If you have a picky eater at home, you are not alone! In fact, it is estimated that 20-50% of children, especially toddlers & preschoolers, are selective eaters. This percentage is even higher for children who are neurodivergent, such as children with autism or ADHD. While picky eating can be a very normal phase of a child’s life, it does not mean that it is not a worrying, frustrating, or even exhausting stage of life for many parents.
I believe that in order to figure out how to fix something, you need to figure out why it is occurring in the first place. When it comes to picky eating, there are several reasons why kids become selective eaters. It could be that just as your child may start to love the word ‘no,’ they may also learn how to refuse the foods you offer. This is often children’s way of declaring their independence and establishing some control in their lives.
Children can also become picky eaters if they have not been exposed to a variety of different foods. Sometimes this occurs because mom and dad themselves are picky or because the children’s parents only serve them foods the children already like, not knowing it takes time for children to accept new foods.
Typically, it takes children 15-20 times of being exposed to a food before they are willing to try it and another 15-20 times before they learn to like it. That is a lot of food exposures! This is especially true for fruits and vegetables because they are typically different each time your child takes a bite. One blueberry may be firm while another is soft. One blueberry may be sweet while another is tart. This makes it hard for children to know what to expect, which in turn makes it hard for them to try it and, eventually, to like it.
1. Establish a Routine. Sometimes, kids do not eat their meals because they are snacking too often and are simply not hungry. Other times they may be holding out for something better, such as a snack or dessert. Establishing a feeding routine for your children can be highly beneficial. Eating around the same time every day helps their bodies to know when to expect food, ensures they are not grazing throughout the day, and allows them to be hungry and ready to eat at mealtimes.
2. Allow Young Children to Feed Themselves. If you have a young child or toddler, allowing them to feed themselves using their fingers or kids utensils can make a world of a difference when it comes to picky eating. This gives children more control and independence over their food intake. Self-feeding is also extremely important for children’s development. I know it can be messy at times, but it is extremely valuable.
3. Start Small. If you are serving a new food, start with a small amount. I typically recommend starting with no more than 1-2 tablespoons of the new food, while serving larger, age-appropriate portions of foods they already love. Leaving some empty space on their plate makes the food look more manageable and less overwhelming to a picky eater. It also helps to reduce food waste if they do not like the new food. Remember, they can always get more food if they want. We always want children to be in control of how much food they eat.
4. Remove the Pressure from the Table. It is important that children are solely in charge of whether or not and how much food they choose to eat. When parents apply pressure during meals and snacks, it can make children less likely to try new foods and eat the amount of food they need to feel satisfied. This is true for both positive pressure (e.g. telling your child ‘good job’ for eating their vegetables) or negative pressure (e.g. telling your child they have to eat a certain number of bites of food.) Instead of using pressure at the table, try to serve your child their meal and focus the conversation around other topics, such as everyone’s day, instead of making any comments about your child’s food or appetite.
5. Offer Many Low-Pressure Food Exposures. It is important to continuously expose your child to a variety of different foods in a variety of different ways, even if they do not like it initially. Learning to accept new foods can take time and children do not always take to a new food right away. Keep offering the new food many times and in many different ways. As I shared before, it can take 10-15 times before a child is even willing to try a new food.
Kerry Jones, MPH, RDN, LDN is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Public Health who is passionate about helping growing families navigate life and achieve all of their milestones along the way. She works with women who are trying to conceive, pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum and children to help manage medical conditions, tackle picky eating, and establish a good family relationship with food. With an overload of nutrition information available, Kerry understands how difficult it can be to know which foods are best for you and your family. She loves being a trusted nutrition resource for growing families. Kerry owns a private practice called Milestones Pediatric and Maternal Nutrition.
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