Picky Eaters

Picky Eaters 101

Despite the best efforts of parents who plan, shop, cook, and serve meals like short-order cooks, kids are well known for their tendency to turn down meals that don’t feature buttered pasta, cheese-“flavored” products, or some form of nuggets. Picky eaters’ protests can lead to frustration, worry, power struggles, and hellish meal times.

But there are things you can do. Conventional wisdom — that kids will be malnourished and parents need to intervene, through pleading, bribing, threatening, and otherwise convincing children to eat their food — is not only false; it can backfire. Making food a subject of discipline can stress kids out, exacerbate food aversions, and ruin the potential for family bonding during mealtimes.

Though it’s natural to worry that kids will get sick if left to their own devices, childhood eating disorders, though serious, are extremely rare. Most kids won’t voluntarily starve themselves: they’ll eat eventually, figure out that a diet of goldfish and ice cream won’t sustain them, and avoid long-term health consequences. Here’s how to tell what you’re dealing with.

Picky Eating FAQs

Is there anything I can do to prevent my child from becoming a picky eater?

There is some evidence that childhood food preferences are influenced by what mothers eat during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Other research shows it’s determined by genetics. Experts agree that kids are most receptive to new flavors when they first start to eat, between the ages of 4 and 7 months, so — while it doesn’t guarantee anything — it’s a good idea to expose them to a wide range of age-appropriate foods during that time.  

 

 

How should I respond if my child refuses food? 

Don’t make a fuss. Research shows that children are more likely to eat in an emotionally positive environment and tend to eat less when negative statements are made about them. It’s easier said than done, but try to accept that they know their tastes and hunger level better than you do and that they’ll eat eventually.

How can I tell if my kid’s picky eating is serious and there’s a risk of malnourishment? 

Focus on what your kid eats over the course of the week rather than a day. Kids’ eating and hunger patterns are far less consistent than adults’, but their habits usually balance out over time. Avoid gauging your child’s health by how they compare to their peers: what matters is how they grow over time, which varies from child to child. Symptoms of malnutrition include fatigue; bloated belly; dry, scaly skin; bleeding gums; tooth decay; and, of course, poor growth. If you’re really worried, consult your pediatrician, who can confirm that your child is growing at an appropriate weight or do a blood test to check for underlying problems. But the odds of a picky eater becoming malnourished (assuming access to plenty of food) are extremely low.

When my child turns down dinner, should I offer alternatives or let them go hungry?

Your child is not entitled to a short-order cook. You can give them some options when at the store or before you prepare dinner, but once it’s ready, offer them what you’ve made and encourage them to stay at the table and participate in family dinner even if they don’t eat. If they throw a fit, stay calm and explain that every dinner can’t be their favorite. If they say they’re hungry later, you can offer them their dinner again. If you absolutely can’t stand watching them go to bed hungry, try and offer the same alternative every time, preferably something they can get themselves. The theory goes that eventually they’ll get sick of eating Cheerios for dinner and try your cooking. 

 

 

Should I deny my kid dessert if they don’t eat dinner? 

It’s natural to want to deny your kid dessert when they’ve failed to eat anything nutritious, but research suggests that this will make your kid even more obsessed with the food and likely to binge it next time they’re given access. The same is true for forcing your kid to eat their broccoli before dessert, which just teaches them to resent broccoli. (How many times have you heard someone say that they hate a food because their parents forced them to eat it as a kid?)

Research shows that when kids are given free access to “forbidden” food like sweets, they tend to eat less over the long term as it loses its magic. But before you set up the ice cream sundae bar, know that achieving these results requires a long-term commitment. If your kid is used to you being the dessert gatekeeper, they will likely binge on sweets at first. Get all the adults in your home on board first. Over time your child will figure out that those treats are not as great as they imagined them to be when they couldn’t have them, and develop the skills to self-regulate. 

The bottom line is, don’t make a big deal of it. Don’t use dessert as a negotiating tool, but rather offer a reasonable portion and trust that in the long term your kids will learn that they need real food to satisfy their hunger. 

What about children with an autism spectrum disorder?

Children on the autism spectrum often struggle with picky eating that stems from food aversions, sensory issues, and ritualistic eating. Try offering foods in multiple forms to rule out textural issues. Just because cooked spinach is intolerable doesn’t mean raw spinach won’t be well received.  You should also speak with your doctor to assess whether certain foods are causing your child pain, especially if they have difficulty expressing themselves.

 

Will my own eating habits affect my kid’s?

