Picky eating is a common challenge families encounter. For a variety of reasons, some children are very selective about the foods they will eat. Children may not like certain textures, colors, shapes, or flavors. Children may refuse to try new or unfamiliar foods.

Picky eating is also a common cause of worry and tension for parents and caregivers who may worry about whether young children are getting the nutrition they need to grow and thrive. The amount of food and number of servings a child needs from each food group depends on that child’s age and activity level. A child who is growing well is getting enough to eat. Your child’s health care provider can best answer questions about how much a child needs to eat.

Instead of focusing on how much a child eats, author and dietician Ellyn Satter encourages parents to consider what she describes as the division of responsibility in feeding. She explains, “Parents are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding; children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating.” Using this division of responsibility can help parents focus on what they can influence about picky eating and can help children listen to their hunger cues and explore new foods when interested without pressure from caregivers. Here are some what, when, and where ideas to get you started.

  • What: Try varying foods within food groups. If your child refuses specific foods from one food group, try others from the same food group. We eat with our eyes in addition to our mouths. Try to vary the colors of fruits and vegetables. Allow children to taste sweet fruits such as pears and melons alongside tart flavors such as lemons or oranges. Try proteins such as eggs, tofu, or a different type of meat or fish. For dairy, remember that yogurt, low-fat flavored milk, or a milk and fruit smoothie can provide needed calcium. Caregivers can add additional nutritional value to some prepared dishes with extra ingredients. Add nonfat dry milk or nonfat plain yogurt to cream soups, milk shakes, and puddings. Mix grated zucchini, carrots, or puréed pumpkin into quick breads, muffins, meat loaf, lasagna, and soups. Use dip such as catsup, ranch dressing, or yogurt to entice a child to try a new fruit or vegetable. Praise your child even if they simply lick the dip or dressing off the fruit or vegetable. Exploring the new food in their mouth is also step toward accepting a new food.
  • When: Model the eating behavior you would like to see your child have. Set a good example by eating well yourself. Ideally, eat at least one meal together as a family every day or try for three to four times per week. Keep mealtimes consistent and discourage heavy snacking before meals so children come to the mealtime feeling hungry. If a child is particularly hungry before a meal, serve one part of the meal, such as the vegetable or fruit, while you continue to prepare the rest of the meal.
  • Where: Develop a routine by having all your meals about the same time every day and in the same place. Get rid of distractions by turning off the television and other devices during meals, not allowing toys at the table, and minimizing table decorations (children can turn anything into a toy). However, if the kitchen table has become a place of power struggles, try offering healthy foods in a different space, such as a picnic at the park or even just on a picnic blanket inside your living room.

As a caregiver, you can share positive messages about healthy eating and trying new foods through play and participation in food preparation. Pretend to feed dolls and stuffed animals a variety of different foods during play time, read stories that talk about different types of foods, and include your child in cooking by having them try simple tasks such as stirring pancake batter or washing apples.

With time and patience, you and your EI team can work through the challenges of picky eating. Occupational and speech therapists, nutritionists, and developmental therapists all have expertise to share regarding sensory, emotional, and physical challenges that can contribute to picky eating.

Originally written for the Illinois Early Intervention Clearinghouse Newsletter:  Fall 2019.

Handling Picky Eaters