How to Deal With Picky Eaters

There are a lot of picky eaters out there and they can be very frustrating to feed. I was one of those picky eaters that every parent hopes they don’t have, and I still am. I have gotten better as an adult, but I am still working hard to find new things I do like.

From my own personal experience, and working with young children, I can tell you there are several different reasons why young children can be picky eaters.

Texture or Taste

My pickiness is both texture and taste. Texture is something I still struggle with quite a bit. Some textures I don’t know if I will be able to overcome but I try to work around it.

When it comes to tastes I can sometimes force myself to eat it any way. Other times I add a sauce, or eat it with a food I do like. Being a picky eater myself I can relate to children who are picky eaters and I have a little extra sympathy.

When friends, or parents from daycare, would ask me how to get their child to eat, or to eat a certain food, the first thing I ask is if they think its texture or taste. Older children should be asked directly what it is about the food they don’t like. If it is texture you can try cooking it differently.

I do not like the texture of meat. I never have from the time my mom first fed me purees with chunks of meat, and I still don’t. But I have experimented with it prepared in different ways. I have figured out I can tolerate meat when it is shredded. The texture of steak, or ribs etc., I cannot do, not matter what I do to it.

From talking with other parents it sounds like texture is a very common issue with most picky eaters. But when they are so young they may not know exactly what it is they don’t like about the food. They just know they don’t like it.

Exposure

Toddlers need to be exposed to a certain food 5-10 times before they develop a taste for the new food. Older children need closer to 15 exposures before developing a taste. If the issue is texture they may never enjoy eating it and that is okay.

Adults need to remember that they too may have foods that they do not like. They tend to cook and prepare foods that they personally like and insist the children to eat it. Some are made to finish their plates, even if they don’t like it.

I remember when I was young, I was expected to eat a couple bites of meat and a couple vegetables, if that is what was for dinner. But I also remember sneakily spitting those pieces of meat back out into my napkin to throw in the trash.

Try to put yourself in your child’s shoes and imagine what meal times would be like if someone constantly made meals that you do not enjoy, and you’re told to eat it all or you cant leave the table. Some parents even make them eat it the next day if they don’t finish.

Start Young

Studies show there is a window between 4-18 months where children are more likely to eat, and continue to like, the food they were exposed to. Try to offer more vegetables than fruit as they will most likely prefer the sweet foods over the other. If you are continuously offering new vegetables into their pallet early it will carry on as they grow older.

According to Good Housekeeping “Each person is born with approximately 10,000 taste buds that are replaced every two weeks or so. But, over time, these taste cells aren’t replaced, and their numbers start to decrease. So, all of those flavors that were too intense when you were a child are actually more palatable when you get older.”

A group of UK researchers did a study surveying 1,950 British adults. They found the majority age for enjoying foods with strong flavours, like blue cheese, oysters, garlic, chili sauce, was around 22. Some flavours were not being enjoyed until closer to 30 years old.

Trying New Foods

The trick that worked the best through daycare and with my own son is asking them to lick it. They don’t need to take a bite but I ask them to lick it. Most times, especially if you know they do like that food and they are just being stubborn and saying they don’t, they will start eating it.

Take the Pressure Off Picky Eaters

Do your best to take away ALL the pressure on them to eat, leave it up to them. If you keep telling them “please take a bite, just one bite” “I need you to eat more, you’re going to be hungry” then you are in control of their eating.

Try putting their plate on the table and everyone just starts eating. Do not mention the food or anything about them eating. Sometimes not even looking in their direction, can take enough pressure off that they will start eating on their own.

With some children I wouldn’t even praise them if they took one bite because you’re now putting the spotlight back on them and the pressure is on for them to keep eating. Most toddlers want to do the opposite of what you want.

This happens a lot in our house. My husband is notorious for making a big deal out of our son having another bite, or just taking one bite of a new food. He can’t resist no matter how many times I explain that he is only making him not want to try it.

On days when my husband has a lot to say, about his day at work, our son tends to eat more. There is no one continuously telling him to eat or having all eyes on him. There is no pressure from anyone, except the odd “sit up properly while you eat please” and other than that he’s mostly ignored in terms of his eating.

