Tips for Picky Eaters

I remember sitting at the dinner table for what seemed like hours with an unfinished plate of orange jello with grated carrots. It was one of my least favorite foods, and my mom wouldn’t let me leave the table until I was finished. Most people probably have a similar unpleasant food story, and we all wonder how we might prevent our children from having these same bad memories while still encouraging them to try and eat new foods.

First it is important to understand that picky eating is part of normal child development and peaks between 2 and 5 years old.  This means the situation will most likely improve with time.  Second, most children will get the nutrients and energy they need during this picky time even when it seems like they are barely eating anything.  Remember that learning to eat a healthy diet that includes a variety of foods is a process, and there is time to be patient with yourself and your child.  (If you do have serious concerns about your child’s health or if he or she is not gaining or is losing weight, discuss the situation with your doctor.)

Ellyn Satter1, a well known nutritionist and author specializing in picky eating, recommends an approach called the division of responsibility.  Parents or caregivers are responsible for providing a schedule and a pleasant location for meals and snacks and for providing a variety of healthy foods to choose from (parents should try to include at least one food at each meal that they know the child will like).  The child is responsible for choosing which foods he wants from the foods being offered and how much he wants to eat.  Allowing children to graze between meals is discouraged.

By doing this children are exposed to a variety of healthy foods but feel safe enough to explore foods at their own pace.  They should not be forced to put food on their plates or to take a bite, but they can definitely be encouraged to do so.  Don’t let eating become a power of wills (you are very likely to lose).

Families should have a goal to eat at least one meal a day together.  By doing this, parents can be examples of healthy eating and good meal-time manners.  Conversation about food and how it tastes can be an important factor in a child’s attitude towards food and how eager he is to try it.

In addition, there are several things you can do to encourage children to be more willing to try new foods.

  • When grocery shopping, let children pick out a new fruit or vegetable that they would like to try.  Artichokes and plums have been favorites at our house.
  • Have them help with meal preparation.  Give them appropriate tasks for their age, for example, small children can tear lettuce for a salad while older children may be able to measure and mix ingredients.
  • Let children take turns being the kitchen helper and ask them to suggest some menu ideas for meals.
  • Read books about food and discuss them. (Here is a link to several children’s books about food: )
  • Plant a garden or pick produce at a local farm so that children can see where food comes from and be curious about what it tastes like.
  • Serve foods several times and in different ways (for example, raw broccoli with dip, steamed broccoli, and broccoli with cheese sauce).  Sometimes children need to be exposed to a food 10-15 times (or more) before they will try a new food.

So when your child stops eating anything green and has restricted his diet to five white foods, stay calm, keep trying, and enjoy the eating adventure.

1Satter, Ellyn, “Division of Responsibility in Feeding.” (last accessed 08 October 2011).

Christanne Smith Harrison has a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics from Brigham Young University and a Masters in Public Health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She has experience counseling pregnant women and children on good nutrition and writes nutrition training and curriculum for schools and child care centers. She teaches online college courses and speaks on a variety of child nutrition topics.