Is Your Child a Picky Eater?

Janis Hunter
Home & Garden Information Center

Picky eaters come in many varieties. Some children want to eat the same foods at every meal, while some suddenly frown at their all-time favorite foods and say, “No! I don’t like that!” Many children get upset if one food touches another on their plate, and others refuse to eat anything green.

Parents and caregivers should treat all these reactions to foods very casually, because most children go through short periods of being picky eaters. Follow these tips to ease mealtime struggles and encourage finicky eaters to try a few bites of new, different, nutritious foods.

  • Be patient if your child wants to eat the same food over and over. This is called a “food jag,” and it doesn’t usually last long enough to cause harm. If the food the child eats repeatedly is a healthy one, then allow them to eat it until the food jag passes.
  • Offer a variety of healthful foods to your child, and they will learn to eat them.
  • When introducing new foods, do more than ask your child if they want a serving. Let them see it in their plate, cup or hand.
  • Be patient and allow your child to explore foods. If they aren’t ready to taste it yet, allow them to just look at it. It is normal for them to want to touch or smell food on their plate before they are willing to taste it.
  • Introduce only one new food at a time. Let the child know whether the new food will taste sweet, salty or sour.
  • Seat a reluctant taster beside a friend, brother or sister who is a good eater, especially when a new food is introduced.
  • Let the child decide the amount of food to try, and wait for them to ask for more. Give permission to eat small amounts. A “taste” can be as small as ½ teaspoon.
  • Encourage your child to at least taste food, but never force them to eat it. If the food is not eaten after a reasonable time, simply take it away and bring it out again later.
  • Serve an unfamiliar food with familiar ones. This will increase the likelihood that the child will taste the new food. For example, serve a peanut butter sandwich made with one piece of white bread and one piece of whole wheat bread.
  • Give the child the option of not swallowing a new food. Show them how to carefully spit the food into a napkin if they decide they don’t want to swallow it.
  • A child’s “No” doesn’t always mean no. Continue to offer a new food and don’t give up. Many young children must be offered a food 10 times or more before they will take a bite, according to recent research.
  • Serve food plain, because many children like foods that they can easily recognize.
  • Respect the “no foods touching” rule if that is important to your child.
  • Remember that most children prefer bright colored foods with interesting textures.
  • Don’t become a “short-order cook.” Expect a picky eater to eat what the rest of the family eats. Offer the same foods to the whole family, but always serve at least one food that everyone will eat.
  • If a child doesn’t like a certain food, consider substituting a similar food (e.g. sweet potatoes instead of squash).
  • Trust your child’s appetite. Forcing them to clean their plate encourages overeating.
  • Read stories about food to and with your child. They may be more likely to try a food that has been introduced in a story.
  • Include your child in meal planning, grocery shopping and food preparation whenever possible. Even the most finicky eater is more likely to try a food they helped prepare. This sense of ownership creates interest and curiosity to help “sell” that first bite.

Can you tell the difference between a picky eater and a child with a food allergy? For more information, refer to HGIC 4104, Picky Eaters. This fact sheet also includes the nutritional needs of preschoolers and ways that adults can be better role models at mealtime.

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