Tips for Parenting a Picky Eater

It is INCREDIBLY common for children to begin to develop food preferences- especially after they turn 1 year old! Most parents find this begins between 12 and 18 months old, as children begin to develop personal preferences and learn how to “control” the world around them.

And these preferences, if not appropriately maintained, can lead to what we call “picky eating”. Which is a completely normal phase! Everyone, yourself included, has certain foods they like (or prefer) but those foods are often not the most nutrient dense foods; and no matter how great it is, no one food can meet all of our nutritional needs. Humans need variety!

Rather than stressing yourself about this (because mom life has ENOUGH to worry about), lets chat about some of the things you can do to help work WITH your “picky eater”. This doesn’t have to be a “french fries to kale overnight” process. This can be a fairly painless process of small changes that can help expand your child’s range of accepted foods!

This post contains affiliate links. For more information see my full disclosure here.

Tip 1: Take a step back and purely observe for a week!

Most parents will be surprised at the at how many types of foods their child eats- when they aren’t hyper focused on making them eat. This observation time will also help in the first few steps of Food Chaining. Begin making a list of about 10 of the “accepted foods” your child will eat. Learn more about how to use your child’s favorite foods to help guide their perferences towars better options by reading this post.

Tip 2: Slowly introduce new foods!

Exposure is KEY to getting your child to learn to like something new. They can’t learn to like something if they never have an opportunity to eat it- again and again and again! Remember, it can take between 15-30 exposures to a new food for your child to accept it. (Don’t worry, we will talk about reducing food waste too!)

Tip 3: Don’t force food! Not even the “one bite rule”!

Forcing children to eat something specific will encourage overreacting and they will learn to use food as a “control mechanism” (to control YOU). This could also encourage more picky eating habits.

Did you know: 72% of adults who were forced to eat a food when they were kids said they permanently refused to eat that food for the rest of their lives! (1)

Renowned feeding expert and dietitian Ellyn Satter developed a proven strategy to feeding kids called the “Division of Responsibility.” “The division of responsibility in feeding applies across all stages in your child’s growing-up years, from infancy through the early years through adolescence”. (2)

From the Ellyn Satter Institute:

Your (the adult caregiver) jobs with feeding are to . . .  
  • Choose and prepare the food.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks.
  • Make eating times pleasant.
  • Step-by-step, show your child by example how to behave at family mealtime.
  • Be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
  • Not let your child have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
  • Let your child grow into the body that is right for him.
Part of your feeding job is to trust your child to . . .  
  • Eat the amount he needs.
  • Learn to eat the food you eat.
  • Grow predictably in the way that is right for him. 
  • Learn to behave well at mealtime. 

According to Satter, “most children are ready to join in with the meals-plus-snacks routine of family meals by the end of the first year or the beginning of the second year”(2). After that, parents need to maintain the structure of family meals and sit-down snacks throughout the growing-up years. When you do your jobs with feeding, your child will do his with eating.  

Basically this all means: Parents decide the “when,” “what,” and “where” of feeding – and kids decide the “whether” and “how much” of eating!

So let your child know that you are in charge of what is served but that it’s up to them whether or not to eat. This no-pressure atmosphere increases the likelihood that kids will eat a wider variety of foods.– Ellyn Satter (2)

Tip 5: Set time limits on meals!

Young children have very short attention spans. To remedy this (and use it to your advantage) set a time limit on meals! On average meals with a toddler last between 10-15 minutes- pick your familys “time” and stick to it!

To help your toddler stay at the table for this duration, use a timer or hour glass! Both can be fun ways to help your toddler stay focused and engaged while meals are going on. You can find some really fun childrens timer apps (because who doesn’t love the iPad haha).

This post contains affiliate links. For more information see my full disclosure here.

Tip 6: Start small and add more as needed!

Begin with just a few (or even on only one) pieces of each item of food! I call these “Starter Portion” because they are simply what we will START with but he is able to ask for more of anything at any particular meal. When a particular food item is completely eaten- it’s okay to offer more! Even if some of the other foods have gone untouched. This is more of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibilty- as your childs job at meal times is to eat what “

Decrease Food Throwing: Very full plates can be intimidating to young children/babies. The less they see- the less they have to throw. And if they throw it- they don’t get it back. If you play their game, they will keep throwing!

