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Understanding Picky Eaters And How to Get a Child to Eat

Updated on October 25, 2015
Princessa profile image

Wendy is a Psychologist graduated in Scotland. She also studied Communication Sciences in Peru. Currently a Spanish teacher in France.

A Few Of My Tips To Feed Picky Eaters

I will share with you a few of my tips to feed picky eaters, but more important than that I will try to help you to understand why your child is a picky eater. You will notice that once you understand the reasons you will be more patient with your child and you will be able to change your tactics to more effective ones.

Finally Managed To Get My Daughter Eating A Well Rounded Meal

 After so many years trying to "properly feed" my little one, finally I am seeing some light at the end of the tunnel and she is actually enjoying her meals allowing the whole family to enjoy meal times.
After so many years trying to "properly feed" my little one, finally I am seeing some light at the end of the tunnel and she is actually enjoying her meals allowing the whole family to enjoy meal times. | Source

Feeding Picky Eaters

For some parents, mealtimes can be a challenge and even worse, a struggle. Unfortunately, I was in that group of parents until recent years, when after much trial and error, I finally came to understand how to make my picky children eat a nutritious meal.

From Fish Fingers To Mussels

Aged 10, It is not long ago that he would only eat fish fingers and now he is even eating mussels!
Aged 10, It is not long ago that he would only eat fish fingers and now he is even eating mussels!

Understanding Child Psychology To Know Why Your Child Will Not Eat

Between 3 and 10 years of age, most children reject new flavors. This is completely normal. New things “scare” a child and that includes new foods. It is normal for a child to be concerned and refuse foods that he has never seen or tasted before.

Refusing to eat something is also a way a child uses to affirm his autonomy. Some children are more difficult than others when it comes to eating but a refusal to eat is a universal phenomenon, do not feel guilty about it. The key to avoiding despair as a parent is to understand your child’s way of thinking.

I was Desperate With My Children’s Limited Diet

I remember when my children were that age they went through a stage of eating only cereal, pasta, yogurts and fish fingers. I was desperate when seeing them eat such a limited diet. I tried adding different sauces to the pasta with no success; all they wanted was pasta with butter. I even had to always buy the same brand of fish fingers and yogurt as they would refuse any other one. I couldn’t understand why they would not eat another brand of yogurt and why they never seemed to be bored of eating the same thing.

Why Are Young Children Picky Eaters?

To understand this stage and be able to cope with it, it is important to first understand that this is the age when a child starts to have autonomy for eating and from his point of view they are reassured by eating things that they like. At 3 most children are feeding themselves and some are starting to eat snacks and even whole meals in “foreign” environments like daycare centers and schools.

Also, at this age, children are coping with an enormous amount of information: they are learning new things at school; they are meeting new people at their day care. They are learning so many things that eating what they know and like is a way to be reassured and have a “pause” from all the incoming new experiences.

Developing A Sense Of Self Involves Choosing What You Eat

By being a picky eater or refusing to eat, a child also is reaffirming his personality. Meal times are the perfect time for children to confront their parents by refusing to eat what they don’t like. In refusing to eat something new or different to their usual menu, a child is consolidating his personality, he is saying to his parents “I am an individual and I don’t have the same tastes as you.” It is frustrating for parents who have spent hours trying to cook a meal with the hope that this time their child will eat. But it is important to understand that behind this refusal to eat is a whole psychological schema being worked and solved to consolidate a child’s personality. As a parent, you are constantly telling your child what to do, when and how. To get over this stage, try compromising and letting your child choose what he wants to eat. Little by little his diet will improve when he feels that there is no pressure.

Stop Picky Eating and Expand Your Child’s Diet

Macaroni Is Macaroni

Why your child eats macaroni cheese but will not eat macaroni Bolognese?

The answer is very simple; a young child lacks the knowledge to see that a type of pasta will remain the same even if you change the topping.

The same goes for other foods, your child might love to eat tomato soup but refuse to eat tomatoes in any other way because he cannot simply acknowledge that the tomatoes are always tomatoes regardless of the way they are prepared.

For a child each new dish is completely new even if you are using the same ingredients that he is used to having in one of his favorite dishes.