If you are trying to introduce a new food, have a plate full of food they do like and a very small portion of the new food. Do not bring attention to the new food.

In the past, depending what the new food is, I put it on a cracker or some bread. The juice or sauce will get on the cracker and even if they scrape it all off then when they eat the cracker they still indirectly taste the new food.

Toddlers like Control

As any parent of a toddler knows they do everything in their power to have some control in their life. You give them water in a blue cup, well here comes a tantrum, they wanted the green cup. There are certain areas where they are able to gain the most control – eating and toileting. No matter what you do, if a child does not want to eat you can’t really make them. Sure, you could threaten them, punish them, or bribe them. But, either way, the action of chewing and swallowing their food is controlled by them.

Give them choices

When trying to win against a toddler, giving them choices as often as possible will prove the most success. They will be a little more willing to comply when they feel they have control in other aspects of their life. Try things like what they want to wear that day. Some children need your help to offer them only a couple choices – blue shirt or pink shirt; whereas other children may need the choice to choose from their drawer. When offering choices the most important thing is for you to be happy with either choice.

Children Will Not Starve Themselves

If a child is starving and there is food in front of them, even if they don’t particularly like it, they will eat some. But in order for your child to get to that point of being hungry they would have had to of skipped multiple meals. They will not become malnourished by skipping dinner and waiting until breakfast.

In our house

We do not eat anything after dinner before bed, unless we have an extra early dinner. From about 2-2.5 years old my son learned that if he did not eat dinner he did not eat again until breakfast. There have been nights that he decided he did not like the dinner I made (even though he ate 2 helpings of it last week) and all he ate was some tomato and cucumber.

I leave out his plate of food until about 30 min before bedtime routine starts. Some nights he will ask for something to eat after dinner, I tell him his plate in on the table, he goes and looks at it then runs off and goes to play saying actually he isn’t hungry. Sometimes he would tell us at bedtime that he was hungry and we would both just remind him that he chose to not eat his dinner, and now it’s too late so he has to wait until breakfast.

Fill Them Up With Healthy Choices At Breakfast and Lunch

The next morning I make sure he has a full healthy breakfast of something I know he enjoys. It only took a couple times before he caught on and will make sure he eats enough.

I always make sure there is food he likes that is healthy on his plate. He LOVES tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers, so when we are eating a new meal or something I know he will most likely not eat I put a plate of veggies with it. If all he eats for dinner are fresh veggies I’m still happy.

Ok, I know you’re thinking “But my child does not eat veggies, not one single veggie” or “my child won’t eat anything except chicken nuggets, pizza, and hot dogs”. The next step is to disguise it and keep trying.

Disguising Veggies

There are so many ways of hiding veggies into your children’s food… just don’t let them see you put it in (depending on your kid).

Muffins

 Muffins are great because children don’t see the healthy stuff that is hidden inside. You can add zucchini, it makes the muffins moist and you would have no idea it was there unless you were told. Chocolate zucchini is a good one for really picky eaters. I don’t know many children that turn away chocolate muffins. Carrot muffins are also great. My son hates eating carrots but loves helping to grate them up and put them in muffins because he knows it’s not the same texture as biting a carrot.

Muffins can also get filled with other healthy things like dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. If the kids are sensitive to “bits” then you can put them in the blender until they are ground into a powder. I HATED little bits in my food as a kid. It wasn’t until I was almost 30 years old, and determined to be healthier, that I started eating bread and baked foods with seeds in it.

When making baked goods try switching out refined sugar for honey, organic maple syrup, or apple sauce. They all keep the baked goods sweet while removing the added refined sugars.

Smoothies

Smoothies are a big hit in our house as they are easy to make. We keep all the ingredients in the freezer and it takes only a couple minutes to prepare. Spinach is our favourite to add as it doesn’t affect the taste or texture of our smoothies. It just adds nutrients and changes the colour to green. I find that avocado and carrot change the texture a little so we add those in small portions. I have heard of people putting beets in as well, but I have not personally tried it. If you’ve got picky eaters in your house try different combinations to find one your child loves.

Sauce

Lots of picky eaters love pasta. I know I did, and still do. Spaghetti is a good sauce for hiding lots of vegetables into the meal. Kids that are good at picking things out, I would puree half the sauce with those veggies so there are no chunks. Pretty much any vegetable can be cooked, pureed and added to a tomato/ spaghetti sauce without them knowing.