Reduce Food Waste: Only offering 2-3 pieces still offers your child a variety of foods however it reduces the amount that can potentially be wasted! Remember: Leftovers are the secret weapon of food exposure so never be afraid to save something! *within reason for food quality*

So start small and add more as needed!

Tip 7: Provide only a few (comparable) options!

I always recommend serving one food you KNOW your child will eat at every meal (Tip 16: “1 of 3” Rule ). And once your child starts being able to tell you what they like and don’t like- it is a great time to start allowing them to make some food decisions!

Of course that doesn’t mean you cook them EXACTLY what they ask for. But you can absolutely offer a few suggestions and allow them to select which one!

I will usually think of two comparable foods (🍓 and 🍌 for example – same “food group”) and ask which he would prefer. I still select the main item for the meal and the additional items but it allows him to feel like he has some “control” over his meal. Plus I can be sure that there is something on his plate he will 100% eat! 

Tip 8: Focus on positive behaviors!

When your child does try a new food, be optimistic about it even if they do not enjoy the new food. Make eye contact, smile, clap, and show them that what thye are doing is making you happy!

Try to avoid being negative about that food experience as that might discourage them from trying it again. Using dissapointment or anger when your child doesn’t eat will only create a negative imprint for your child during meal times.

Count every small things as a win! Every touch, lick, nibble, crunch, smash, and interaction with a food is important! Once you start counting the little wins and not focusing so much on the negatives- you will begin to find more joy in meal times.

Tip 9: Show your child that you eat and try new foods!

Did you know: 78% of children with picky eating habits get it from their parents according to a study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nurtition. (3)

Humans have a built in response to question things we don’t know- espeically when it is something we are putting into our body like food. It is more commonly known as “neophobia” which literally means “the fear of newness”. Starting around 12 months, children begin to become more visually aware of the difference in the foods they are offered. They start to develop their preferences for texture, flavors, colors, etc based off the foods they are offered.

When they see that they are being serve something that no one else is eating it triggers their internteral alarm! “Why am I eating this when no one else is? Is it safe?” They are aware of what you are eating and therefore aware of what you are NOT eating too.

Trying to serve your child broccoli while you chow down on something else will NOT help your child like broccoli. They need to see you eat these foods! This shows them that these foods are safe and okay to eat.

In fact, you should let your child feed you bites of foods that are new to them! Turn on your best acting skills and make every bite look like the most incredible thing you have ever eaten.

Tip 11: Prepare meals together!

I’m often asked what my favorite tip is for working with a “picky eater” and my answer is always- to get them in the kitchen!!! Cooking with your toddler has SO many benefits but one of the most important is the “no pressure” food exposure
When children don’t feel obligated to eat something – they are much more open to trying it. During this “no pressure” exposure they are able to experience the food in more ways than just eating it. They chop it, lick it, mix it, scoop it. They spend time becoming comfortable with a food before ever even thinking about eating it! 

Tip 12: Talk about food! More than just “yucky” and “yummy”!

Once I had my own child, that natural tendency to talk about foods has become part of our meal time routine everyday! 

Not only do I tell him what each item on the plate is, but I also DESCRIBE that food to him!

Texture (soft, hard, crunchy, wiggly, squishy, sticky) 
Temperature (cold, hot, warm) 
Flavor (sweet, sour, salty, tart, spicy) 
Color, size, shape, and anything else that describes that food to him!

Because the more words you can associate with that food – besides just “yucky” or “yummy”- the more comfortable they will be with that food!

Because now I am able to introduce NEW foods to my toddler by being able to relate them to FAMILIAR foods! “This is eggplant 🍆! It is soft like zucchini and purple like grapes!”

Even though I still don’t expect him to eat this new food the first time (because it can take between 15-30 exposures for kids to try new things) he is much more accepting of this new food on his plate! 

Breaking the habit of saying only “yucky” or “yummy” while your child eats helps them to understand what they are experiencing!

“That’s lemon and it tastes sour”- giving that taste a NAME helps your child to understand it! And similarly with texture and temperature! 