Understanding Child psychology: Learn about the developmental changes that can result in picky eating

How To Make Your Child Eat A Well Rounded Meal

Some pointers to help you overcome this stage of refusal to eat and to get your child to eat proper meals are:

  • Wait until your child is hungry
  • Let your child cook
  • Cook on the table
  • Compromise when trying new foods
  • Do not dramatize

Getting Your Child To Eat: The Hunger Factor

When my first child was still a toddler I visited the pediatrician in despair because I couldn’t get her to eat. Much to my surprise, my pediatrician said to me: “If she is not eating it is because she is not hungry so wait until she is hungry and she will eat. A child doesn’t starve herself like an adult would; a child will eventually eat when she feels hungry.”

It was far too simple. I admit that I was skeptical of my doctor’s advice and it took me years to understand her idea of feeding a child, but the first and most evident advice to feed a picky eater is to serve meals when your child is hungry.

To wait until your child is hungry is a very obvious point but it is often forgotten. We usually feed our children when WE think they are hungry but rarely we ask them if they ARE hungry. My children usually come back from school at 5 pm and for a long time I used to struggle with trying to feed them their dinner as soon as they came back from school because it suited me. The results were hopeless, arguments, discussions, and tears. They were obviously not hungry at that time. Eventually, I noticed that when we followed the French meal-timetable they ate much better. Instead of dining as soon as they came back from school they had a little snack -a fruit, a yogurt or a small serving of cereal- when they arrived. Two hours later, at around 7 pm we started preparing for dinner and sitting at the table at a hungry 7:30 pm. As a result, everything disappeared from the dishes!

Wait until your child is hungry

Do you wait until your child is hungry before feeding him?

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A Hungry Child Will Eat Anything

late Halloween dinner.  He was starving!
late Halloween dinner. He was starving! | Source

Wait Until Your Child Is Hungry

It was such an easy solution that I wonder why I didn’t think about it earlier. Since then, I have noticed that the later we eat the less trouble we have at the table and the more my little ones eat. Every time we go dining out after 9 pm or we are invited for dinner (also late in France) my children eat as if they had been on a desert island for a week! On these occasions, they even eat their salads and vegetables without complaint.

Late Dinner At A Restaurant

Children eating their main dishes after they had their green salads -lettuce, black beans and corn-
Children eating their main dishes after they had their green salads -lettuce, black beans and corn- | Source

Let Your Children Cook And They Will Eat

In France, there is a short TV cartoon that teaches young children to cook easy-to-make dishes. There are also ateliers or cooking workshops especially orientated to teach children to cook nutritionally equilibrated meals. The logic behind this approach is that if you teach children to cook, then they will also learn to eat. The ateliers –directed to children from 6 to 11- aim to make children discover how to cook using fresh fruits and vegetables, the most difficult group of foods for children. As a result, parents are pleasantly surprised that after “discovering” a fruit or vegetable and how to cook it, children come out of the atelier liking that fruit.

Let Your Children Cook, This Will Encourage Them To Eat What They Prepared

Preparing a carrot cake
Preparing a carrot cake | Source
Making the dough for a quiche
Making the dough for a quiche | Source

Most children love to help in the kitchen and it is fairly easy to encourage your child to eat by letting him help prepare his meals.Just let your child help according to his age and capabilities, you will immediately notice an interest in what he is going to eat.

As in the French ateliers, make the time in the kitchen a time of discovery, let them touch, smell, taste and experiment with the ingredients that you re going to use.

Letting your child cook is also a good way to help you understand which ingredients your child likes and dislikes.Maybe you are always adding onions to your food, without realizing that your child hates them and that is the reason why the whole meal is being refused.In that case (like me) just avoid the onions in your recipes or use powdered onion when you must use onions.

Since I started letting my children help in the kitchen, I have noticed that they are more adventurous in trying new dishes.Sometimes they do not eat what they prepare but most of the time they do and at least in the process they learn something about nutrition.

Why Not Invest In A Raclette Grill Machine? It Will Be A Party Everytime You Use It

Cook On The Table

This is a fantastic idea for having a meal trouble free. Whenever we cook at the table; a fondue, a raclette or crepes (I know, very French...) I can be sure that nothing will be left for the dog!

