Parent to a picky eater? Tips for mealtime success


by Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN

Sep 22, 2023

Children are notorious for being picky eaters. There are many reasons for this: resistance to change, sensitivity to specific tastes or textures, lack of exposure to new foods and modeled behavior from peers and adults around them. Picky eating is a normal part of childhood and most kids outgrow it as they age.

But when should you be concerned that it is impacting your child’s health? Let’s explore some solutions around picky eating and the signs that it may be something more serious.

4 ways to reduce picking eating

1. Encourage family dinners

Families eating together provides a safe and happy environment for kids to enjoy their meals. This is also where parents and adults can model balanced eating behaviors. Offer the same foods to everyone (not cooking a separate meal for your kids) and make sure to eat a variety of foods during mealtimes to encourage your kids to try new foods. Also, reducing media distractions during meals allows kids to focus on hunger and fullness cues as well as the overall eating experience.

2. Consistently reintroduce foods to your kids

It can take 10-15 times for a child or an adult to get used to (or like) a new food. Parents should continue to offer a variety of foods with different textures, cooking methods and flavors to encourage the child to try the food again. You can also cook it differently each time. For example, the first time you introduce kale it could be in a casserole, but the second time you cook with it, it’s in a pesto sauce. You and your kids will receive the nutritional benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables no matter how you cook it.

3. Get creative with recipes and mealtimes

The more interesting food looks, or if you make a meal interactive, the more likely your kids will enjoy it. Get creative by baking food into fun shapes or placing food on kebab sticks. You can create a picture on the plate, utilize different colors and textures, give foods fun nicknames or allow kids to interact with their food by dipping it into different sauces (like fruit into a chocolate fondue) or cooking it themselves.

4. Involve your child in the planning and cooking of meals

When kids are a part of the planning and cooking process, they are more likely to be open to trying new foods. If a child has autonomy and responsibility, they feel as though they have a say in mealtimes, and it helps them learn important skills for the future. Allow your kids chop up ingredients, oversee a timer, roll out dough, place food on a baking sheet or mix up ingredients to get them involved. You can also sit down with your kids and brainstorm ideas of what they want to eat that week and or ask them to help pick things out in the grocery store.

Balancing healthy eating and taste preference

We all know that it is important for kids to eat a variety of foods. However, don’t be afraid to add fun foods or flavors they like into the mix when cooking. A salad with ranch dressing on it is still a salad. You can still reap the nutritional benefits out of foods even if you add ranch, cheese or sugar. In fact, adding fats to veggies helps with the absorption of vitamins and minerals. If a child loves cheese on their broccoli and that is the only way they will eat it, there is nothing wrong with cooking it that way.

Focus on what you can add to their diets to provide variety, while also allowing them to eat things that taste good. Avoid labeling foods “good or bad” as this can lead to disordered eating when kids get older.

It is also important to honor your child’s hunger and fullness cues and taste preferences. You should encourage them to try new things, but you should never be forcing them to eat something, as this may lead to them avoiding certain foods more—the last thing you want is for a child to hate vegetables or other nutritious foods. Avoid the “clean your plate” mentality as it encourages children to ignore their hunger and fullness cues. When kids ignore their body’s signals, it can increase their risk for overeating, which may lead to other emotional and physical issues down the line.

When should you be concerned about a child’s picky eating?

As with adults, a child's likes and dislikes can change. However, if you notice your child’s food preferences change dramatically, if they are losing weight or if their growth is stunted, you should speak to your child’s pediatrician. When kids don’t eat enough or don’t have a varied diet, it can increase their risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. It may be a sign of an eating disorder (ARFID or anorexia), a neurodivergent disorder such as autism or a gastrointestinal issue like celiac disease or peanut allergy.

If you are concerned that your child is not getting enough nutrition, a multivitamin or a beverage like PediaSure can be considered. But make sure to always talk with your pediatrician before starting any supplements.

Still have questions about your child's diet? Explore our nutrition services.

About the Author

Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.

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