TOP 10 TIPS FOR PICKY EATERS
Updated: Mar 25, 2018
First of all, let me start off by saying that almost every parent I've ever met has a picky eater on their hands at some point. Yes, some are worse than others, but pretty much everyone has to deal with it in some way shape or form come dinner time, and there is unfortunately no easy answer that will immediately solve all your problems. If there were, we wouldn't all have this issue!
So, take a deep breath, try to cut yourself some slack, and realize that this is going to be a years in the making solution. It will take time. It will take patience. You may cry over a plate of perfectly roasted kale in frustration. But it's okay. It's NORMAL. And I swear, if you implement these top ten rules and don't give up, you will slooooooowwwly start to see improvement. If your child is 5 or 6 now, by the time they are 8 or 9 they will be SO much better, and you'll look back and realize how much progress they've made.
The dinners may be long, but the years are short.
SO HERE YOU ARE, OUR
1. NO SNACKING
This might be the biggest game changer out there. Stop the snacking! I know it's hard to believe when every activity, holiday, party and get together throws food at your kids, but they actually don't need to eat 24/7. They will survive. Give them a healthy breakfast, lunch, small snack between 3pm and 4pm (not within an hour and a half of dinner) and then dinner. Period. It took me a couple of weeks, but when I kept saying "it's not snack time" when my kids would ask for food, they quickly caught on, and now they don't even ask until 3pm. They know the routine, and it works. Amazing but true - if they are actually hungry at meal times, they are more likely to eat!
2. KEEP SERVING THEM THE FOODS THEY WON'T EAT (AND BE PATIENT)
I know it seems like a total waste, but hear me out! Even if they won't eat the vegetable you make to go with the chicken (or whatever you might be making), still give them a serving of it on their plate, or put the serving bowl on the table and serve everyone else from it, always asking if they want some. The more they see the food in front of them, and see other people enjoying it, the more likely they are to someday try it. By not giving them any or asking if they want any, you are unwittingly reinforcing the idea that they don't eat that food. Don't expect them to suddenly try it within days - it could be more like months - but as they say, better late than never!
3. ENFORCE A POSITIVE ATTITUDE AT THE DINNER TABLE
Siblings (and parents) can have a huge impact on each other. If a toddler is a good eater, but then big sister says "ewwwwww!" the minute the broccoli hits the table, suddenly the toddler won't touch it. Tell everyone that they are more than allowed to say nice things about a meal and say how yummy something is, but if they don't want something on the table, to simply say "no thank you" and not offer any colorful, unwanted opinions.
4. DON'T FALL INTO THE TRAP OF ARGUING OR PRESSURING
This happens often with my toddler at the moment: she asks what's for dinner, I say "spaghetti" or "chicken" or whatever it is, and she says "I don't like that!". Sound familiar to anyone? I realized if I tried to convince her otherwise, it was useless, so I just started saying "okay!" with a smile on my face. I didn't warn her she had to eat it, or remind her she loved it last week. I just let it go and showed her it didn't phase me, and what do you know, when dinner actually got served, she ate it all up.
5. "YOU DON'T HAVE TO LIKE IT, YOU JUST HAVE TO TRY IT"
If you have a toddler who really doesn't want to try something, back off and just stick with Tip #2 above, but for kids over about 5, this line can work really well. Similar to #4, this is also essentially adopting a relaxed attitude. Instead of arguing, if your child says they don't like something, casually and calmly tell them they don't have to like it, they just have to try it. Using this mantra helps get across to kids that food isn't scary, nor is it all supposed to taste the same. It's okay not to like it! But you do have to keep trying things and give them a chance - you could be missing out on something delicious (I love making this point when my toddler turns down an unfamiliar looking dessert - the older two stare in disbelief and I say "See? You have to try things or you don't know what you're missing!").
6. MAINTAIN VARIETY
A common trap parents fall into when kids start limiting the number of foods they "like" is to just keep serving those few foods, since you know they'll eat it. The problem is that not only are you reinforcing their taste buds, you're creating a habit of having the same thing every day that will be even harder to break out of. Try to find even just three different things they'll eat for each meal and rotate, so that they don't fall into the habit of eating the exact same thing each day. Maybe they'll eat pb&j, grilled cheese and bagel and cream cheese for lunch, so you rotate those, serving different fruit with it every day also, and maybe try new breads some days or different nut butters or types of cheese. Try to find little ways to keep pushing the limits, otherwise you'll see the number of foods they'll eat continue to shrink.
7. ALWAYS SERVE AT LEAST ONE THING THEY LIKE
We're all human, after all, and we all like to sit down and see something we like when we're hungry. A picky kid coming to dinner after a long day and seeing nothing but things they don't like will immediately bring on the whining and the tears. Be sure to have something they like mixed in with the rest, which will allow them to get some food into their tummies, putting them in a better mood to try some of the other dishes on the table.
8. TRY NOT TO BRIBE WITH TREATS
This is a tough one for many parents because bribing works, not gonna lie. Telling a toddler to eat their chicken so they can have a cookie is almost too effective to resist, and after putting the effort into making a meal only to watch it get pushed away is a tough pill to swallow. The problem with this method, though, is that it can reinforce the idea that dinner food is "yucky" and treats are "yummy". So, while it's probably unrealistic to suggest you NEVER do this, definitely don't get into the habit of doing this daily (or even weekly). If you follow the rest of the suggestions on this list, you should come to find that bribery is almost never needed anyway - honest.
9. DESIGNATE TREAT NIGHTS
A common issue with kids and families is that every night turns into a frustrating negotiation for dessert - "How many more bites do I have to eat? Did I eat enough? Can I have dessert now??" We had this issue for a long time until my husband decided dessert every night was way too much (he's right), and from then on we only had dessert 3 nights per week. I was amazed at how much better non-treat nights immediately felt since there was no dessert to steal attention. Early on, you may still fall into the habit of negotiation on treat nights since your kids know it's coming, and my suggestion is to lower your expectations a bit at first - if they put in a solid B effort at dinner, let them have it. The less fuss you make over it, the better it will get in time. It's kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy: the non-treat nights help eating habits so that they eat better on treat nights, making the need for negotiations eventually disappear (or at least reduce drastically).
10. POST YOUR MENU (OR TELL THEM IN ADVANCE)
Many kids don't like surprises. They like to be prepared for anything new and different, so surprising them with a new food is automatically met with resistance. I've found the simple act of letting them know in advance what we'll be having for dinner allows them to get used to the idea, so that even if it's not their favorite, there is much less whining and crying and they are usually more willing to try some (or at least put some on their plate). If you have a place in your home that's easy to post your daily (or better yet, weekly) dinner menu, it could have a surprisingly positive effect. If you don't have a spot? Just start getting in the habit of letting them know what's for dinner either at breakfast time or after school. And if they ever respond with "I don't like that"? See tip #4! Just smile and say "okay"... and serve it anyway.
After 9+ years of feeding kids, I can honestly say these recommendations DO WORK. I just wish I'd known them all from the get-go. It took me a few years of frustration and my own research to slowly move the needle in the direction I wanted with my kids, and some days are still better than others, but I can definitely see it working. They try new things without complaint, don't beg for snacks and treats all day, and best of all, I can go to sleep at night feeling like they eat a balanced (enough) diet.
If you're interested in doing a bit of your own research, check out some of the books on our recommended reading list!
Got any other tips for picky eaters? We'd love to hear them!