Picky Eaters

If you have a picky eater, you are not alone. In fact, 30–50 percent of parents say their toddler is a picky eater. While this behavior seems to spike around the time children start walking, it wanes for most as they approach ages, 4, 5 and 6.

Tips for parents of picky eaters

The best place to start is by establishing some mealtime rules:

  • Consistent times: Schedule three meals and 2–3 snacks for your child each day. Meals and snacks should happen at roughly the same times every day. A meal or snack should happen about every 2–4 hours.
  • Consistent place: Your child should have to sit in a chair or booster seat for every meal or snack. Avoid letting your child get up until the meal or snack is over.
  • Consistent length: Meals should last 20–30 minutes and snacks should last 10–15 minutes. It can be helpful to set a timer. The meal is over when the timer goes off, not when the child stops eating, cries, throws food, spits, or says that he or she is done. It is OK to start with a shorter time and slowly increase how long the child has to sit. For example, if your child usually sits for only five minutes, have him sit for six minutes. When your child sits nicely for six minutes, increase the requirement to seven minutes, etc.

How can I get my child to try a new food?

Your child should know they are trying a new food and be sure to introduce only a few new foods at a time. The more times children are exposed to a new food, the more they tend to like it. Children need to taste and swallow a food at least 10 times before deciding if it is something they like. Unfortunately, parents often give up after 3–4 times because of mealtime stress. Here are some tips for getting your child to try a new food:

  • The try-one-bite rule usually works. Start with a small bite of the new food and increase the size of the bite slowly. When the child is eating a full-size bite, slowly increase the number of bites they need to eat.
  • If your child has not tried a new food in a while, the first few new foods you introduce should be something kids typically like (e.g. pudding and hot dogs, not tomatoes and broccoli).
  • Mix and/or pair a new food with a favorite food:
    • For example, put a piece of cheese on a spoon with a piece of hot dog.
    • Start with a small piece of the new food and a large piece of the favorite food. Slowly increase the size of the new food and decrease the size of the favorite food.
    • Put new food and favorite food on separate plates:
      • Give your child the plate with her favorite food only AFTER she eats all of the new food.
      • Only use this if you are OK with your child being hungry until the next scheduled meal.
      • Put new food and favorite food on the same plate:
        • Your child will probably eat his favorite food first
        • Then, tell him that he can leave the table and go play as soon as the new food is eaten. Being at the table after everyone else is done eating must be very boring for this to work.
        • If desired, you can plan a fun family activity that starts when everyone else is done eating and ends after 15–30 minutes. The child cannot leave the table and join in until he finishes the new food. This will encourage him to finish quickly to avoid missing out on the fun.
        • There is nothing wrong with hiding healthy food in food your child likes. For example, making brownies with applesauce or mixing pureed carrots into spaghetti sauce. You should not, however, expect this to help expand a picky eater’s diet. Another trick is to offer cheese with broccoli or ranch with vegetables. Remember that most kids like to dip!
        • You need to model healthy eating for your child. Another child, perhaps a sibling or a cousin, or even a cartoon character can sometimes be more effective at modeling behavior than parents.
        • Have kids get involved with meal preparation. Grow a garden in the backyard, or have a tasting party at home to help them get excited about the new foods. The more positive and happy the mealtimes, the more likely kids will learn to like the foods eaten during those meals.
        • Stick with the same plan to tackle picky eating for weeks, not days. Your child might cooperate for one week and then decide to stop cooperating for a while to see if you will give up.
        • Pay attention to your child as long as she is eating nicely. This can include conversations, singing, clapping, praise, etc. Do not provide attention— encouraging her/him to eat, yelling, lecturing, reasoning, arguing, and negotiating—for bad behavior or not eating because this may worsen these behaviors.
        • Remember, the more variety of foods they try as a child, the more variety they will enjoy as school-aged kids and as adults.

Rewarding for eating a new food?

Avoid rewarding if you can. If you are giving food as a reward (candy for cleaning your room, for example), children develop an increased liking for that food. If you are rewarding a child to eat a food, children will like that food less over time. For example, you can watch TV if you eat your green beans. Chances are that, over time, your child will like green beans less because they have to be rewarded to eat them. If you do find that rewards work for your child, immediate rewards are much more effective.

When to talk to your doctor about your child’s diet

If you have concerns about your child’s diet, you should always discuss them with your doctor. During each well-child exam, you doctor will speak with you about diet and make sure your child is growing at a healthy pace. Some things to consider:

  • It is not unusual for young children to eat a lot at one meal and then eat very little at the next meal. It’s also common for young children to eat a lot one day and very little the next day.
  • Young children will often refuse to eat foods that he requested or foods that he loved the day before.
  • If you are concerned about your child getting enough vitamins, ask your doctor if it’s OK to give her an over-the-counter multi-vitamin.

If you are concerned about your child getting enough fiber—which is needed to prevent constipation—crush up some bran cereal (into a powder) and sprinkle it on your child’s food.

Guidelines for snacks, milk and juice

  • When thinking about snacks, consider that your child should be eating five mini meals per day as opposed to three meals and two snacks. Use snacks as an opportunity to give your child fruits and vegetables instead of cookies or crackers that have empty calories. Try to incorporate two food groups into each snack.
  • Do not let your child eat or drink between meals and snack. She may have water up to one hour before the next meal or snack. Stick to this rule, even if she ate only a little food at the last meal or snack.
  • Before the age of 5, kids will eat until they are full. After age 5, the more you put on their plate, the more they will eat. This is when portion size becomes important. The rule of thumb is a tablespoon for each year of age.
  • Always talk to your doctor about the kind and amount of milk that is best for your child. Typically, kids start with whole milk at 12 months of age. Once they reach 24 months, they can switch to a lower fat milk. Be sure to give milk near the end of the meal so your child doesn’t fill up on it first and then refuse to eat.
  • Parents often offer juice because of the vitamin C it contains and because kids like its sweetness. If you do give your child juice, be sure to limit it to no more than 4–6 ounces per day. Give it in a cup at specific times instead of in a sippy cup where the child can have it all day. It’s not healthy for your child’s teeth to be awash in the juice’s sugars all day. And, remember, vitamin C comes better from whole fruit than from juice.

As a parent, remember that you are in charge of what is offered at mealtime (you should not be a short-order cook). Your child is then in charge of if they eat and how much they eat. Family mealtime should be a pleasant and sacred time for all. Research studies indicate that families who have mealtimes together produce children who are emotionally better off, who do better in school and who are healthier eaters. 
Reviewed by Julie Lumeng, MD Updated September 2017