They could. Research shows that kids are more likely to eat something if they’ve witnessed peers or parents eating it, and they’re more likely to mimic the same food aversions that their parents have. You should be conscious of dieting or talking about weight loss in front of your child, too, as they pick up more than you think. Girls, especially, are more likely to diet if they grew up watching their parents diet, despite the overwhelming evidence that diets are ineffective.

Are snacks helping or hurting my case? 

The Mayo Clinic recommends parents serve snacks at regular times throughout the day, and offer only water to drink outside of snack and meal times. While snacks aren’t inherently bad, make sure they aren’t so large that they prevent kids from getting hungry for meals.

Malnutrition (And the Lack Thereof) in Picky Eaters

As easy as it is to worry that your kid’s picky eating habits will lead to malnutrition if not for your immediate intervention (how can a body subsist on nuggets alone?), research shows that that’s exceedingly rare. Even the fussiest of eaters, when hungry enough, will eat. It’s as simple as that.

Plus, the average American kid’s diet is full of so much extra stuff — from sugar to added nutrients to “fortified” products like cereal and milk (and even salt, which contains iodine) — that even when they occasionally refuse dinner, picky eaters are generally left with plenty of fuel to run on. Experts suggest that concerned parents look at their child’s weekly food intake, rather than their daily one. Kids have less consistent day-to-day eating patterns than adults, but their intake will generally even out over the course of a week.

That being said, in some rare cases, extremely picky eaters can develop what’s called avoidant or restrictive intake disorder. This happens when kids eat so little that it affects their health (and it’s not explained by lack of access to food, a culturally sanctioned practice like religious fasting, body image issues, or another medical condition). Food avoidance is often linked to sensory characteristics like texture or smell, or a fear of choking or vomiting based on past experiences. This diagnosis is more common in kids on the autism spectrum, and can accompany mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

Worried parents should consult with their pediatrician about where their kid falls on the growth chart. Parents should not try and judge their child’s health by how their body compares to their playmates’. Kids grow in a pretty predictable pattern, but it varies by individual. What’s important here is not whether they’re the skinniest kid in the class, but whether their growth and weight gain suddenly plateaus. Parents should also avoid voicing their concerns to their child, as drawing attention to their own stress about food can make the child even more anxious.

Parenting a Picky Eater: The Essentials

As much as possible, parents should take the stress out of dinner: make it a peaceful event and an opportunity for the family to bond. Parents are responsible only for presenting kids with healthy meals — the kids can take it from there. Parents shouldn’t force them to eat anything or clear their plates; bargain, bribe, or threaten; or use dessert as leverage. Research shows that children end up disproportionately liking the food they’re denied and hating the food they’re forced to eat. Let them learn to rely on their own hunger and fullness queues.

Keep introducing a range of new foods, and model good behavior. It can take up to 15 exposures before a kid will try something new. Especially between the ages of 18 months and 2 years, kids often reject new foods out of fear, but this fear can be mitigated by repeated exposure. The occasional three-bite dinner is probably okay if it’s not a regular habit. 

Avoid talking about food in terms of “good” and “bad.” Kids will get enough of that guilt-ridden messaging from everyone else. Instead, discuss why you eat things in certain proportions. A big spinach salad helps build strong bones, while the same amount of pasta might make us too full or tired. Ice cream is good and worth eating because it makes us happy, but if we only ate ice cream we wouldn’t feel good or have the energy to run around. 

“Parents need to create an environment that helps kids learn to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. When you push food on children, it blunts their ability to develop their satiety cues and could lead to weight problems later in life.”

— Melanie R. Silverman, RD

The Importance of Family Dinner 

Getting everyone together at the table, eating the same food at the same time can be maddening, but it’s  worth the effort — and there’s evidence to prove it. Regular family dinners have been linked to higher grades, better vocabulary, fewer absences from school, and better physical health. They may mitigate risk of depression and eating disorders by making it easier for parents to identify problems early on, and they decrease the risk of drug abuse. Families who eat together also report feeling a stronger bond, and establishing this routine when kids are young will do wonders when it comes to figuring out what’s going on in their heads during the teenage years

Because the routine of sitting down to dinner together offers so many benefits beyond the nutritional value of the actual meal, experts urge parents not to make picky eating a point of contention. Yelling at your kid for refusing their food only makes it a stressful situation and wastes the opportunity for connection, no matter how well-intentioned. In the vast majority of cases, even fussy kids will eventually eat enough to stay healthy without drastic interventions. Plus, making food the subject of arguments doesn’t exactly lay the foundation for a healthy relationship with food. 