Tip 13: Deconstructed Meals

It is easy as an adult to forget that toddlers are still LEARNING about new foods, textures, and flavors! Sometimes when we serve them the same things that we are eating (as we learn to do in Baby Led Weaning) they can become overwhelmed!

Layering flavors and textures – some of which are new – can be intimidating to toddlers!

Taking apart the different components of each meal will allow your toddler to learn and experience each one separately. Being able to learn and experience each new flavor and texture separately will help them begin to accept the different components in combination.
You could even take this a step further and serve the ground beef separately from the marinara sauce (which we have previously done) to allow your little one to experience them both individually first!

Tip 14: Use healthy dipping sauces!

We LOVE dipping sauces!! But not ALL sauces are a good choice for little ones. Most store bought ketchups, salad dressings, and BBQ sauces are full of added sugars !

But that doesn’t mean you have to avoid dipping sauces! You can incorporate healthier dipping sauces that can add fat, protein, vitamins and minerals that can balance out your child’s diet.

Adding a dipping sauce not only helps balance out a meal- but it also encourages your child to eat MORE of whatever the dip-able food is- and every bite counts!

These dipping sauces can all become FAMILIAR foods for your child! Your child will be more open to try new foods when he can dip them into something he/she already knows.

Check out our recipe for Easy Homemade Hummus which is an awesome source of healthy fats, iron, protien, magnesium, and phosphorus. It stores in the fridge for up to 7 days- that is, if you don’t eat it all before then!

Tip 15: Don’t make “deals”, “bargains”, or “bribe with other foods”!

“If you eat all of your peas & carrots, you can have a cookie.” Sound familiar?

If the dinner table has become a constant battleground, you might find yourself resorting to bribery in order to get your kids to eat the foods you want. However, research shows that by using this tactic you may be winning a (short term) battle – but losing the (long term) war.

Meal times DO NOT have to be a battle ground! As parents, we all want what’s BEST for our kids. But what if I told you what’s BEST is serving “dessert” WITH dinner?!

Obviously we don’t want every single meal to have a “treat”, “dessert”, or “whatever other special name you have for it” on the plate- but sometimes it’s totally okay!! As the adults, we are the “gate keeper” to our children’s life long relationship with food. And food has ONE purpose- to nourish our body’s and provide energy. 

Bribery helps to shape your child’s food preferences, but not in the direction you want. Food was NOT intended to be a bargaining chip. (5) Once you begin using one food (in this case a cookie) to get your child to eat something less preferable (in this case broccoli) then YOU are (probably unknowingly) teaching your child that a cookie is “better” than carrots or peas. 

While the cookie may taste better- we all know what is the better (more nutrient rich) choice for our bodies!

If your child has already begun to see foods as a bargaining tool, the best way to help them re-learn this is by serving a “more favorable food” (cookies, gummies, cake, etc.) 3-4 times per week WITH your childs meal. This does not have to be only dinner. Maybe one day at lunch, another at afternoon snack, another at dinner and even another day at morning snack time (Remember, 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day is 35-42 feedings per week- 3 or 4 times during that isn’t as many as your think!)

For the first few times you will most likely find that they eat a large quanitiy of these foods. This is because children who have had foods restricted will naturally overinludge in those foods (Read more here). But after a week or two these foods will slowly begin to lose their novelty and become just a normal component of meals. Keep in mind, the Division of Responsibility means YOU decdied whats foods are being served and when it is appropriate to eat them.

Demonizing a certain food (in this case cookie) will, in fact, only make your child want it more! Offering sweet treats every so often in ADDITION to other fresh foods will help your child to learn to eat a full variety of food. And willingly!

Tip 16: Follow the “1 of 3” Rule to create Mom-Guilt-Free meals!

To help eliminate “mom guilt” (dad guilt, grandma guilt, nanny guilt, etc) from worrying about having a hungry toddler refuse entire meals- try this:

Follow the “1 of 3” Rule – meaning that there is one food (out of the 3 options) on their plate you are ALMOST certain they will eat! This doesn’t need to be the same food over and over at every meal (ex- just because they love strawberries doesn’t mean they need to be offered at every meal) think of 3-5 food they love and offer those in rotation. Think about calcium rich foods, healthy fats, protein, iron rich foods, and a variety of fruits/veg (vitamins and minerals) you can rotate through during a 24 hour period! They don’t have to eat it all at once- balance can be created throughout the day or even over the course of a few days.

