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Eight Ways to Help a Kid Who Is a Picky Eater

Dr. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker

Help! My Kid Is A Picky Eater!

My kid will eat dirt but he won’t touch an onion with a ten foot pole!

We need to understand that food issues in children under age nine to ten bother us, not kids. When we become anxious about their eating, they pick up on it and learn very quickly to use eating habits to get what they want from us. They hear us say, “Eat your peas and I’ll buy you a toy” or “One more bite, and then you can go outside and play.” When they hear things like that, why wouldn’t they use eating to get what they want? I sure would.

How Can I Help A Kid Who Is A Picky Eater?

  1. Offer Nutritious Meals RegularlyIt’s important to realize that your child may not always be hungry, and that’s okay. It’s your role and responsibility as a parent to make sure they are offered a balanced nutritious meal three times a day. It really helps to have meal times on schedule so your children know what to expect. Offer the meal and allow your child to choose what and how much they want to eat on their plate.

    Forcing children to eat food can harm their ability to recognize their own hunger cues and practice intuitive eating as they mature. It need to be your responsibility to offer the food, and their choice whether to eat it or not. Which leads me to the next point…

  2. Don’t make separate mealsIf your child knows that by refusing chicken breast and brussel sprouts, they can get hot dogs or macaroni and cheese… do you REALLY think they’re going to eat the sprouts? Of course they aren’t! If your child chooses not to eat their dinner, that’s it! They can’t fuel up on junk food after everyone else is done eating.

    A lot of parents scoff at this suggestion: “You’re telling me to starve my child? Some pediatrician you are!” No, I’m not telling you to starve your child. If you are offering nutritional meals 3 times a day, no child will starve. Sure there might be a couple times when a cranky child goes to bed a little hungry (you can always offer their same dinner later in the night if they change their mind), but overall, this is going to help you GREATLY in your efforts to teach your child to enjoy healthy foods.

    Please note that this approach is not necessarily recommended for children under three or for those who struggling to gain adequate weight. Consult your pediatrician.

  3. Keep things simpleIt’s still a good idea to keep your child’s likes and dislikes in mind, and not overwhelm them with too many new foods. If you are serving them up a plate of escargot, kimchi, and chicken feet (assuming that’s not a regular entree in your household), then don’t act surprised when they turn up their nose!

    I recommend serving a variety of foods and including at least one food that you know your child likes. You might find that they ONLY eat the familiar food at first—perhaps asking for more—but over time, they will start to explore and experiment with the other foods as well.

    Also, don’t worry too much about your toddler “trying new foods.” Kids don’t need a whole lot of variety right now, just make sure the foods they are eating are nutritious. You’ve got enough to deal with, and you can worry about educating their palate later on.

  4. Don’t offer bribes or rewardsBribing kids lets them know that their eating is really important to you. Since you can’t force them to eat, this gives them a lot of control. They quickly realize that they have power over you. Even three-year-olds will hold out eating in order to get what they want from parents, so never enter this arena. Don’t let them know how much you want them to eat.

    Conversely, don’t punish for not eating either. For example, don’t say “If you don’t eat your vegetables, you won’t get any dessert!” This can cause your child to develop a negative association with healthy food, forming a habit loop where vegetables are the pain they have to endure to earn dessert, the reward.

    Food is fuel for our bodies. Period. And that includes dessert! If that sounds ludicrous to you, maybe rethink about whether your family should be eating dessert at all.

  1. Eat your meals at the table as a familyThis is one of the first questions I ask when parents come to me with eating problems: “How many meals did you eat sitting down at the table as a family in the last week?” Answers typically range from 3 or 4, all the way down to zero. Rarely do I hear an answer of more than 5.

    I get it, life is busy, and on-the-go meals are on the rise. But eating meals is a social behavior. Your children look up to you, and they need to see your good example of eating healthy balanced meals. You can’t eat pizza on the couch 6 days a week and then expect your toddler to finish her plate of peas and carrots at the table on Sundays!

    Children crave consistency, and they need a good example to follow as well.

  2. Let younger children play with their foodYou’ve probably heard your parents say at some point: “don’t play with your food!” Recent research, however, shows that young children are more likely to try different foods if they are allowed to play with it first. This is their way of using all their senses to experience and learn about the food. They might not try the food right away, but over time, as they become more familiar with it, they will be more likely to eat it.

    Sure this usually means more of a mess for you to clean up, but put your child’s needs first on this one. Besides, if you’re parenting a toddler, you should have cleaning up messes down to a fine art by now!

  3. Involve kids in meal prepMost parents don’t think of this, but it really makes sense when you think about it. Involving your kids in the planning or preparation of meals gives them a touch of autonomy and a sense of pride in their work! They will be much more likely to eat something they chose or helped prepare. Like playing with food, this experience also helps the child explore the different ingredients and become more familiar with the foods.

    Safety is obviously a concern here, so just make sure your children are carefully supervised and performing age appropriate tasks (think hot stoves, knives, etc.)

  4. Don’t fight with your kids about foodI can’t stress this one enough. Don’t make meal time a war. Being aggressive, becoming the food police, or force feeding your children doesn’t work—and it can actually make matters much, much worse. Negative associations with foods and meal times can lead to eating disorders later in life.

    At the same time, you don’t have to be a pushover. Food related tantrums will happen. Don’t be tempted to give in just to keep the peace. What you need to do here is remain calm, and don’t get angry. Stick to your guns and be fair with your children.

Overall, my recommendation is to just loosen up, and not worry so much about food. Simply offer balanced, nutritious meals three times a day and leave it at that. Make mealtimes a fun, pleasant, family tradition—not a battle ground. You’re going to be happier for it, and your kids will benefit in the long run.

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