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The Picky Eater: What to Do When Your Child Won't Eat

Updated on August 6, 2018
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Katharine is a former psychotherapist and has worked with adult individuals as well as children, parents, and families.

Worrying About Your Picky Eater


It can be worrisome and frustrating to have a child who refuses to eat or will only eat two or three food items. Understanding why a child may be picky (part one of this article) is important to knowing how to handle it. Assuming your child is in good general health, there are many wonderful ways to encourage your fussy eater to try new foods and to enjoy healthy food choices. Try these 8 strategies and watch your poor eater become more adventurous with food and a better overall eater.

1) Model Healthy Eating Habits

As with anything else, a parent is a child's first and most influential teacher. If a parent wants his child to have good eating habits, then he should eat well himself. A child observes very closely at a young age and is likely to pick up the parent's attitudes toward food as well as learn from the types of foods he chooses to eat. If you are constantly snacking, or you have fast food dinners three times a week, that is what you can expect your child to gravitate towards. Your example, as parent, is the biggest single influence on how your child's diet will develop over time.


2) Make Mealtimes A Meaningful Routine

Have meals at regular times, sitting down in a chair at a table. Meal times should be purposeful, not grabbing a quick sandwich to have in front of the TV. By making mealtimes a focus, the child learns the importance of nutrition and pairs that with the social interaction that people share when they dine together. To make your dinners calming and pleasant experiences, teach your child good table manners and expect that rules be adhered to. This will increase the chances that your child will try and eat healthier foods. (see article on Table Manners for Children for more tips.)


3) Offer Only Healthy Foods

There is no reason you must provide your child with junk food. If you do, don't be surprised if that is what he picks as his favorite thing to eat! "But my child won't eat healthy foods!" He will if he gets hungry enough, and if your child is in good health, being a little hungry will not harm him.

Offer a wide variety of fresh fruit (or canned in natural juices is fine), cut fresh veggies like carrot sticks with hummus or celery and peanut butter, low or no-salt nuts and seeds, and whole grain, low sugar selections of breads and cereals. Eliminate foods that have little nutritional value from your home, and your child will eventually try, eat, and come to enjoy the healthier choices.

In addition, be sure that snacking is limited, not constant. A small snack between meals if a child is hungry is fine, but if it is less than an hour prior to a meal, let the child wait. If a child is hungry at mealtime, she is much more likely to try new foods and to enjoy the taste!

Your Picky Eater:

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4) Encourage, Don't Insist

When you are planning dinner, make sure there is at least one item on the menu that you know your child will eat, even if it consists of a plate of whole grain sliced bread and butter placed on the table. When the child is very young, you make up his plate (an older child should get his own plate, but the same rules apply!).

Include a small bite (like one green bean or a teaspoon of mashed potato) of items that your child doesn't like and more of what he does like. The rule is, he must try the tiny amount of the un-liked foods. Explain to him that his tastes will change as he grows and he won't know if he likes something unless he tries it regularly.

As long as the child eats a little bite of it, let it go. Allow the child to fill up on the items that he does enjoy. Do not prepare a separate meal for your child! This will only discourage him from trying something different and contribute to an attitude of entitlement, which you want to avoid. By offering him what the family is having you're including him in the whole meal experience and encouraging him to eat the healthy food choices that you have provided.


5) Involve the Child in Food Choices

Bringing the picky eater to the store and involving him in purchasing healthy foods is a great way to encourage him to try new things while teaching him about nutrition. Invite him to find a food (in the produce section, for example) that he has never tried. Maybe he'll see a variety of apple that he has never heard of, or an interesting looking vegetable. If the child himself picks something new to try, he is much more likely to be willing to eat it.

Look up a good recipe together to prepare the food and let him help in the preparation. If he still doesn't like it, don't make a big deal about it. Tell him maybe he will like it as he gets older and move on. If he does like it, you might want to have a blank calendar ready where he can put a sticker on the date he discovered a new food that he liked! Keep this up, adding a sticker each time he "discovers" a food that he likes.

6) Include the Child in Meal Planning and Preparation

Enlisting the picky eater's help in meal planning is an excellent way to teach her about nutrition. It also gives her a sense of personal power to choose what is for dinner, which will reduce her urge to assert her power by refusing to eat!

Start with the young child by offering choices. "What should we have for dinner? You can choose" : either chicken stir fry or pork chops; either green beans or yellow beans; either sweet potato or whole grain rice. As the child learns how to put together a balanced meal, she can make more of the selections herself.

Naturally, she cannot choose all the family's meals, but once or twice a week will increase the chances she'll be eating a good meal. Once she is old enough, you can invite her to help prepare the dinner as well. She's far more likely to try and eat something she made herself!

Great Tips for Coping With Your Fussy Eater

7) Never Use Food as Punishment or Reward

Food is meant to nourish the body. It is enjoyed with family or friends as a social occasion at mealtime. It should not be used to bribe, punish or reward the child. Telling a child he can't have chocolate cake for dessert unless he eats his asparagus teaches him very negative things.

First, he learns that chocolate cake is more desirable than asparagus. Second, he learns that food itself is something he can "win" as a reward for good behavior. This can easily translate to him using food as a self-reward later in life which can lead to bad habits and contribute to obesity. Using food as a disciplinary tool also brings all sorts of strong, negative emotions into the child's conception of food. Don't go there. Don't invite him to use food as a power struggle, you will both lose. Let him focus on food as nourishment and mealtimes as pleasant opportunities to commune with family. (no electronic devices allowed, by the way!)

Be A Superman!

by Gabbo T/ CC 2.0
by Gabbo T/ CC 2.0 | Source

8) Use Positive Reinforcement

In addition to not making a big deal when a child won't eat something, it is very helpful to emphasize the positive when she does! Learn about the nutritional properties of the foods you serve and use that to educate and encourage your child. "Wow, you ate all your carrots! You're going to have the sharpest eyes in your class!" (carrots contain nutrients that support eye health) "Oh, eating all that yogurt is going to make your bones as strong as Superman's!" (milk products promote bone strength)

Using this method of remarking positively when your child eats something healthy teaches him about nutrition and also creates a link in his mind between what he eats and the state of his health. It is much more effective than attempting to force a child to eat!

If your picky eater is generally healthy, no need to worry. Just be sure that only healthy food choices are available to him, encourage him to try new foods and praise him when he eats something new or anything that is good for him. By the time he is 16 and eating everything in sight, you'll wonder why you worried!

© 2016 Katharine L Sparrow


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