How Can I Get My Picky Eater to EAT?!



I don’t know about you, but mealtime around here isn’t quite as graceful as it appears in the Pottery Barn Kids catalogue. My daughter came into this world ready to eat. A carnivore at her very core, she craves meat and loves roasted veggies on the side. Dream come true, right? Allow me to introduce you to her little brother: He eats very specific foods and, five years into this journey, is finally trying new foods. And let’s not forget about the allergies. Between the two of them, they have 20+ food allergies. Long story short? The perfect family meal doesn’t exist in this house (unless you count homemade scones – then we win).

It might have been food allergies that triggered my son’s picky eating, but breaking the patterns has been a slow process.Kids go through stages of food refusal for a variety of reasons, and sometimes those “stages” put down roots and become the new normal before you even realize what’s happening.

Teething and illness can lead to food aversions due to negative associations. Many preschoolers go through a phase where they decide that they “hate” everything that they loved just one day before. Sometimes preschoolers will only want to eat one color, or stick to a few favorite foods for a while. This can be the result of asserting their independence (more on control later) or a fear of new things. The good news is that this behavior usually resolves itself sometime between ages 4-5. Try not to worry too much about it. Your child is probably eating better than you think, and the parent very rarely wins food battles. Below are some tips to help you help your picky eater start eating a little more:

1.Take baby steps. Try to avoid overwhelming your little one with a plate full of new foods. Try one new item at a time. Be sure to put a couple of foods on the plate that you know your child likes, that way he can have a good meal and choose whether or not to try to the new food (Liam immediately spied a ravioli on his plate tonight and declared “I don’t want this on my blue car plate”. A mom can try…). Keep in mind that it often takes multiple exposures for a child to try and to enjoy a new food. Keep offering. And remember, portions should be small for this age group (ex: 2Tbs of pasta or rice). And ALWAYS model healthy choices. If they see you eating it, it must be good.

2. Feed when hungry. Sticking to a fairly structured eating routine ensures that a child will eat enough throughout the day and still feel hungry at meal times. If your child is grazing on snacks all day, meals will seem inessential to him/her. I have to cut Liam off from his snacks at a certain time, whether or not he’s finished so that he will want to eat his meals later. Offer a new item when your child is hungry so that it will seem appealing. When they’re hungry they are more likely to give it a try. Again, just offer the one new item (like yummy mango slices) amidst the usual fare for best results.

3. Avoid battles. I’ve said it before but I will say it again: The only two things toddlers and preschoolers can truly control in this world is what they eat and when they poop. Food wars are a losing battle. Offer them healthy snacks and meals and then step back. If you keep prompting them to eat they will quickly realize that the lack of eating is driving you nuts and getting your undivided attention. Try to make meals fun and engaging. Read a story. Tell a funny story. Ask your kids to come up with their best jokes. If they don’t eat, or only eat one thing on the plate, don’t stress. Offer a healthy dessert as a reward (think fresh cherries). New foods at dinnertime can be difficult after a long and exhausting day. Consider offering new options at snack time (even if it’s more of a main course) or during a period when your picky eater is typically calm and relaxed.

4. Avoid negative associations. If your child senses your stress level rising with each meal there is the potential for him/her to build up a negative association with eating. The latest research suggests that eating disorders are being diagnosed more frequently and being seen at much younger ages. Don’t create food issues by forcing your kids to eat. Check in with your pediatrician regularly or track down a pediatric nutritionist (for you to consult, not your child) if it makes you feel better. But keep your stress away from the table. Trust me on this one, make eating a stress-free activity.

5. Make it fun. Preschoolers shouldn’t need the gimmicks to get them eating, but they might enjoy the fun along with a younger sibling. Use large cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes. Add natural food coloring to make meals “fancy”. Have a Fancy Nancy fan on your hands? Have everyone dress up for dinner…works like a charm! I usually try to avoid toys at the table, but sometimes Liam will eat something out of the back of a little truck. Do what you have to do to keep it fun! Again, make sure you are keeping them engaged in conversation. Wiggly toddlers won’t last long if you pay no attention to them!

