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Nutrition & Feeding

9 Smart Ways to Help Picky Eaters

Got a kid who only eats mac 'n cheese? Here's how to make mealtime easier for everyone...

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Whether you've got the kid who can't have anything touching anything else on the plate or the one who only eats white food, having a picky eater can be hard. Here's expert help.

1. Don't panic. Just because your kid only eats the same three foods at every meal doesn't mean he's destined for a lifetime of picky eating. "Ask your child's pediatrician whether your child's eating habits are significantly picky enough to interfere with his overall nutrition, growth and development," says Laura Jana, M.D., a pediatrician in Omaha and author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor and a Bottle of Ketchup. Odds are, the doctor will say your kiddo is fine-many kids go through these phases. "That doesn't mean you should stop trying to promote healthy eating, but you can do so without feeling like your child's life and future wellbeing depends on every bite!" says Dr. Jana.

2. Avoid food fights. You might feel like screaming, "Please eat just one bite of chicken!!" However, that's not going to make your picky eater suddenly have a change of heart. "The tone you set when it comes to eating can be just as important to your child's future eating habits as the food you serve," explains Dr. Jana. "Yes, you will be frustrated at times, but remind yourself that ultimately, you are on the same team."

3. Go grocery shopping together. "Sometimes parents project which foods they think their child may like and which ones the child will refuse," says Lori Feldman-Winter, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in New Jersey. "In fact, children may be more willing to pick a greater variety of foods at the market." Walk up and down the aisles (starting at the perimeter of the supermarket where the most of the healthy, unprocessed foods are) and ask your child to point out anything that looks good.

4. Set expectations. Keep mealtimes consistent so she'll know what to expect and when. Also, make it clear that you're not going to be a short-order cook-serve the meal and if your kiddo decides not to eat it, take it away after a certain amount of time, says Dr. Feldman-Winter. Some parents try to make a side dish they know their kid will eat. (So even if your kid refuses the chicken, if she'll eat the veggies, rice and milk, she'll still have a balanced meal.)

5. Time it right. Kids are more likely to try a new food (or any food for that matter) when they're hungry. "Overeating provides negative feedback to the brain and makes children with small stomachs feel too full which, in turn, can make the next mealtime unpleasant," says Dr. Feldman-Winter. Instead of three huge meals a day, aim for more frequent, smaller meals. Also, avoid too many snacks and sugary drinks such as juice, sports drinks, and, of course, soda. "Too much sugar or snacking before a meal overstimulates the satiety centers in the brain and robs it of the appropriate appetite for mealtime," explains Dr. Feldman-Winter.

6. Make it fun. Arrange the food on the plate in a smiley face or cut foods into fun shapes with cookie cutters-all can help take the stress out of mealtime.  

7. Get a little sneaky. So your kiddo loves pasta with tomato sauce, but won't touch a vegetable? Try pureeing some spinach or zucchini and mix it into the sauce every once in a while. "By including new foods and flavors more subtly in other foods and recipes, you're still getting your child the nutrition, while also hopefully getting her more gradually accustomed to the various flavors and textures you're sneaking in," says Dr. Jana.

8. Try, try again. It can take a whopping ten to fifteen exposures to a new food before a child will want to eat it, so try to be patient. "Picky eaters tend to reject vegetables and unsweetened foods as well as foods with new textures," says Dr. Feldman-Winter. Offering these foods in small quantities along with other foods that you know your kid likes can help.

9. Focus on the big picture. "Consider what a child should eat over the course of a week, rather than in a single day, meal or bite," says Dr. Jana. And keep in mind that eating is a learning process. "Kids need to learn to explore and accept new tastes, textures and flavors, as well as how to feed oneself so that more food ultimately ends up in their mouths rather than on the floor," says Dr. Jana. "Like any learning process, this takes time and practice-and, of course, patience on your part."