KNOW THEY WILL EAT IT: something you know they will eat! It can be fruit, bread, cheese… anything! This ensures they eat SOMETHING so no “mom guilt” about having a hungry liitle one.

SOMETIMES THEY WILL IT: this is something that you kid will USUALLY eat. Sometime this section is eaten- sometimes it’s not. And that’s okay! .

NEW or REEXPOSURE: Some kids have to be offered (exposed) to a food 20 times before they even put some in their mouth. And that’s OKAY! Let them play with this section- squish it, tear it, lick it- whatever, just allow them to experience this food (even if that experience doesn’t result in them trying it)

Offering 3 different foods per meal & snack will help ensure your child has access to enough variety througout the day to meet their nutritional needs.

Tip 17: Set a daily meal & snack routine!

Most toddlers and preschoolers need three full meals and two or three snacks – one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and possibly one before bedtime. Snacking is a very important for toddlers because they have very small stomach which can fill up quickly. They also burn off energy quickly so appropriately timed and well balanced snacks provide needed nutrients to help last until the next meal!

Pay attention to your child’s appetite and create a schedule that works for him/her. But remember to be flexible for growth spurts and days that are more active than normal! On average meals and snacks should be spaced between 2-3 hours apart.

You should be serving between 2-3 snacks per day. To help keep your child full for longer, each snack should contain:

  • Healthy Fat Source
  • Protein Source
  • Fiber

Read more about the Importance of Snacking for Toddlers and creating balanced snacks.

Tip 18: Make food FUN!

Even the simplest of changes can make the biggest difference when working with a picky eater!

Food doesn’t have to be a battle and it definitely doesn’t have to be boring!!

I love Instagram so much but it can really set parents up to feel like failure. My feed is always flooded with amazing food art but I’m always left wondering- “How long did it take to make that? And how much did the little one actually eat?”

Which is exactly why I make a point to share “before and after” pictures of our plates- check it out here!

Making food fun can be as simple as a few fun food picks (or even better, free Starbucks drink stopper) or cutting into shapes. Changing up the presentation will help pique your childs interest!

This post contains affiliate links. For more information see my full disclosure here.

Another way to make food fun and use leftovers, is to offer a Muffin Tin Meal.

The point of serving meals in this mini muffin pan is to help expose your child to a variety of colors and texture- a combination of foods he/she knows and new foods- side by side!

It’s a fun way to slip in some of his/her “least favorite” foods and let him/her try them again – with no pressure. I usually offer this meal on days that I’m cleaning out our leftovers- so I can repeat exposure and reduce food waste at the sime time (mom win)!

I usually offer: 
4-5 foods I know he will eat
3-4 foods he sometimes will eat (to expose him again)
1-2 foods he doesn’t like (yes, I make a POINT to give him things he dones’t like)
And a fun dip!

Tip 19: Make food TASTE GOOD!

Making food taste good doesn’t mean the food will be “bad for you”! In fact, making food taste good can be the best and easiest way to get your child to eat a wider varity of foods.

FAT is FLAVOR and the best way to enhance flavor, add calories, and increase your childs interest in foods is to add a healthy fat!

Another easy was to make foods taste better is with SEASONINGS and SPICES! Beginning at 6 months old, you can use a wide variety of spices and seasonings in your childs food! However you want to avoid added salt, added sugar(s), and honey.

*The reason for honey is because of the risk of infant botulism. After one year old honey is safe to use- but should still be used in moderation.*

*Keep an eye out for spices and seasonings with added salt or maltodextrin– those should be avoided*

Tip 20: Reuse leftovers for “repeat exposure”!

Leftover food can be reused (within reason) to exposure your child to foods again! 

To the untrained eye, it might look like a fridge shelf full of half empty Pyrex containers….. but to me, it is my secret arsenal of already prepared foods that can be whipped out (and reheated, if needed) in just a second for quick and nutritious meals! 

Only 4 pieces of roasted broccoli left after dinner? AWESOME! Now I have a veggie ready for snack/lunch tomorrow.

Exposure isn’t about cooking a gourmet meal 3x per day- it is about allowing your child as many OPPORTUNITIES as possible to try something! And repeating exposures close together will help your child become more familiar with that food more quickly! 

