for the rest of their lives. But it didn’t always start out 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 at least give them a chance. Here’s how:
1. Cook good food
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 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 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 the farmers market? You’ll 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 eggplant 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. 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—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. 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 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 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 child 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). 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 instead. At least he had given it a try.
You and I, we’re not always hungry when it’s time to eat. Your child’s appetite might not be the same as yours.
We also like different food. 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 will eat…
…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 to 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 didn’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’ll negotiate and pick your battles (impromptu PB&J’s are worth avoiding arguments sometimes). But she’ll see that everyone eats the same food. She’ll be more likely to try it than if you have that alternative, kid-friendly meal at the ready.
6. Make mealtimes a positive experience
I’m a fan of family dinners.
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 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 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).
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 it.
Learn how to enjoy a restaurant with kids.
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’ll give the meal a chance. She knows the process that went into preparing the meal and wants to relish the fruits of her hard work.
8. Model good behavior
Much of how your child behaves is a response to your own choices and behaviors. 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 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.
The more you model healthy eating habits, the likelier she’ll feel more eager about eating.
Learn more about how to encourage table manners in kids.
9. Bridge the gap between accepted and rejected food
One way to widen your child’s palette is to introduce food that are similar to the ones she enjoys.
Note which foods she likes, and try to find another meal like it but with a slight twist. For instance, if he likes chicken nuggets, offer breaded chicken or breaded zucchini. Build on it until you can introduce breaded fish or 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 prepared or 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 can make your child more willing to try new food. He’ll be more focused on the experience and willing to try new food.
Meal times should not be a source of frustration for either you or your child. You can learn how to get rid of 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’ll eat, but let him choose whether to eat it and how much. Keep meals and snacks a positive experience, starting by inviting him to the kitchen to cook with you. Model good behavior yourself by watching how you react to food and being open to new 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 book How to Feed Your Parents by Ryan Miller. You’ll meet 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 Get Kids to Eat Vegetables
- What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Eat
- How to Get Kids to Listen Without Yelling and Losing Your Cool
- How to Raise Kids Who Want to Eat Healthy
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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.
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