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“My Kid is a Picky Eater – What do I do?”

“Yuck! I’m not eating that - I want ice cream!” Sound familiar? Many parents know the struggle of having a picky eater. It’s frustrating to want to ensure your child’s health when they’re determined to live on a steady diet of fruit loops and oreos. The good news is, most kids grow out of picky eating without it having major effects on their health. However, the way that parents react to their kids’ picky tendencies has a major impact on whether their kid grows out of it and how their eating habits effect their long-term health.

So what should parents do if their kid is a picky eater?

1. Keep offering new foods

Young children often need be to introduced to a food several times before they’ll try it. Research suggests it takes kids a minimum of 12 exposures of any given food to put it in the category of foods they like. Picky eaters can require a lot more exposures than that. Remember, exposure doesn’t mean that they have to eat it either; simply having it served to them or seeing their parent eat it also counts. Keep exposing them to new foods alongside of their favorites, and eventually they’ll try a bite.

2. Give “food bridges” a try

Once a food is accepted, use what nutritionists call “food bridges” to introduce others with similar colors, flavors, or textures to expand the variety of your child’s diet. For example, if your child likes pumpkin pie, try mashed sweet potatoes and then cross the “bridge” to mashed carrots. If your child like’s the crispiness of potato chips, introduce similarly textured foods such as snap pea crisps or seasoned kale chips.

3. Pair like a pro

Pairing isn’t just for adults when deciding which wine will complement their dinner. Toddlers naturally prefer sweet and salty flavors and tend to dislike sour and bitter. Try pairing unfamiliar foods that kids tend to dislike with foods they naturally prefer. For example, pairing a bitter food like broccoli with the saltiness of cheddar cheese provides a great combination for toddler taste buds. Celery sticks and peanut butter are another award winning, kid-approved combo.

4. Avoid reinforcing pickiness

You may be doing a few things that actually encourage picky eating without meaning to. Avoid using the “ABCDE” behaviors listed below, as each of these may make your child associate mealtime with a power struggle, which can increase picky eating:

  • A - Artificial comments – “Mmm this asparagus is SO delicious!” Yeahhh… your kid can see right through that. Don’t exaggerate or make fake comments to try to convince your child to try a food.

  • B - Bribery – “You need to eat 4 more strawberries before you can have dessert.” Don’t bribe or force your kid to eat certain foods or clean their plate. This disrupts their ability to listen to their body’s natural cues of hunger and fullness.

  • C - Coaxing – “Come on, just try one bite!” Coaxing often leads to a power struggle which motivates your kid to “win” by defying you. This can distract your kid from listening to their stomach telling them what they need. Instead, they’ll be focusing all of their efforts on winning the battle.

  • D - Defining preferences – “You don’t like carrots.” Taste buds are always evolving, so avoid telling your kid what foods they do or don’t like. This suggests to them that their preferences are fixed and unchanging.

  • E – Emotional eating – “Aww, my baby, you fell and bumped your knee. Here, don’t cry, have a cookie.” Avoid using food as a tool to deal with tough feelings. This can lead to your child developing habits to eat in response to sadness, pain, fear, anger, or boredom rather than listening their body’s natural hunger cues.  

Click here to learn healthy ways for your kids to deal with tough emotions

5. Make it a family lifestyle

If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your kid is more likely to follow suit. Make healthy food choices a part of your family’s lifestyle and avoid becoming a short order cook by making separate, unhealthy meals for your kids. Your kid may act like they’ll go on a hunger strike if you don’t let them eat smores for dinner, but they’ll try a healthier option before letting themselves starve.

Click here for our printable handout on quick tips for overcoming feeding problems in children

6. Have fun with food

Get your kid involved in food preparation. Have them pick produce at the market and help you rinse, peel, and stir in the kitchen. Even to adults, food is more appetizing when it is presented nicely. You can make healthy foods more enticing by cutting them into fun shapes with cookie cutters, serving fruits and veggies on skewers, using a grater to create different textures, or arranging foods into pictures like smiley faces. While they won’t always have you around to prepare their food in eye-appealing ways, your efforts will get them to give more foods a chance and add them to their “approved” list.

7. Ditch the distractions

Mealtime should be a time for bonding between family members, and not a battle over food choices. Keep conversations away from food and minimize distractions that take your kid’s focus away from their meal and family. Turn off the TV, let homework wait, and have mealtime be a sacred ritual of quality family time. Avoid quizzing your child during mealtimes as well – questions about their performance on the spelling test or behavior during recess can add stress and tension to mealtime.

