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How to Feed a Picky Eater

Young children with maturing palates will often try their parents’ patience before they’ll try the food on their plates.

If you feel as though you have to don battle armor before heading out to the dinner table, you’re not alone. Parents come to me all the time with concerns about their children’s eating habits. My advice to most of them is not to worry. Unless there is an underlying medical condition, most picky eaters outgrown their unadventurous appetites.

In the meantime, the following food for thought might help you make it through your next meal.

Relax

As long as your child is following her growth curve, gaining the appropriate weight and height, she’s probably getting more nutrition than you think. I’ve had parents swear that their children are subsisting solely on French fries, but their kids’ healthy growth and development suggest that some other stuff is getting in there somehow.

It’s helpful to think of nutrition as cumulative. If your child isn’t going to eat a variety of foods at every meal, at least try to make sure that over the course of the week, grains, proteins, fruits and veggies find their way into their belly.

Resist Food Fights

Never force-feed a child. Not only can force-feeding can cause a child to gag it also communicates that you don’t trust your children to know whether they’re hungry. Kids typically have a better sense of satiation than adults. If we force them to eat when they tell us that they’re not hungry, we teach them bad habits that they can carry with them for life.

Get Them Involved

Going grocery shopping together, asking your child to help with food preparation and even gardening together can help inspire picky eaters to try some more adventurous fare.

There is something very empowering to a young child about helping to contribute to the family meal, and children might be more inclined to try something if they had a hand in making it.

Be Patient

For babies just starting to get a taste of food, the rule of thumb is 10 to 20 “introductions” before a child really gets used to a new flavor. For older kids, a small sample of a new food can be on their plate 30 to 40 times before they are desensitized to it enough to actually eat it!

Good eating is the reward for good eating. You don’t need ice cream every night.

Conversely, your child might find it tragic to learn that kids in various parts of the world are starving, but that’s not going to get her to eat her broccoli.

Dip It! Shape it! Make it Fun!

Sometimes veggies just go down easier with hummus or ranch dressing. Protein might beg for ketchup. If your child is refusing to try a new food, try dressing it up with a sauce or dip. Eventually you can cut back the condiments until they eat the food “as is.”

Similarly, if your child turns up her nose at the concept of a sandwich, try pushing a cookie-cutter into it and testing out the appeal of a peanut butter “heart” or a turkey “snowman.”

What I don’t recommend is hiding pulverized vegetables in marinara sauce or baked goods. It’s important that a child learn to associate foods with their flavors.

Be a Model Eater

This might be the most important tip of all. Kids learn by watching us. Carefully. If dad’s making a face at his plate of peas, it’s going to be pretty difficult to convince Junior to try them. Your own healthy eating habits will inspire your kids. Eventually.

In the meantime, enjoy your family meals. Listen to their stories about their day, share a bit about yours. If everyone is growing and healthy, the plate doesn’t have to be clean for your child to be getting the nourishment she needs.

Make an appointment today with one of our pediatricians at the new Hoag Health Center in Irvine to discuss how to help create a nutritious diet plan that your child will love.

Meet the Author

Meigan Everts, MD, FAAP

Specialty: Pediatrics

Dr. Everts believes quality pediatric care occurs from birth through adolescence. According to her, “I like to take care of the whole person, understanding the physical, mental and social aspects of my patients. This helps me get a complete picture of how best to care for them. Most of all, I value building relationships and encouraging healthy two-way communication with my patients." View Bio [+]