So save those 3 pieces of roasted beets, that quarter cup of black beans, or that little bit of rice, mama! You can use it, reduce food waste, and (bonus point) provide your child with ANOTHER opportunity to try that food! Talk about a win-win, right?!

In this case I used foods he likes (wheat crackers and cream cheese) and added a berry on top to help entice him to eat them since he didn’t seem interested at breakfast. And it worked! He didn’t eat all of them but that’s absolutely okay!! Something is always better than nothing at all. 

Tip 21: Don’t stress yourself too much!!

A common worry amongst parents of picky eaters is that they will not be getting adequate nutreints to grow. In most cases, your child is getting the correct nutrients as long as he or she is maintaining their growth curve (which is something you should talk to your pediatrican about at every appointment) and has enough energy to play and interact during the day.

All three of these “finished plates” are completely normal! And eating MORE than these plates would also be normal! If thats what YOUR child needs!
Allowing your child to stop eating when they feel “full” will help them significantly throughout life. They will be able to listen to their hunger & satiety cues and be better equipped to not “over eat” since they can recognize “fullness”!

So remember:

  • Start small, add more as needed.
  • Focus on variety and balance.
  • Set a schedule.
  • Set the rules, and stick to them.
  • Set the example.
  • Save your leftovers and reuse them.
  • Make meals FUN and FLAVORFUL!

Eating is a skill. And like all other skills, it will take time and many opportunities for practice.

Relax, eat, and enjoy this delicious meal with your adorable little person!

Are you stressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed trying to plan meals around your picky eater?

You are not alone! 
Parents/Caregivers all over the world fight these same battles every day. 

But what if I told you that meal times do nothave to be stressful, your picky eater can learn new foods, and you can make just one meal for the whole family

Because it is possible!

I’m excited to show you how to feel confident feeding your picky eater and how to help them to learn to like new foods!

In this guide you will learn:

  • 25 Tips on Parenting a Picky Eater
  • How to create a meal routine withexample schedules (including scheduling with breastfeeding and with 1 or 2 naps per day)
  • How to serve new/less favorable foods to picky eaters
  • How to reduce food throwing
  • How to help your child stay at the table
  • How to build on your child’s safe foods
  • How much milk your child needs and a comparison of milks/milk alternatives
  • How to respond to your child’s requests
  • How to talk to your child during meals
  • How to handle & reduce food waste
  • And so much more

Get your copy of Guide to Parenting a Picky Eater now!

References

  1. Batsell, R., Brown, A., & Ansfield, M. (2002, July 24). “You Will Eat All of That!”: A retrospective analysis of forced consumption episodes. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666301904829
  2. Raise a healthy child who is a joy to feed. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding/
  3. Scaglioni, Silvia, Chiara, Vecchi, Fiammetta, Tedeschi, & Sabrina. (2011, November 16). Determinants of children’s eating behavior. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/94/suppl_6/2006S/4598037
  4. Savage, J. S., Fisher, J. O., & Birch, L. L. (2007). Parental influence on eating behavior: Conception to adolescence. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/
  5. Using Candy as a Reward Leaves a Very Bad Taste | SuperKids Nutrition. (2019, January 28). Using Candy as a Reward Leaves a Very Bad Taste. Retrieved from https://www.superkidsnutrition.com/pr_candy-as-reward/

**The author of this site encourages you to consult a doctor before making any health changes, especially any changes related to a specific diagnosis or condition. No information on this site should be relied upon to determine diet, make a medical diagnosis, or determine treatment for a medical condition. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. For more information please read our full disclaimer here.**

Published by snackswithjax

Sarah is the creator and mom behind "Snacks with Jax", a social media community of over 85,000 parents/caregivers, where she shares her son's meals, nutrition information, and evidence-based tips for feeding children. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist with a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition emphasizing in Wellness from Texas Woman's University and years of experience as a culinary instructor working with ages 2+. She has coached hundreds of parents & caregivers through the journey introducing solids to babies and also navigating picky eating with toddlers and older children. Her focus is on establishing a life-long healthy relationship with food for children while also empowering, encouraging, and educating their adult caregivers.

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