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Picky Eating Troubles? 16 Ideas for Encouraging Healthy Eating Habits

Picky Eating Troubles? 16 Ideas for Encouraging Healthy Eating Habits

From adventurous, to predictable to downright picky, children have many many styles of eating. While some parents are quick to believe that there is one right way to get children to eat everything or a magic parenting tool to raise “good” or adventurous eaters, I’m more inclined to believe that it’s a mix of things, among them genetics, parental attitude and well a dash of luck. Let’s take a look:picky eating solutions

Genetics….uhm…Are picky eaters born that way?

A study by University College London, concluded that picky eating is in fact most likely 78% genetic and 22% environmental. Another study at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that 72% of the time, genes could be blamed for children rejecting food!  But, don’t  give up hope and walk away …below we’ll cover what to do about encouraging picky eaters to expand their menus!

Attitude…does it matter? YES!

A study at Cornell University(1) found a clear link between controlling and forceful attitudes in parents and children that felt unhappy and less likely to eat vegetables. Plus when commanded to eat, children were more likely to refuse to finish meals or try new things. The “clean plate club” and “ you must finish your broccoli” and “eat this or go to bed hungry” stuff aside from being unpleasant for everyone really does not help children become less picky, in fact in can make it worse and lead to obesity later in life.

So…If you have a picky eater what can you do?

I’d like to share 16 ideas here for long term changes, changes that impact our overall attitude and approach towards food and eating.  While there are plenty of tricks and tips out there to change picky eating with stickers and points for example, or refusing to be a short order cook, short term tactics do not create healthy habits or a sense of ease and enjoyment around food, and food can be such a wonderful thing!

1. Take a break from meal time frustrations: Knowing that the picky eating is currently an issue, try to accept it and instead of forcing, cajoling, bribing, struggling about food, for now, try to just breathe and resolve to get through meals without fights. This may be hard to do, if you are frazzled and stressed every meal, your child will likely be as well. Try to  smile and enjoy your own meal! The next ideas hopefully help with that.

2. Serve one safe food with every meal: Research shows that children are more likely to try new foods when they see them close to (but often not touching)  foods they already feel comfortable eating.   This helps also because if there is at least ONE food on the table that your child likes, there is way less need to struggle or negotiate because you know there is something they like to eat.

3. Allow self-serving: Children are more likely to eat a variety of foods if they are allowed to serve it themselves. Making colorful veggie platters for example, fruit plates, family style serving bowls and letting children pick and choose helps them retain some control and make choices.

4. Adjust portion expectations: We often forget just how small a child’s stomach really is and think they should be eating way more than needed. When in doubt, look at the size of their two hands together, that is about how much they can eat (and that’s stretching it!) on any given meal.

5. Invite kitchen helpers: Children are also more likely to eat foods that they have helped prepare themselves. Chopping, peeling, pouring, measuring, whisking and handling various foods helps children become familiar and more comfortable with a variety of foods.

My daughter helping peel cucumber for our salad.
My daughter helping peel cucumber for our salad.

6. Talk science: Kids love to know how and why things work – talk about how foods are digested, how foods grow, how temperatures can change food, make experiments like freezing bananas or fruit slices into a giant block of ice, melt cheese, experiment with textures and mixing ingredients… let kids explore and understand food.

7. Balance new & familiar foods: Choice and variety are great ways to potentially interest children in new foods, but finding a balance is key.   If you are really on a mission to expose your child to new foods, try serving something new only every few days “sandwiched” between days with familiar foods (and don’t forget idea #2)

8. Remember kids are on to us: Too much of “Oh wow look at this delicious piece of fried zucchini, it’s fabulous and crispy and tasty and yum, yum yummy, oh it’s going in my tummy!!!” or using bribes for every bite means our kids are very likely to pick up on the fact that it’s really important to us that they try some of that food. In fact, when parents make a huge deal about a food children are less likely to want to try it. Instead try to keep food commentary genuine and honest and avoid using bribes or tracking methods that evaluate or control the child’s eating patterns and choices.

9. Take the emphasis off of dessert and control:  “No dessert until you finish..!” “No cake for you unless…” Are you thinking about cake and dessert right now? Children pick up on the fact that dessert is special if it becomes the center of tension surrounding food and eating struggles and then these become so interesting and desired above and beyond all else. Try to treat foods equally, in the sense that you don’t use any of it it as currency or leverage.  Sure, nutritionally speaking certain foods are healthier than others, but we do not instill a healthy relationship with food when we give certain foods higher values or when we use them to control our children’s behaviors.

