Top 10 Tips for Picky Eaters

Top 10 Tips for Picky Eaters

Has mealtime become a food fight with your toddler or preschooler? Follow these tips.

By Jane Harrison, RD, Staff Nutritionist, myOptumHealth

Has mealtime become a food fight with your toddler or preschooler? Suddenly your child, who ate so well as a baby, declares it's nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and dismisses veggies with a big "yuck."

Though coping with picky or unpredictable eaters can be frustrating (and upsetting), try not to let mealtime become a battleground. Bribing, threatening or forcing a child to eat is a practice usually doomed for failure. Try these suggestions for making mealtime more peaceful - for you and your kids.

  1. Stick to a routine. Most experts feel that having a regular meal and snack schedule helps children know that there is food coming every couple of hours and that they will not go hungry. Limit sugary drinks and sweets in between, which can fill them up and dull their appetite for healthier food. A hungry child will be more motivated to eat at mealtime.
  2. Introduce a new food multiple times. It may take a child at least eight to 15 trials of a new food item before he will develop a taste for it, research shows. Be patient! Just don't serve an entire meal of new foods at once. Your best bet is to offer a small portion alongside a favorite food or two. And don't make a big deal if they choose to leave it.
  3. Set a good example. Eat healthy and balanced meals yourself. Control the junk food you bring into the house, such as high-fat chips, cookies, cakes and sugary drinks. Your child will learn by following your example.
  4. Avoid bribing children to clean their plates. A child's appetite is less than a quarter of an adult's, so don't press kids to eat more than they can. You want them to follow their natural signals of hunger and fullness (as you should be doing). Try not to worry about the missing food groups at each meal. Pay attention to their intake over time, not for one particular meal or day.
  5. Don't threaten or punish a child for not eating. Even though you may be concerned, don't show your child that you are upset by his refusal to eat. If your child is seeking attention, then getting a reaction out of you fills that need, and he may try the same thing again. Remember, there will always be another eating opportunity.
  6. Offer choices, within reason. Offering a variety of foods at set meal and snack times allows children some room for choice. Fruit, veggie sticks, applesauce, crackers and peanut butter and yogurt are all good examples of snacks to choose from. If your child opts for the same thing day after day, don't fret. As long as it's healthy, in time she will move on to other things. Just keep the options open.
  7. Nix short-order cooking. Avoid the temptation to return to the stove and cook something different if your child won't eat it. If your child doesn't like what you have prepared for a meal or snack, it's OK. When kids are hungry because they chose not to eat, they'll be more likely to eat what is offered next time. They won't starve!
  8. Make it fun. Cut sandwiches into shapes, serve breakfast foods for dinner, include "broccoli trees" with their pasta. This can help to create positive feelings around mealtime and minimize the stress.
  9. Recruit their help. Involving children in food preparation is another way of encouraging them to eat. Often, kids who help make the dish are more likely to try it.
  10. Be sneaky. Puree veggies into tomato sauce or soup, add fresh or frozen fruit to smoothies or add sweet potato or pumpkin to quick breads and muffins. Though you don't want to trick your kids into eating all their healthy foods, it doesn't hurt to sneak some nutrition in once in a while!

Your child's picky eating habits should become a real concern if his refusal to eat begins to seriously impact his growth and development. At this point, talk to your pediatrician. Your doctor can refer you to a registered dietitian and/or a therapist who specializes in behavioral management.


  • University of Maryland Medical Center. Food jags - recommendations. Accessed: 12/17/2009
  • University of California San Francisco Children's Hospital. Picky eaters. Accessed: 12/17/2009

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