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Picky Eater? 11 Expert Tips for Parents Who Want Success

+ Free Picky Eating Guide

Frustrated with picky eating? You may have noticed your toddler or older child start to say “no” to foods they used to eat. It can feel so defeating!

Picky eating is so common, particularly for toddlers and preschoolers, perhaps, even with adolescents. Feeding toddlers and kids is hard. You haven't failed as a parent just because you have a picky toddler or child!

Millions of parents come to us every day needing support. It’s stressful, when your toddler is not eating or your child is refusing foods they have always eaten!

We (we’re a team of dietitians, occupational therapists, and more) put together these 11 tips because they actually work! They will help you with your child. Plus, they are backed by decades of research and experience.

We know these tips will put your child on the road to eating more foods.

If you’d like to get an even more in-depth look at starting to overcome picky eating, we would love to share our free 14-page guide with you here as well. This guide will give you step-by-step things you can try  to begin to improve mealtime today

Guide to help picky eaters

1. Start “no-pressure” meals

If you're tired of all the effort it takes to just get your toddler to take a bite or your older child to eat, start with "no-pressure" meals. When you have a meal ready for your child, let them decide how much or whether they want to eat. Believe it or not, giving them the choice helps them to learn to like more foods over time!

Here are some examples of what pressure looks like:

  • “Just try one more bite.”
  • “You have to eat it, or you can’t go out to play.”
  • “You will make mom very happy if you try a bite.”
  • "You can have dessert as soon as you try this food."

Is it easy to take off the pressure when your child is not eating? No, it may feel uncomfortable at first, but it does get easier.  The goal is to create a pleasant and inviting eating environment for your child where they can learn to like new foods.

2. Say, “You can eat it when you’re ready”

So your child is not eating food: “I no eat.” “I don’t want it.” “That’s disgusting.” 

Toddlers and older kids love to tell you their opinions about meal options. It’s easy to jump into the fight with them and force them to eat a certain amount. But, doing so can make them more picky.

Instead, you can say, “You can eat it when you’re ready.” 

Have your child stay at the table for an age-appropriate amount of time, and then let them get down. Sometimes kids just aren’t hungry, and that’s okay. The kitchen will open again soon (see tip three!), and one meal isn’t going to outweigh the variety of food she eats in a week.

Just do yourself and your child one favor. Make sure you put at least one food they usually like on the table. That way, there is something they can eat.

Family At Home In Eating Meal Together

3. Have open and closed hours for the kitchen

It's easy to let your child graze on food all day, but letting them eat freely like this can backfire for a child who is already considered picky, as they are less likely to feel hunger and therefore much less willing to try new foods.

Instead of letting them decide to eat whenever they want, open the kitchen at certain times. Then close the kitchen when snack time or mealtime is over. Having a toddler eating schedule or a schedule for older kids, can make a huge difference.

Kids need three meals and 0-3 snacks per day, depending on the child and the family circumstances. Serving kids meals and snacks on a routine every 2-4 hours can go a long way in improving picky eating.

4. Sit down to eat

Sitting down helps picky eaters eat. Yes, it’s tempting to chase a toddler around the house with a spoon, or let a 7-year-old eat in front of the TV. Approaches like these can sometimes work in the short term,  but it doesn’t help picky eating in the long term. 

Instead, have eating places and have kids sit down to eat. It helps prevent choking, and it also can help kids slow down and listen to their bodies, which allows them to eat better.

5. Grown-ups set the menu

Many parents who have a picky eater are worried about their child’s nutrition or growth. So it makes sense that you would feel the need to feed your child what they will eat. 

Instead, it’s your job to serve balanced meals and snacks, and to let them decide whether to eat them or not.

Again, it also means you’re serving a food you know your child will usually eat, along with whatever else you are serving. That way, if your toddler is not eating dinner, you at least know they had some good choices.

If you want to understand more about how adults can set the menu, our free 14-page picky eater guide may be really helpful to you.

6. Add some fun with food activities 

Kids love a little fun in their meals. Food activities can be a powerful tool for parents. Whether that’s cutting a sandwich into triangles instead of squares or trying a new utensil, that little spark could make a child more willing to engage with a new food .

For many kids involving them in the process of making food more fun can actually make it an even bigger win. 

Have your child cut food into a new shape (with an age-appropriate knife or cookie cutter and supervision), or wash and prepare the food. 

And no, it doesn't have to make a huge mess. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries if your toddler starts to throw food. If that happens, you can stop the play. 

Food activity with kids

7. Keep serving it

If you follow us on social media, you’ll hear us saying “expose, expose, expose” all the time. Exposing kids to food means offering the food repeatedly (and in various ways), even if they haven't learned to like it yet. Showing kids foods you want them to eat is one of the most important things you can do. 

Often parents of toddlers or older kids say, “I know they won’t eat it- why should I serve it?” Because if you never serve it, they will never eat it. 

You don’t have to waste food, but you do need to keep putting it on the table if you want them to eat it.

8. Teach kids what foods do in their bodies

You’ll hear a lot of people try to get kids to eat foods by telling them it’s” good” or ”bad” for them. Our educational specialist, psychologist, and dietitians disagree! Telling kids food is good or bad doesn’t actually make them any more willing to try the new food.  Often, it can even make them more picky, not less. 

Instead, it helps to teach kids what food does in their bodies. “Carrots have vitamin A which helps us see in the dark.” Facts like these help kids learn to take care of their bodies, have a good relationship with food, and feed their desire to learn. It can also help with picky eating! 

We love to teach you age-appropriate things you can say about foods in our collection of picky eater food guides.

9. Make dessert less exciting

When we use dessert to bribe kids to eat dinner, it makes them think dessert is better and dinner is worse. Cookies are amazing, broccoli is gross. 

Try serving dessert with dinner. This will make dessert and all foods equal. If serving dessert with dinner does not work for your family, it can also be offered with other foods during snack time or other meals. The main thing to remember is that  however dessert is presented,  it shouldn’t be tied to eating a certain amount of the meal.

Girl enjoying a fruit salad

10. Model the behavior you want to see  

When your child watches you, they learn to eat what you eat! Model all the strategies we discussed here in front of your child. 

Let your kid see you eat a variety of different foods. If there is a food you don’t enjoy, try it in front of your child. It's okay to let them know that you are learning to like this food. You can say, "I'm learning to like this food. Maybe I'll try more another day."

 You can model how to talk about the foods on your own plate, use neutral language to discuss dessert, and even play with your own food to help them engage with theirs!

Eat with your child whenever it works for your family. Maybe you have dinners together, or maybe you eat lunches together on the weekends. Whatever works for your family is great.

11. Use expert tools for extremely picky eaters

Extreme picky eating is so stressful on families. If your toddler isn't eating much, it is stressful. If your older child isn't eating much, it's stressful.

Maybe your child is only eating 5 or 10 foods, and you've tried everything over the past 7 years. Or maybe your toddler is refusing to eat anything but milk.

In extreme picky eating, you can use all the tools above. In addition, you will likely need additional education to learn how to help your child and also make sure they get the nutrition they need.

You may need a picky eating course or other tools. Our picky eater food guides may be helpful to you. Each one helps you teach your child to try a new food.

Whatever your situation, we know picky eating is a struggle, and we’re rooting for you! If you haven’t already, we have our free 14-page picky eater guide ready for you to learn more and get your child on the road to eating more foods.