How to help your picky eater learn to enjoy new foods

February 28, 2017
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Busy parents are familiar with this scenario: After a hectic day working and taking care of the kids, you find yourself in the kitchen trying to throw together a meal that is quick and healthy. You’re feeling proud of your efforts and confident that your little food critics will devour the delicious meal set before them. Instead, you are met with resistance and complaining.


What is a parent to do? Do you offer to make an alternative they will like? Force them to eat what is served? Tempt them with a tasty dessert?

While there is no “right” way to handle picky eating, some general guidelines may help you keep this unfortunate hassle from escalating into a more significant problem. 

Understanding picky eating

Neophobia, the fear or dislike of anything new or unfamiliar, is a fairly universal experience for toddlers when it comes to tasting foods. It’s simply part of a developmental process that parents need to help their children navigate. 

How to respond

After reading the scenario above, you probably relate to the emotions and stress that come when your child refuses to eat the healthy foods you have prepared. It’s easy to lose your cool. 

The next time you serve a meal to your picky eater, remain indifferent and calm. Do not beg, threaten, coerce or coach your child to eat. Negotiations only lead to power struggles. 

Simply offer the meal and enjoy it! Your child can learn through observing you taste and enjoy your own meal in a calm, relaxed environment. As the parent, you get to decide where and when your child eats. It is the child’s choice to eat or not.

Call out the positive

If your child does try something new, shower your picky eater with praise! Children learn best through positive parental responses. Celebrate these small achievements together. 

Don’t be a short-order cook

Most of us aren’t personal cooks who can whip up different menu items to appease the palates of each family member. Cook foods that are easy for you to make and healthy for your family. 

While it isn’t inherently wrong to offer alternatives, you may inadvertently teach your child to expect someone to cater to his or her preferences. The child may also develop a habit of eating only a small number of preferred foods at mealtime. Mac and cheese, anyone? 

To avoid this, offer only what is served. Limit snacking after dinner. Consider including a “favorite” or a crowd-pleasing side dish to go with the meal. For example, if you know your son or daughter likes steamed carrots with a dash of maple syrup, offer that as the side to a new main dish.

Play with your food

Cook with your kids. Teach them the value of preparing a meal and appreciating the work that goes into it. Let them see, touch, smell and taste the ingredients.

A fun reward for good behavior or a job well done is to allow your child to plan a meal that they would enjoy, and share it as a family. Have them use the guide from MyPlate.gov to create balance in their menu. 

A taste for veggies

Kids love encouragement and praise when it comes to learning skills. Try this technique to explore new vegetables with your child:

  • Every 10 days, have your child select one to three vegetables to try from a list that you create. 
  • Each day before a meal, cut up a very small portion of the selected vegetables into tiny bits. 
  • If your child tastes any of the vegetables, they earn a sticker for that particular veggie. 
  • Continue with the same vegetables for 10 days. For each vegetable that the child collects 10 stickers for, the child earns a small prize. 
  • After 10 days, move on to a new selection of vegetables. 

Develop positive values around food

Here’s an age-related guide to help your children learn to enjoy new foods.

Infants under 6 months: Bring your infant’s high chair into the kitchen so he or she can watch you cook. They can experience foods through the sensations of smell and sight at this stage. Talk to them about what you are doing. Show them the ingredients. Be sure to maintain a safe distance from the heat source.

Babies: Fun with solids! Don’t get discouraged if your baby isn’t particularly interested in a certain food. Just keep offering. It can take many presentations of a food before your child will like it. Include your baby in the family meal. Consider mushing or grinding up the food that you are eating in place of commercial baby food purees. Talk with your baby’s pediatrician about this if you would like more information.

Toddlers: Food can be fun. It’s OK for your child to make a mess! Let them practice feeding themselves and drinking from a toddler-sized cup. 

Young children: At this stage, your child may enjoy helping you  prepare a meal. Begin a tradition of cooking and eating family meals together. This is an excellent opportunity to talk about everyone’s day. As I mentioned above, you can reward good behavior or a job well done by letting your child  plan a menu.

Older children and teens: Teach your child how to prepare and cook basic snacks or meals for themselves and for family members. 

Tips for handling picky eaters

Here are some ideas that can reduce meal-time stress and encourage a picky eater to eat healthfully.

  • No matter how your child responds to a meal, it’s important to stay calm and indifferent. Don’t negotiate or engage in power struggles.
  • It’s your child’s choice to eat a meal. Never bribe or force a child to eat. 
  • If you choose to offer alternatives, keep them the same each time. Usually a peanut butter sandwich fits the bill. Older children can prepare an alternative themselves. 
  • Trying new foods can be a big accomplishment for a child. Praise and encourage their exploration.
  • Limit snacking after dinner. Kitchen’s closed, kids!
  • Consider separating meal components so kids can taste each item individually.
  • Consider including a “favorite” side dish to go with a meal.

Swedish is here to help!

Good medicine is not just about treating kids when they are sick. Our team is here to help you develop healthy habits that can last a lifetime. 

Our pediatricians can answer your questions about nutrition, exercise and other topics that affect your child’s health. Call 1-800-793-3474 to make an appointment. 

Have you found a way to help your picky eater learn to enjoy new foods? Share your success story and tips by adding a comment below.

Topics: Kids, Nutrition, Wellness