Tater-tots

For all those kids that only want nuggets. You can try making your own (or buy them, I’ve seen them in the freezer isle in most stores). You can add broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, or sweet potatoes made into little nugget or tater tot shapes.

Omelette

Eggs are also a great way to get some added nutrients into their meals. Kids love finger foods. Mix up some eggs and different combinations of food and pour into small muffin tins. They are great as they can be made ahead of time and are easy to grab and eat.

Pasta Replacement

With those new spiralizers out there it’s easy enough to turn your veggies into noodles (I have also seen them pre-spiralized in grocery stores). Try covering it with sauce before they see. For really picky eaters you could try half and half, or ¾ pasta ¼ veggie. Try to keep them close to the same shape.

Soup

If they will eat soup or stew, that’s a great way of getting in lots of veggies.

Phases of Eating

Children go through many phases when dealing with food. When they are going through a growth spurt they will often eat everything you give them and more. And then one day they stop eating. They may have only a couple bites before saying they are all done. THIS IS 100% NORMAL! There is no need to panic, there is nothing wrong with your child. Their appetite will go back up again.

Try to keep the little bit of foods they are eating as healthy as possible.

When its summer and days are hot you may also notice they are eating less. This is also 100% normal.

Take Away Processed Sugar Filled Foods

This one is a difficult one for some parents. But it is one of the most important. When children are continuously offered processed foods that are full of sugar (but might seem healthy) they tend to refuse the healthy food and wait it out until someone gives them the unhealthy food.

At several daycares I’ve worked at the rule is treats or less healthy choices are for after nap. I have seen it with multiple children. Morning snack they pull out their lunch bags they have a sandwich, some apples, cucumbers, fish crackers, granola bar, and a pack of gummies. The child asks to have the fish crackers or granola bar or gummies. The educator reminds them that they are for after nap but they have lots of other choices. Child then says “I’m all done” and packs up lunch bag. Lunch time comes and again asks for the afternoon treats. They maybe eat a couple bites of apple and then packs up. Afternoon snack comes and they sit down and eat all the snacks they have been waiting for.

Sugar is an addiction. When we eat sugar it releases dopamine in our bodies and makes us feel good. It stimulates the brain’s reward processing center the same way as when taking recreational drugs.

As you continuously eat sugar your body builds a dependency and a tolerance. So it ends up taking more sugar to give you that same happy, satisfied feeling but at the same time you start to feel crappy when you don’t have it.

The same thing happens with children. Start paying attention to how much added sugar is in your child’s food and try to start limiting it. You may notice they are eating more of the healthier options.

Even in flavoured yogurt there is a lot of added sugars. Instead you can try plain yogurt with frozen, or fresh, fruits.

Limit Snacks to Fresh Foods

Children catch on very quickly. If they don’t eat a meal and then shortly after they ask for a snack and are given one, they will remember that for every other time they don’t like the meal, especially if the snack is a less healthy, better tasting, option.

Try to limit snack foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, plain yogurt and fruit, healthy muffins, etc. I also find keeping afternoon snack quite small helps, that way when dinner comes they are really hungry and more willing to eat some dinner.

Extra Tips

  • Let them help you prepare the food
  • Have them pick out part of the meal
  • Sit down and eat together as a family
  • Display their food in a fun way to encourage eating

When All Else Fails

Remind yourself that you will not have to deal with it forever. Children go through lots of different eating stages and if you keep working at it while being really patient with them you will get through it. And if that doesn’t help they will eventually be old enough to make their own choices and cook for themselves.

If your picky eater is losing weight, looking malnourished, or is causing concern you should speak to your child’s doctor. Some picky eaters can benefit from supplements, like nutritional drinks, to help them get back into the normal range for their age. Speaking to a dietary counsellor may also be of some use to help get your child back on the right track.


Comments

  1. Monika

    My toddler is a picky eater, and it can be frustrating when one day he enjoys one type of food and the next time I make it, he will not eat it. This article gives great suggestions for incorporating the same flavours into different meals or textures. Thanks you for sharing!

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