10. Don’t be afraid to make it fun: Break the food rules sometimes = just because. Have fun with food, make it cute, have a picnic in the living room on a giant blanket, eat outdoors, invite teddy bears to tea, create shapes or food art, have a foods from around the world tasting night, reverse meal orders or dim the lights and use candles instead. Nutrition is serious stuff but eating can be fun too.

11. Allow investigations: Young children instinctively smoosh, smell, lick, look, turn, prod, poke and squish food. Then and only then can they decide if they really want to eat it. This is normal and necessary to create an understanding about food, texture, smells and flavors.  When we interrupt that process with “stop it” and “NO!” and “eat it already” although we may mean well, we are creating feelings of fear  surrounding a really important yet delicate process of discovery and trust surrounding food.

Exploring spaghetti for the first time!
Exploring spaghetti!


12. Model: Modeling is so powerful and children are naturally looking to us for guidance, so try to eat the same foods you wish to see your child eat and keep eating the ones they currently dislike, it can spark their curiosity and also give them a sense of security seeing those foods being consumed safely by the people they trust.

13.Share: Young children often feel comfortable reaching for food on their parent’s plate, this isn’t to be rude, it’s about safety and wanting to share an experience with you. Sharing utensils is not ideal but try to find ways to offer bits of food from your plate from time to time.   All three of my children love sushi and sashimi and I’m totally convinced it’s only because they took it from their father’s plate at a young age (ok and that dash of luck I mentioned).

14. Meal Plan Together: Take a few minutes each week as a family to come up with a meal plan for the week. Having each child choose a meal that they like, feel happy to help cook and are looking forward to eating can give them a sense of control and belonging and more likely to participate and enjoy the meals all week. This also gives you a chance to pre-plan and avoid struggles since children will know what foods are being served when.

15. Try again…and again: Children may need to see new foods 10 to 15 times before they choose to eat it. So, keep serving up those dishes and letting children explore, be involved, self-serve, analyze, taste, reject and soon enough they may just bite right in!

My son at age 2 refused mashed potatoes with a passion – spitting it out and shivering. I kept cooking it over the years and serving it to the rest of the family. One night, when he was four, I asked if I could borrow his strong arms to “smash up” the potatoes I had cooked. He was so excited to use the potato masher, he worked really hard. Soon enough he asked if he could taste it, he did and now “smashed up potatoes” is a favorite, something he often chooses as part of his meal of the week. 

16. Take a moment to re-evaluate your thoughts towards your child’s eating habits:

  • Is your child really terribly picky or just choosing foods that are not exactly your particular taste?
  • Are you wishing your child would eat foods that you love but she is actually more interested in other stuff?
  • Are your expectations for your child developmentally on track?
  • Are you so frustrated that meal times have become something to dread so everyone is already on edge before even eating?
  • Has food become currency, used as rewards and way to control behaviors?
  • Do the food choices in your kitchen reflect what you really want your child to eat?

Sometimes it helps to adjust how we are looking at our children and their food choices. This is not to discount the fact that picky eating can be challenging, exhausting and frustrating. Despite being very adventurous eaters, my children sometimes have picky ideas like insisting on one particular kind of tomato sauce at home or only one brand of yogurt (sigh!!!)   It helps me to remember that  we cannot control our children but we do hold the power to change our own attitudes and move towards more peaceful and understanding meal times.

Every child and family has a unique dynamic and may respond differently to the ideas presented here. Like everything else on Positive Parenting Connection, I share Ideas so that each parent may decide what works best for their own family.

So, which ideas might work for you?

Do you have a picky eating challenge that you want to ask a question about?

Peace & Be Well,


Picky Eating Related Reading & Resources: 

Janet Landsbury has a great piece on Dodging a Food Fight With A Toddler

Darci Walker has an amazing piece about Kids and a Budding Relationship with Food

Natural Parents Network Author Emily Bartowski shares 10 Things *Not* to Do to Help Your Child Eat

Feeding the Picky Eater: 17 Tips from Dr. Sears is full of helpful information as well.

Research References:

  1. Wansink et al. Consequences of Belonging to the “Clean Plate Club”Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2008; 162 (10): 99

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