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picky eaters

Dealing with picky eaters: tips from a pediatrician

Dr. Susanna Block on what to do (and not to do) when faced with a finicky kid.

Our New Year’s resolutions about healthier eating can get more complicated when we have kids who’d rather have nuggets and mac and cheese all day long. Picky eating is common in kids, whether it’s for a brief period or a total stubborn dedication to the “white diet” of bread, pasta and rice. It can lead to frustrating mealtimes for parent and child alike, and over time can lead to short- and long-term nutritional deficiencies and other problems.

Let’s talk about ways we can encourage trying new things and satisfy everyone at meals, even with fussy eaters.

Why did this happen? It doesn’t matter

Your children are testing out their food preferences, developing healthy relationships to eating, and testing the boundaries of saying no. It’s typical for them to devour one thing for a bit and then prefer something else the next week.

Turns out picky eating can be affected by lot of different factors including meal times, social influence, how parents eat and how much they control what their kids eat. But also, sometimes food choices are just about kids just being kids. So don’t spend too much time analyzing the why — the most important thing is to make sure your child is still getting good nutrition and building a positive relationship with eating.

Discouraging picky eating tends to be counterproductive. Instead, try to move to shared responsibility with kids around eating. As a parent, you choose what food is provided and where and when meals and snacks happen. Kids can choose how much they eat and whether to eat the food or not.

Picky eaters: mealtime tips

Here are a few tips for making mealtime more positive when you have choosy kids:

Involve kids in meal preparation and cooking. A great way to make your kids feel involved in food choice and find out what they might be excited to eat is to have them help plan and prepare meals. Being part of shopping for and cooking meals teaches them about food and can familiarize them with new foods before they hit the plate.

Try new foods a few times. It’s helpful to be realistic about what food your children might try and how often. Be patient and wait a few days before offering a food again; it can take kids up to 10 times encountering a new food to be willing to give it a go. That includes seeing others enjoy the food, trying a nibble, or even just shopping for the food together. You can offer small portions of new foods to minimize waste.

Set up expectations for variety, with choices. Eating lots of different kinds of foods is part of healthy eating and helps kids explore new textures and tastes. Your kids can learn to expect variety at mealtimes, and you can help them be more open to new things by mixing new foods with foods your child likes and trying the food yourself first to show them you like it.

Don’t make different meals for picky eaters. You can give children some choice or options for when they just can’t face what’s been served. Make it something you still want them to eat, for example: “You can eat what we are eating or get yourself a plain yogurt and fruit.” On a related note, avoid bribing. When you ask a kid to take two more bites of the broccoli and then they will get dessert, it can make eating vegetables a chore to get through.

Listen to reasons they might not be eating. If for one meal your child says they aren’t hungry because they had a big breakfast, that’s ok. It gives them control and validates their ability to choose for a good reason.

Food might not be the issue

It’s not always about the food. Refusing to try new foods is an expression of control or fear or other feelings. Try to address those feelings or needs separately from the individual food item. If your picky eater is completely refusing to eat or throwing tantrums, that might be a behavior issue rather than about the food itself.

 

More from Dr. Block and Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child:

Talking to kids about tough topics | Ask the Pediatrician

Time management for teens and tweens | Ask the Pediatrician

RSV, COVID and flu: Tips for a “3 bug” winter

About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.