So next time your kid loses their shit over something on their plate, tell them they don’t have to eat it and change the subject.

Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

  • Eat with your kid, and eat what you expect them to eat. The more they’re exposed to certain foods and the more they see you modeling the behavior you wish for them to replicate, the more likely they are to do so. Just try and space out the number of times you offer up the same thing. While repeated exposure to a food is important, don’t think that serving spinach 15 days in a row will convince anyone to try it. Experts recommend serving a food once a week for 15 weeks before you give up on your child ever eating it. 
  • There is some evidence that kids will be more willing to eat foods with characteristics similar to those they already like. If they like mashed potatoes, try introducing mashed sweet potatoes. Add spaghetti squash to your regular bowl of pasta, or introduce quinoa as an alternative to rice. 
  • Get picky eaters involved. Have them help cook, choose nutritious vegetables at the store, or try and grow them in your backyard. All three tactics have been proven to make fussy eaters more likely to eat them.
  • You might make vegetables more appealing to picky eaters by giving them a cool name (those carrots are x-ray vision carrots), making eating them into a game (challenge kids to eat the rainbow), or putting them on the plate next to something that’s not the kid’s favorite, to make it seem like the better alternative. 
  • Kids are most open to foods between the ages of 4 and 7 months, so it’s a good idea to introduce them to a wide variety of foods during that period. That might mean giving them a little bit of what you’re eating instead of making a separate, blander meal for them. Just make sure it’s cut/pureed into age-appropriate portions and doesn’t contain ingredients that should be avoided, like honey before the age of 1. 
  • Try and buffer the introduction of new and potentially scary foods with more familiar ones. Pair a new curry recipe with a side of rice, introduce avocado with toast or a quesadilla, add peas or broccoli to mac and cheese, mix regular pasta with whole-wheat pasta, or introduce a new sauce with your go-to chicken recipe. Even if they’re thrown off by a new dish, they’ll eat something on the table. 
  • When kids reject the meal you slaved over, it feels personal. But retaliating will only encourage them to more stubbornly refuse it next time. Remember that it’s not about you. It’s not even really about the food. Focus on sharing about your days and learning about each other, and accept the consolation that you can pack the extras for lunch tomorrow. 
  • In order to introduce nutrition in a way that encourages a relationship with food that’s free of guilt or rigid rules, categorize foods as “growing food” (fruits, veggies, lean protein, and whole grains), “fun food” (things like sweetened cereal or yogurt and healthier snack foods like pretzels or veggie sticks), and “treat food” (desserts, fries, potato chips, and fast food). The idea is to teach kids that there’s room for every type of food — you just have to get the proportions right. Ideally, you’ll eat mostly growing food, some fun food, and a small, occasional portion of treat food. 
  • Worried about how relatives will react during family or holiday meals? Don’t freak. Explain to them that drawing attention will only make thing worse.

Helpful Products for Picky Eaters

This handheld machine, which turns just about any vegetable into spaghetti-like strips, offers the perfect opportunity to introduce a vegetable in a familiar and less intimidating way.

Kids see this innocuous face. And maybe he needs carrots for eyebrows. Zucchini for a mustache. Or lentils for a beard. Suddenly, eating is a game and it's fun.

It's an undisputed fact that kids love cars. So capitalize on that love by filling these trucks with veggie quesadillas. Or offbeat sandwiches that aren't PB and J or grilled cheese.

On the off-chance that your kid is more open to eating peas if they first have to push them up a ramp and deposit them onto their dinosaur-like spoon.

When Daniel is confronted with the unfamiliar veggie spaghetti, he learns techniques for trying new foods — techniques that your kid might learn more effectively from their favorite Tiger than from you.

It's like Wheel of Fortune, but for picky eaters. You spin the arrow, speculate where it may stop, and wherever it lands, your kid has to eat what's in the slot.

Food critic Joshua David Stein engages readers with silly food facts, exotic new dishes, and funny questions, like can you fry a scoop of gelato, with practical answers. The hope is that it inspires kids to broaden their horizons.

This illustrated account of the hard work and TLC that goes into making Korean bibimbap, from shopping to setting the table, will remind kids that mealtime is about more than the food.

Chef Mollie Katzen serves up playful, kid-friendly, and mostly healthy recipes in this beloved cookbook. Illustrated directions and safety tips guide kids through making things like bagel faces, green spaghetti, quesadillas, and popovers.

Little kids can get involved in the cooking action with this easy-to-climb tower that lets them reach the counter.