Children just love to dip their bread in the cheese, invent their own crepes with the most crazy salty or sugary toppings or heat up their cooked meats and melt their cheese in a raclette.

I think it helps that the fact that they are choosing themselves what to put on their dishes plus the fun of sharing a “family cooking” moment are good incentives to try new foods. And, after all, Who can resist dipping multiple scrumptious items into even more scrumptious melted sauces?

Compromise When Trying New Foods

Ask your child to taste new foods before trying to feed them. Yes, instead of forcing your child to eat something ask him first to try. It is natural, isn't it? Even as an adult when you don't know a food, you prefer to try a small bite before having a full serving. Well, the same logic applies to your little ones.

What I do is compromise and now I always ask my children to try a small spoon of a new dish or ingredient, before they say "NO" to eating it. The deal is that if they like it, they will eat it, but if they don’t I will not force them to eat that. Usually it works 50/50 and half of the time I win and they like the new dish and have a full plate. Other times they don’t like it and I respect that and just let them eat the rest of the meal without the “offending food”.

You might think that compromising is not a good idea but it is really just a way of introducing new flavors and dishes to your child’s menu. The good thing is that once your child knows that you are not going to force him to eat something that he doesn’t like, he will be more enthusiastic to try new foods because he knows that he if he doesn’t like them, he can refuse them without any negative consequences.

First Time Trying Grilled Sardines, A Tiny bite To Try First... Result: She Loved Them And Had The Whole Dish!

Girl trying grilled sardines for the first time.  Guess what?  She loved them!
Girl trying grilled sardines for the first time. Guess what? She loved them! | Source

Do Not Dramatise

If your child doesn’t want to eat vegetables or she only eats fruits don’t worry too much. Most fruits have the same amount of vitamins, fibre and minerals as vegetables. Even better, the high content of sugar in most fruits with fill your child with endless energy.

What you can do is try to mix fruits with vegetables every now and again, so your child can taste a new food added to the one she already likes. For example, add a carrot to a freshly squeezed orange or add some grated carrots to grated apples for an instant starter. One of my little one’s favourite side dishes is caramelised carrots. We started having caramelised apples until one day just for fun we added a few thinly sliced carrots along with the apples. Eventually, they liked so much the caramelised carrots that we stopped adding the apples and now it is one of their favourite side dishes to accompany all sort of meats.

Do not get upset if your child refuses to eat something, give them time and try again in a few weeks.

Was This Article Helpful?

2.8 out of 5 stars from 9 ratings of Understanding Picky Eaters And How to Get a Child to Eat

© 2012 Wendy Iturrizaga

Is your child a picky eater? How do you cope with it?

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    • peachpurple profile image


      4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      besides that, kids will know that cooking is hard work especially when the kitchen doesn't have a spinning fan!

    • Princessa profile imageAUTHOR

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      4 years ago from France

      Yes, not only they get to understand that cooking is hard work but most important, the act of cooking forces them to try new flavors -they need to add sugar or salt, maybe herbs, etc and they are curious to taste what they are cooking.

    • Princessa profile imageAUTHOR

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      4 years ago from France

      peachpurple: I found that it helped a lot to get them involved in cooking, understanding not only the work involved but also getting in touch with the raw ingredients, tasting while preparing the food, letting them develop their own mixes and flavors was a good idea.

    • peachpurple profile image


      4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i believe that getting kids involve in cooking could get him to eat, they understand that cooking is hard work

    • SweetiePie profile image


      5 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I was picky about cheese as a kid, but everything else I was pretty game about. However, my mom liked to cook, we had a garden, and food was more than just something that came out of a box, which back in the 80's it seemed like that was all Southern California kids ate. It was weird because one boy my mom babysat his mom would send him with fruit snacks, but he wanted the real fruit we had there. It is funny how the thinking has changed in California, and now it is popular to buy GMO free organic this and that, but not when I was a kid. I noticed when my mom started working even though she still made dinner she became more lenient about allowing my sisters to have junk food, which they would beg for. I never really like it myself. I always preferred something homemade, and I still do. I think your tips will help lots of parents.

