12 Tips for Handling a Picky Eater

12 Tips for Handling a Picky Eater

If you’re an expecting parent or have a newborn at home, before you know it, your baby will be a toddler with strong opinions. Will you know how to deal with a picky eater?

Jill Campbell, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 20 years experience in early child development and parenting, is the Parent & Me Curriculum Director at The Pump Station & Nurtury. Here, Dr. Campbell shares expert advice about how to handle picky eaters.

“Would you like eggs or oatmeal for breakfast?” Jenny asks her 2-year-old daughter Sophie. “Eggs!” shouts Sophie. Yet when the plate of scrambled eggs is put down in front of her, Sophie looks at them and cries, “No, oatmeal!”

Dan works diligently to create a well-balanced meal for his 18-month-old son Levi. On Levi’s plate is lemon-rosemary roasted chicken, sauteed spinach and mushrooms, and warm apple-cinnamon wedges. Levi picks and plays with his food for 30 minutes, leaving most of it on the plate (and the floor) before Dan reluctantly says “I guess you’re done” and removes Levi from the table. Twenty minutes later, a still-hungry Levi happily munches on goldfish crackers.

If you’re the parent of a toddler, these scenarios might sound familiar, and while I assure you that being a picky eater is typical toddler behavior, I know many parents worry that mealtime struggles will continue throughout childhood.

Do’s and Don’ts for Picky Eaters

So how do we let go of the food battles without encouraging picky eating behavior in our children?

Studies repeatedly show that the successful feeding of young children is best accomplished by providing them with a variety of healthy foods and allowing them to eat what they wish.

According to nutritional guru and registered dietician Ellyn Satter, MS, CICSW, the division of responsibility in feeding works this way: The parent is responsible for what food is offered, and the child is responsible for how much they eat. Satter goes on to say that the critical element in children’s food acceptance is repeated neutral exposure. To learn to like food, children must be allowed to try the food repeatedly and of their own initiative. Pressure of any sort slows down their learning.

Below, I offer some tips for parents of picky eaters, designed to help develop good eating habits and discourage picky eating behavior in the early stages.

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Picky Eaters: What to Do

Do offer your child a wide variety of healthy foods. Most toddlers are not eager to try new foods, so don’t expect your child to say “yes” right away to something different. Even though you know how yummy broccoli quiche is, your picky eater toddler might remain skeptical for a while. Research supports that when parents continue to present their children with new foods (every week or two bringing back foods that the child has refused to eat), children do eventually broaden their food selection.

Do offer small amounts of food. By using small portions (especially for foods that are less desirable to your child), you will allow your child to feel more successful in eating—and maybe even ask for more. A serving of four or five peas can appear way more manageable than a mound of them!

Do limit milk and juice intake. One cause of poor eating is excessive drinking, and filling up on milk and juice, both high in calories, may mean a child won’t be hungry at mealtime. If your child’s a picky eater, once they’ve reached their first birthday (and you’ve switched them to cow’s milk or a milk alternative), try limiting milk intake to 16 ounces a day for a 1- to 2-year-old. Children don’t need to have fruit juice, but if you do give it to your toddler, a suggestion would be to limit it to 4–6 ounces a day. You can also dilute it with water (check with your pediatrician for input too).

Do include your child in the mealtime process. Let them help with the preparation of the meal in an age-appropriate way. Things like adding tomatoes to a salad, or mixing ingredients together, can feel like a big accomplishment to a toddler. A child is much more likely to want to try something they helped prepare. Another way to include your child in mealtime is to give them choices. Let them decide if they want to drink from the green cup or the blue cup. Eventually (again, as age appropriate), let your child help set the table. When shopping, ask your toddler if they’d prefer peas or green beans with dinner, or take them to the farmer’s market to help pick out fruits and vegetables.

Do have regular meals and snacks. Snacks should be planned at specific times during the day (one mid-morning and one in the afternoon works well). Offering healthy snacks for kids at set times will eliminate a constant snacking habit that can interfere with a child’s appetite at mealtime.

Do eat meals together. Children are very social and will usually eat better when they’re not eating alone. Having your child at the dinner table is important because one of the most powerful influences on their acceptance of food is seeing you enjoy a variety of nutritious foods. So make meals a pleasant time to connect with one another, and don’t be surprised if your little one prefers eating off your plate instead of their own!

Picky Eaters: What Not to Do

Don’t force your child to eat. Remember, you’re in control of what foods you buy and offer your child. No matter how hard you try, you’re not in control of what your child actually eats. Force feeding a child will not work, and it will ultimately end up in a power struggle. Research has shown that children will actually eat less over time when they’re forced, threatened, or begged to eat.

Don’t use food to keep your child quiet or occupied. Try to avoid giving food as something to do, or as a reward. First, this will make your child less hungry for more healthy foods at mealtime, and second, it can set up bad food habits in the future.

Don’t make dessert a reward or conditional on how much of a meal your child eats. This places way too much value on dessert and teaches a child that desserts are “the good stuff” and the rest of the meal is something you have to get through in order to get to the good stuff. Treats like ice cream, cookies, and cake are fine on occasion, but when you do decide to offer them, do so unconditionally.

Don’t prepare a second meal for your picky toddler if they refuse to eat what’s being served. In other words, we don’t need to become short-order cooks for our kids. This will only promote picky eating in the long run. Instead, serve well-balanced meals that include one item you know your child likes. If they refuse to eat everything on the plate, that’s okay—don’t comment on it. Simply let them eat what they want, then leave the rest alone. Children will not starve themselves!

Don’t talk to your child about what he or she is not eating at mealtime. Allow them to follow their natural instincts for eating and fullness. When they say “all done,” don’t reply with “just a couple more bites” or “you hardly ate anything.” If you see that your child is not eating the veggies, don’t keep mentioning it. Remember, no forcing, bribing, threatening, or begging!

Don’t use the TV to get your child to eat numbly. This will eventually take away from their natural ability to know when they’re satiated.

It can be super frustrating when your toddler refuses to try a new food or ends up giving half his meal to the dog under the table. When you feel your emotions start to take over, take a moment to pause and reflect on your own childhood memories surrounding mealtimes. What were the rules around food when you were growing up? Did they help or hinder your willingness to try new foods? Does anything stand out that you believe influenced your current relationship with food? Taking time to ponder these questions might give you some food for thought about how to create positive memories around food for your little one.

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About the Writer

The Pump Station & Nurtury has empowered new and expecting parents in the Greater Los Angeles area for more than 34 years. Pump Station’s experienced team of credentialed experts provides evidence-based breastfeeding, baby and toddler care, and parenting education, support, and encouragement to parents as they learn to care for their babies. Through its array of prenatal and postnatal classes and other services, in person and online,  The Pump Station  gives parents the tools they need to parent confidently and also provides an environment where parents can bond with one another and their babies as they share their experiences. The Pump Station also offers a selection of carefully curated products and baby gear in their Santa Monica boutique and on their website.

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