6.Try a food chart. Print out some blank food charts and let them color in the different sections as they eat the corresponding foods. Toddlers and preschoolers love to fill out charts! Get a customized food pyramid chart here: http://www.mypyramid.gov/preschoolers/index.html Riley likes to be reminded of how food helps her. “Mommy, will I have so much energy after I eat this chicken? How much did I grow from those snap peas last night?” Play along, it’s good for them to understand how food fuels our bodies and helps us grow. Find fun ways to teach kids how to “eat the rainbow” here:http://nutrition.preschoolrock.com/index.php/food-and-nutrition-activities/eat-the-rainbow-preschool-food-game

7. Milk refusal. This is common when kids are taken off the bottle later or a new sibling arrives on the scene. Talk to your pediatrician, but kids can get enough calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin D through other foods such as yogurt, reduced fat cheese, calcium fortified orange juice, and possibly some supplements. Not sure how to get them off the bottle? Let them choose the sippy cup and keep offering in a very calm, non-stressed way until they accept. It was about two months between Liam choosing his car cups and declaring “I ready for milk in a big guy cup!” Let them lead the way, but plant the seed early (like 14-16 months). If you’ve waited until after two you will have a more difficult transition. Keep in mind that some kids (Riley) will only drink milk warm. As long as it’s given well before bedtime and not associated with falling asleep, it’s ok. You can also consider soymilk or rice milk, but make sure they are fortified and your child gets enough protein during the day.

8. Consider add-ins. Add some grilled chicken to that macaroni and cheese or a slice of turkey to the grilled cheese. Sprinkle wheat germ on cereal or yogurt. Try tofu. Smart mom tips: BE HONEST! No one likes to be tricked. Don’t sweat it if they eat around it. Just keep trying. Riley used to pull apart her grilled cheese, remove the turkey, and then put it back together. Now she loves turkey and cheese sandwiches!

9. Give them some control. Get your kids involved in the grocery shopping and cooking. Even toddlers can wash fruits and vegetables and help put food on plates. Kids are more invested in trying new things when they get to choose new items from the grocery store (the colors in the produce aisle are fun for little ones to explore) and help prepare the meals. When it comes to older selective eaters, consider letting them choose the menu one night each week. A little bit of control goes a long way toward changing the way children view food.

10. Let them have treats. You enjoy a good dessert once in a while, right? Try to let your child have a treat here and there just because they can. Bake cookies. Go out for ice cream. Do something fun. If you completely avoid it they will find it eventually, and then they are likely to go overboard.

Hang in there. I’m with you on this one. Picky eaters can lead to a considerable amount of stress in your house if you let them. But if you step back and let them approach new foods at their own pace, you just might be surprised. After watching his Mimi make a salad a couple of weeks ago, Liam went over and plucked a tomato from the bowl when she wasn’t looking. He ate it to mixed reviews and hasn’t asked for one since, but he was proud of his accomplishment…and so was I. We’re still talking about it!

What lengths have you gone to get your picky eater to eat?


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  1. 1

    sammie says

    Thanks for this post! I know so many parents are exhausted and feel helpless with food battles. I was NOT one of those parents, until my daughter hit the age of 4. Now all of a sudden, she wants to dance around the table, take the tiniest bites, string out the meal into a long ordeal…

    It’s not that she’s picky, she will still eat/try just about everything and enjoys a wide array of healthy foods. It’s about what she FEELS like eating. A control issue, I gather? Like she is old enough to want to exert some independence and control over her life, and meals are one of the ways that she chooses to make her choices? I can make her favorite meal and sometimes she just says “No thanks!” Umm what? But if I served it the next night, she would eat it right up. It’s a confusing time for us regarding meals, that’s for sure! Appreciated this post. :)

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  2. 2

    Jessica Katz says

    One thing I will always remember about my picky guy.. I complained to his pediatrician that “All he’ll eat is mac and cheese. That is ALL he will eat. It’s ridiculous.”. His response, “So stop buying mac n cheese.”. Obviously things aren’t that simple really, but it was a little eye opener for me, that’s for sure! Thanks so much for this post, I’m pretty sure most of us go through a phase with our little ones like this.

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  3. 6

    Sarah says

    I really loved Baby-led weaning. Very big over here in London. Starting early with finger foods and doing very few mushy foods (unless something that would be that way anyway like mashed potatoes) It really made eating fun. My son has always loved foods and although has days of being picky it doesn’t last. He loves vegetables. Frozen veg is your friend as well to keep down on food wastage.