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      6 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Many parents worry about this topic. I find this to be very helpful hub and I thank you for writing it. Yes the pediatricians do give that advice that the kids will eat when they are hungry. So true!

    • Pinkchic18 profile image

      Sarah Carlsley 

      7 years ago from Minnesota

      Very interesting. I myself am still a picky eater, you have some good info here!

    • drpastorcarlotta profile image

      Pastor Dr Carlotta Boles 

      7 years ago from BREAKOUT MINISTRIES, INC. KC

      Very useful tips my friend! GREAT ARTICLE! Voted-Up! Come visit when you have time, be Blessed!

    • Princessa profile imageAUTHOR

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      7 years ago from France

      Laura: Thanks for sharing your experience. Getting your children to cook their own food is a great way to get them interested in eating. When we do that my little ones like to taste most of the ingredients which I think is good to develop their sense of taste and discover new flavours.

    • LauraGT profile image


      7 years ago from MA

      Great article! My kids definitely like eating what they've cooked themselves. Courage to all the parents with picky eaters out there.

    • Princessa profile imageAUTHOR

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      7 years ago from France

      Cogerson: Thanks for the voting. I found that keeping healthy snacks handy was a good idea to get my little ones eating better. We never bought too many sweeties but I stopped buying chocolate biscuits and instead filled the cupboards with cereal bars, fruit pureés, yougurts and left the fruit bowls very handy for them. At least this way they snack on healthy products.

      The latest nutritional advice here is to have 5 meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner and two healthy snacks. It might sound like a lot but French servings tend to be small and the snacks are meant to be fruits or milk products like yougurts.

    • Cogerson profile image


      7 years ago from Virginia

      Excellent hub and tips we will we have a 5 year old and 3 year old that drive us crazy at dinner time.....keeping them hungry seems to be our current best approach so far....I wish they were so damn cute when they ask for snacks between meals...voted up and useful.

    • Princessa profile imageAUTHOR

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      7 years ago from France

      Daisy Mariposa: Thankls for your support, I appreciate it.

      kelleyward: Thanks for sharing your experience; I know what you mean, I have these small soup bowls that I use for the children, they think it is a small portion, what they don't know is that the small bowls hold the same amount of soup that our ordinary soup bowls! They always think that because the bowl is small they are having a smaller portion than the rest of us, when in fact we are having the same amount ;-)

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I have one picky eater but now he is venturing out more. What helped us was to just give him the food in small amounts and let him be in control of his intake, without comments etc. great hub!

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 

      7 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)


      Thanks for publishing this very useful, helpful article. I'm sure many parents will appreciate your suggestions.

    • algarveview profile image

      Joana e Bruno 

      7 years ago from Algarve, Portugal

      Hello, Princessa, I know exactly what you mean, my children find eating a waste of time. It's terrible. it's been like this forever, both of them... Anyway, thanks for the tips...

    • Princessa profile imageAUTHOR

      Wendy Iturrizaga 

      7 years ago from France

      L.L. Woodard: Thanks for the vote up. It is important for parents to understand why their child is not eating to reduce stress at meal times and to be able to get their child to eat nutritional meals.

      If a child sees that his behaviour has a great impact in the family he will continue with that behaviour. On the contrary if a child sees that meal times are a relax time where the family enjoy a meal, soon he will start enjoying his meal and eating the same as the rest of the family.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      7 years ago from south Florida

      I remember one kid in my children's carpool years ago who would eat only bacon - for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I wonder what that little porker looks like now?

      Thanks, Princessa, for this interesting take on picky eaters

    • rsusan profile image

      Rika Susan 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Another good one, Princessa! Excellent advice here about picky eaters. It simply doesn't work to force a child to eat. There are many other creative ways, as you demonstrate here, that will produce the desired results. Kids won't starve themselves. I think that growing their own fresh goodies is one of the best ways to give them a little nudge in the right direction...

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 

      7 years ago from Oklahoma City

      I didn't encounter picky eaters when my kids were small, but I do have one grandson in particular who went through the stages you describe. You've provided useful information for parents and family members and hopefully will be able to decrease the anxiety surrounding this behavior.

      Voted up and SHARED.


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