8. Depend on the “division of responsibility”

When it comes to eating, both parents and children have responsibilities. The parent’s responsibility is to choose which foods are purchased and made available, as well as what times of day they are served. The child’s responsibility is to choose which of those foods they’ll take and how much of each food they’ll eat. Allow them to carry out their responsibility by letting them listen to their bodies and eat only as much or as little as they like. Serve food family style so that they can choose their portions. Carry out your responsibility by keeping meal and snack times routine and offering 3 or 4 healthy food groups per meal.

Does your family need help in developing healthy eating habits? Click below for a free 15-minute consultation to learn how our Specialists can help

9. Redefine desserts

Using desserts as a reward or bribery tool reinforces the idea that sweets are the most exciting and desirable foods. Don’t serve sugary sweets each night; instead, redefine dessert as fruit, yogurt, or other healthier options. Kids should be allowed to have occasional sweets, but teach them about moderation and balanced nutrition. Keep high calorie sweets reserved for celebrations or special occasions such as birthday parties, Sunday night dinners with the family, or holidays.

10. Know when to get help

Though picky eating is often a phase that kids grow out of, there are situations where outside support is needed. Picky eating can develop after a child experiences trauma and can lead to serious eating disorders. Some children also develop avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID) which can lead to life-threatening health problems if a child doesn’t get proper treatment. If you are concerned your child’s picky eating is impacting their physical or mental health, or if you need support in developing healthier eating habits as a family, our specialists can help.

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References:

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018, April 26). 10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters. Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/nutrition/Pages/Picky-Eaters.aspx

Campbell, L. (2018, May 31). ARFID: Eating Disorder

Mistaken for Picky Eating. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/parents-may-mistake-picky-eating-for-a-more-serious-eating-disorder#1

Children's nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters. (2017, July

28). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-health/art-20044948

DiGiulio, S. (2018, February 10). What makes kids picky

eaters - and what may help them get over it. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nbcnews.com/better/amp/ncna846386

Shinn. M.M. (2018). 5 Tips for Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children. Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/5-tips-for-raising-emotionally-intelligent-children

Shinn. M.M. (2019). Get Moving! 10 Reasons to Engage Your Kid in Active Play. Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/get-moving-10-reasons-to-engage-your-kids-in-active-play

Shinn. M.M. (2018). How to Stop Anxiety in its Tracks. Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/how-to-stop-anxiety-in-its-tracks

Shinn, M. M., & Weir, A. E. (2018). Family Mealtime Coaching Treatment Manual. Unpublished Manuscript

Shinn. M.M. (2019). My Kid is So Defiant – Is It My Fault? Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/my-kid-is-so-defiant-is-it-my-fault

Shinn. M.M. (2018).Yay it’s Summer! Mom I’m Bored. 9 Tips for a Stimulating Summer. Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/9-easy-tips-for-a-stimulating-summer

Shinn. M.M., Timmer, S.G., & Sandoz, T.K., (2017). Coaching to Improve Mealtime Parenting in Treating Pediatric Obesity. Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology. Vol. 5. No. 3, 232-247

Campbell, L. (2018, May 31). ARFID: Eating Disorder

Mistaken for Picky Eating. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/parents-may-mistake-picky-eating-for-a-more-serious-eating-disorder#1

Children's nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters. (2017, July

28). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/childrens-health/art-20044948

DiGiulio, S. (2018, February 10). What makes kids picky

eaters - and what may help them get over it. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nbcnews.com/better/amp/ncna846386

Shinn. M.M. (2018). 5 Tips for Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children. Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/5-tips-for-raising-emotionally-intelligent-children

Shinn. M.M. (2019). Get Moving! 10 Reasons to Engage Your Kid in Active Play. Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/get-moving-10-reasons-to-engage-your-kids-in-active-play

Shinn. M.M. (2018). How to Stop Anxiety in its Tracks. Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/how-to-stop-anxiety-in-its-tracks

Shinn, M. M., & Weir, A. E. (2018). Family Mealtime Coaching Treatment Manual. Unpublished Manuscript

Shinn. M.M. (2019). My Kid is So Defiant – Is It My Fault? Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/my-kid-is-so-defiant-is-it-my-fault

Shinn. M.M. (2018).Yay it’s Summer! Mom I’m Bored. 9 Tips for a Stimulating Summer. Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/blogs/9-easy-tips-for-a-stimulating-summer

Shinn. M.M., Timmer, S.G., & Sandoz, T.K., (2017). Coaching to Improve Mealtime Parenting in Treating Pediatric Obesity. Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology. Vol. 5. No. 3, 232-247

How to Cite This Blog Article:

Shinn. M.M. (2019). My Kid is a Picky Eater – What do I do? Psychologically Speaking. [Variations Psychology blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.variationspsychology.com/test-blog/my-kid-is-a-picky-eater-what-do-i-do