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  4. 7


    I’m a pro now at sneaking healthy foods in to everything! She has no idea HOW much she really loves carrots or kale or beets, lol.
    Tonight, I am making my own pasta
    I add finally chopped spinach to it so it’s fun green pasta!! (If I don’t make my own, I buy quinoa pasta.) And I always add finely chopped spinach and broccoli to the sauce.
    I think forcing or fighting over food is a bad idea, it builds a bad relationship with food. My oldest is 3 and even though she eats few things, I have learned to make a lot of things she loves, like pancakes and pasta healthy so she eats them (she’s a gluten fiend so I go gluten free a lot). If I was to give her spinach and avocado on a sandwich, there is no way she would eat that. Change the way it’s presented all together and turn it into a food they like.
    Here’s a very popular meal in our house and it takes less then 5 minutes to make:

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  5. 8

    AJR says

    Weaning our little girl off the bottle for water and juice was easy enough but at 2.5+ years she still refuses to drink milk out of anything except the bottle…boo! I don’t know or understand the finickiness on foods either. She will eat any kind of meat including fish but veggie or fruit or anything tasty like yogurt or ice cream..forget it! She won’t even try. I still give her supplement milk formula once aday to ensure she gets vitamins at least but its almost a vicious cycle now on how much she’ll eat in a day. There isn’t much vitamins or minerals in just meat, starch and cheese which is what the rest of the family gets stuck eating all the time now.

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  6. 9


    i don’t really believe in picky eaters. i’m of the opinion that they need to eat what is served to them or go hungry, none of this making special food for them because they won’t eat anything else. at least try new foods, but serving them only the same two or three items solves nothing.

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  7. 10


    I keep fruit on the counter, and sandwich fixings in the fridge. I’m cooking whatever I’m cooking, and you can eat it or don’t, but that’s it for the chef’s duties here. And you still need to sit at the table for the family meal, even if you ARE just glaring at an empty plate with apple slices in it while we’re all having a hot dinner. I do make an effort to fix meals that everyone likes, but I’m not cooking a million different things just to cater to everyone’s whims. We don’t have any allergy or food sensitivity issues here to contend with.

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  8. 11


    My picky eater may love something today and HATE it tomorrow. She is 6 and has refused to eat hot dogs and mac&cheese before. Depends on her mood what she may eat today. I had her not eat anything off her plate because I put corn on her plate. My 2 older ones will eat anything I give them. UGGGHHH

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  9. 13


    My girl would look at what every was on the stove, look at me and say I don’t like that or eww gross. I would tell her she loves it and that I just hadn’t made it in awhile. She would taste it and tell me I was right. The rule in our house is 2 bites. You can’t say you don’t like it until you have tried 2 bites.

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  10. 14


    They wont starve! Have the foods available you want them to eat and nothing else. Eventually hunger will kick in and they eat…and through some.complaining they willnlearn to enjoybit. If you never give into the Pickyness they naturally eat a variety of foods. My oldest had multiple food allergies..13 just with her, her sisters had zero… and eating well was harder for her…or would have been but not eating well was never an option. we never made different food for kids. Thats a great way to teach kids to get what they want not whats varied and best. I dont prescribe to sneaking healthy food in. Everyone should know what they are eating and know that they enjoying it. If you sneaking in younreinforce the notion theu arent eating certain foods and reinforce the notion that you will entertain. Arbitrary limits on nutrition.

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  11. 15


    I was the mom who said I would never bow down to the picky eater and make them eat what I served. What happened was projectile vomiting. I have 3 young children and one of them doesn’t like cooked food. Weird, I know. He will try it if you tell him too, even though he doesn’t want to…. And then he throws up because it’s so gross to him. So, I do fruit, granola, nuts, raw veggies and he finally has a taste for shrimp, crawfish and chicken nuggets. There was no trick, I just kept introducing things that were raw and healthy to make up for what would be a normal cooked meal.

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  12. 16


    There is a difference between picky eaters and problem feeders. If your child does not eat at least 15 different foods, please consider talking to your pediatrician about an occupational and speech therapy referral. Some children will not eat through no fault of their own.

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  13. 17


    Great directions and awesome points. Just want to point out that the food pyramid, however, is no longer the tool they are recommending. It is now a much-easier-to-understand food plate (much better for visualization, too!). And more info is found at http://www.choosemyplate.gov. Thanks for the great article!

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  14. 18

    Kim says

    Totally agree with not stressing about it, making it a battle. Picky eaters reform! At least ours did. And I think it had a lot to do with this no pressure approach.

    Another thing we did, that wasn’t mentioned here, was we shopped differently. We went to the grocery store and bought all the things we never ate! This is how we found out or no meat and potatoes little boy was a salmon and broccoli and SUSHI (!!!) little boy. He just didn’t like the things we normally ate. Not that we don’t like those things. We just rarely ate them. And we didn’t think 3 year olds would want sushi. Anyway, it’s worth a try!

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