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End the dinner table battles: How to help your picky eater

Young girl making a face while eating yogurt

It’s not uncommon for toddlers and preschoolers to resist trying new foods. Even children who were adventurous foodies as infants can go through a picky phase. If your child puts up a fight at meal times, try to remember it’s a normal occurrence for many kids and, most of the time, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong. That said, we’d like to give you some tried and true tips to make feeding your kid more enjoyable for everyone involved. 

What causes picky eating? 

The tendency to reject new foods can be a part of a child’s development, as frustrating as it can be to parents. Young children are increasingly mobile and independent, so they need to be somewhat choosy about what they put in their mouths. That makes them skeptical about new foods and combination foods (e.g., lasagna, casseroles, pasta with sauce). That’s why you may see kids separating the ingredients of a prepared food, such as picking toppings off a pizza or pulling ingredients out of a sandwich.  

In addition to being averse to new and combination foods, some kids have sensory issues with certain textures or colors. Others, especially highly sensitive and anxious kids, get picky after a particular event, such as a gastrointestinal illness or a choking scare.  

What to do about picky eating 

  • Stay calm and neutral. The more you can regulate your own emotions, the more you can help your child stay regulated.  
  • Continue to serve a variety of foods multiple times to give kids a chance to get familiar with them. They may not like a certain food the first time they try it, but they may enjoy it more in time.  
  • Allow kids to play with their food. Letting kids touch and smell their food helps them explore it through multiple senses. You can direct the play, such as instructing them to write their initials in pudding, or you can allow them to explore freely.  
  • Involve kids in food prep. Even young children can help with tasks like stirring or arranging things on a plate to get a snack or meal ready. Being involved in the process makes them more comfortable with what they are eating.  
  • Give positive attention to behaviors you want to encourage. Notice when they try new foods and offer encouraging feedback.  
  • Be mindful of yourself. Kids notice grown-ups’ behaviors and comments surrounding food even if it is not directed at them. The message you want to send is “food can be fun.”  
  • Involve older siblings. Coach older siblings to model adventurous eating. Older siblings can even directly encourage the younger sibling when they’re displaying positive behaviors. With siblings closer in age, praise them when they try new foods. Even being around others eating gives the picky eater exposure to the sight, smell and sound of the food. 
  • Try rewards when needed. In situations where kids are having significant trouble eating, you can use small, non-food rewards like stickers for trying or exploring foods. If your picky eater has siblings, give them their own reward system, too. The sibling’s goal might be non-food related, such as brushing their teeth or doing a chore. Rewards should be comparable to avoid conflict and stress. 
  • Team up. If your family has multiple adults in charge, set aside time to make a game plan together for how to approach the issue. Try your plan consistently for at least a week before changing course. Expect that the plan will need to change as you go and set aside time to discuss changes. Also talk through how to communicate with other caregivers (e.g., teachers, grandparents) to help kids have predictability. These conversations should happen during a time your children won’t overhear .  

What not to do about picky eating 

  • Give up on a food too early. It takes time for a child to get used to new foods. Deciding they don’t like something after only a couple tries will deprive them of the chance to acquire a taste for it. 
  • Make it a battle. Requiring kids to stay at the table until they’ve cleaned their plate causes stress, which backfires in the long run. It trains both parent and child to expect conflict at mealtimes and can have a physiological effect of suppressing hunger. Staying calm is the surest way to make progress. 
  • Pay more attention to negative behaviors than positive behaviors. Kids crave a parent’s attention and will do anything to get it. Putting more emphasis on negative behaviors encourages more negative behaviors.  
  • Label foods as good or bad. Avoid using language that indicates value judgments or promotes shame about food or eating.  
  • Use food as a reward. Food is something humans need, not something we need to earn. If rewards are needed, make them non-food items.  
  • Put siblings in competition. Do not say, “Why can’t you eat more like your sibling?” Offer praise to any child displaying positive food behaviors.  

When picky eating is cause for concern 

  • They’re not growing out of it. Typically, picky eating fades by age 4 or 5 with some kids slightly older. If the behaviors are not starting to decrease or are increasing at the upper end of that age range, it might be time to seek help. 
  • They are extremely distressed. If they not only refuse a food but can’t stand for others to eat it in their presence, it could be helpful to see a professional. 
  • It’s impacting their health. If your child eats an extremely limited number of foods and you’re worried it may be impacting their energy or growth, talk with their pediatrician. The doctor may want to rule out Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), a condition motivated by lack of interest in eating or food, sensory sensitivity (e.g., strong reactions to taste, texture, smell of foods), and/or a fear of aversive consequences (e.g., of choking or vomiting). 
  • It’s affecting their social life. If your kid is unable to do things they want to do, like attend parties or gatherings with food, because their food distress is too high, it could help to talk with an expert in this field. 

More resources for dealing with picky eating: 

  • The Ellyn Satter Institute 
    Ellyn Satter is an internationally recognized feeding expert, registered dietitian, and family therapist. She is known for developing the concept of “Feeding Division of Responsibility.” The institute's website is an excellent resource for providers and parents. In addition, her book "How to Get Your Kid to Eat, but Not Too Much" is also a source of valuable guidance on addressing feeding problems. 
  • Help for picky eaters 
    Children’s Mercy’s Feeding Clinic team recommends the book “Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating” by Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin. This book provides information about common contributors to feeding problems and practical strategies for helping your child broaden their diet. 

Child Psychology, Telemedicine

Director, Eating Disorders Center; Associate Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine