Frustrated With Your Child's Picky Eating?

Boy eating broccoli

At least two things have changed with feeding this generation of kids: parents worry more about eating and kids know they have more options.


This combination sets the scene for more power struggles with food. What's a parent to do?


First, be confident that young children will not starve themselves, so there's no need to worry.


Second, maintain some leadership with eating so the child doesn't end up with all the control! Here's how.


Respect Your Child's Hunger Signals


We usually respect a baby's internal regulators-feeding them when they cry and stopping when they signal they're done. But thereafter, adults start interfering with this natural process. We bribe kids to eat, or insist on a clean plate. This at best, results in a power struggle over food. At worst, teaches the child to distrust or ignore their internal signals-a set-up for trouble ahead with weight.


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It's important to provide food and allow the child to determine how much, if any, they need to eat. This amount varies from day to day, in response to activity level, growth pattern, and so on.


So, unless your pediatrician is concerned about your child's growth, sit back and enjoy a meal with your family without trying to manage how much they eat.


Have a Routine


The caveat for respecting hunger signals is that it requires some structure to work. So, serve sit-down meals and snacks at about the same times every day. This allows your child to figure out how much they need to eat to make it to the next meal or snack. If they are allowed to "graze" on snacks and beverages, kids won't come to the table hungry and they may be pickier.


Avoid Catering to Your Child's Demands


Parents need to provide leadership with eating by determining what's on the menu. Preparing a separate meal encourages picky eating. Instead, be considerate of everyone's likes and dislikes by keeping a variety of foods on the table. If they don't like the main dish, they can get plenty of protein from having milk--having a variety ensures that the child can mix and match and get the nutrition they need.


According to Amy Mihm, UW Health registered dietitian, "When my kids were younger and their tastes were pretty basic, I craved "adult" foods. I remember being in the mood for sweet and sour chicken so I decided on keeping all the ingredients separate: chunks of chicken, rice, raw carrots and peppers, pineapple, and sauce on the side. In time, they put a little sauce on the rice and then added some cooked carrots. All the while they saw their parents eating everything together, and eventually, without pressure, they did so as well."


Remember: Your Child Will Be Less Selective When Hungry


Notice your child's patterns and when they are most likely to be hungry. For many kids it would be right after getting off the school bus. They will want a snack right away, so this is the time to offer an unfamiliar food, for example, consider saying, "Start on this kiwi while I make your toast with peanut butter." Remember, they won't care that a kiwi has a lot of vitamin C or fiber...just offer without pressure and see what happens...and very slowly make the peanut butter toast.


Consider That New Foods Can Be Scary, More for Some Kids Than Others


Be patient as your young child explores new foods. You may see him or her place food in his mouth and then take it out again. Some children need over a dozen "exposures" to a new food before he or she takes the first bite. Knowing this can help you appreciate what it takes for kids to find comfort with a new food. Don't bother talking about how "healthy" the food is...they don't really care and don't need to know, that's the parents' job!


Modeling is the most important factor in a child's food habits. Keep a variety of foods on the table and give the kids the opportunity to watch you eat it. Allow them to see, touch and finally taste the food without pressure. If your child has sensory issues (very sensitive to tastes and textures), discuss this with your physician.


Enlist Your Child's Help


Increase your child's investment in a meal by asking them to pick out a fruit for lunch, choose among several vegetables at the grocery store, pick from the garden, or help with meal preparation.


One of our pediatric nutritionists instituted "New Night" at home every Thursday. On this night, she gets to make something new. Her kids have been more willing to try the new food because they're expecting it (no surprises, same day every week) and they know there's no getting out of it. The nutritionist also devotes one night each week where one of the kids plans an entire meal. Giving them some control helps with pickiness, plus it teaches them how to put together a well-balanced, nutritious meal.


Find Ways to Include Healthy Food in Recipes


If you have concerns about your child missing out on nutritious foods or food groups, you may try adding extras to more accepted foods. For instance, add blueberries to pancakes, wheat germ to rice crispy treats, pinto beans to taco meat, grated carrots to meat balls, and so on. But start with small amounts and increase slowly to be sure you don't scare off the kids.


Keep Meals Social


One of the functions of a family meal is the social aspect--distractions, such as TV, interfere with connecting socially, but also with attending to the flavor of food and the body's hunger and fullness signals. Keep the atmosphere during meals not so stimulating that there is too little focus on food (such as with TV), but also not overly focused on the food (bargaining with kids about eating, discussing what's good for them and so on).


Keep Preferred Foods in Perspective


Sometimes selective eaters prefer to eat a lot of a few foods and often these foods are highly processed. Try offering these foods in the context of a full meal. So, for example, if macaroni and cheese is a preferred food, make just enough so everyone gets a reasonable portion and then it is gone. Also have other foods on the table, like a familiar fruit or vegetable and milk so if still hungry your child will move onto other foods. If there is more macaroni and cheese, a battle may ensue until he or she is allowed to fill up on just the one food.


If you're concerned that picky eating is causing health problems or a change in growth pattern, consult your child's physician.  


UW Health's Registered Dietitians provide accurate, evidence-based nutrition information that promotes health and wellness to empower individuals to make healthy lifestyle changes that will enhance their health. Recommendations may vary based on your individual health history. For a personalized nutrition plan contact UW Health to schedule an appointment with a Registered Dietitian. For more nutrition information, visit the Nutrition and Health Library.