Tips for Helping Picky Eaters Expand Their Palates

So you think you have a picky eater?  Does your child only want to eat just one food?

When speaking to a mom recently, she shared the story of her child’s picky eating habits. Her child only wants to eat a certain fast-food brand of fried chicken nuggets, only in the original box. When the restaurant changed packages, the mom raced out to buy all the old boxes she could find, in an effort to help her child continue to at least eat something.

A lot of young children are finicky about food and they need help when they won’t eat the amount or variety required to get the appropriate amount of nutrients. A child living on one junk food may seem ok, but poor nutrient intake will eventually take a toll.

Up to one in four kids has an eating problem in early childhood. Most soon outgrow that peanut butter-only phase, but 1 to 2 percent need professional assistance. Physical problems, such as food allergies, developmental delays or metabolic disorders, underlie some cases.

Some children will eat only certain types of food. Others will eat little or nothing at all.

Children often refuse to eat to attract attention from their parents and exert control. Parents often observe that their picky-eater eats much better at daycare or school – this is likely because no one is hovering over them.

Parents can help by exposing children to new healthy foods again and again. With most children, just having it on the table in front of them seems to work.

But well-meaning parents can promote bad behaviors—for example, letting kids end a meal by throwing a fit. A parent’s duty is to offer healthy age-appropriate food in a pleasant atmosphere where the child does not feel forced to eat.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has these tips as to what you can do as a parent of a picky eater:

  • Remain calm. In most cases, your child’s behavior is typical.
  • Don’t force a child to clean his or her plate. If your child misses a meal, they will make it up later.
  • Minimize juices and any sweet drinks, “fast” or processed foods and dessert foods. Dessert should follow a healthy meal, not replace one.
  • Involve your child in the process of meal preparation. Children may be more apt to eat foods they helped to prepare.
  • Ignore tantrums. Many kids will give them up in a few days.
  • Make changes so gradual that your child doesn’t notice. If you know your child will balk after four bites, for example, stop after four bites. In a few days, try five or six.
  • Praise good behavior, such as trying new foods.
  • Be consistent. Make sure other caregivers follow your lead.
  • Remember, children’s appetites fluctuate day to day.
  • Encourage drinking plain water.
  • Do not withhold food as a form of punishment.

Reach out to your child’s pediatrician if your child’s nutrition is becoming critical, mealtime disruptions have worsened for months, progress has stalled—or you’re overwhelmed.

Daniel Bronfin

Daniel Bronfin, MD
Dr. Danny Bronfin earned his undergraduate degree from Duke University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and earned his medical degree from LSU School of Medicine, where... read more