Your child is a picky eater, and what to do about it

Having a picky eater seems to be the norm these days. I’d almost dare to say that children between the ages of 2-7 more often than not wind up in the picky eater category.

Why the sharp jump in membership of The Picky Eaters Club during this time? Researchers believe it could be evolutionary. That way young “cave toddlers” wouldn’t walk around tasting every potentially dangerous thing in sight. Can you imagine?

Still, there are far more factors involved here: genetics, personality, and family eating habits to name a few.

My son is no exception. He is a proud card carrying member of The Picky Eaters Club and I am a reluctant member by association, trying to sway my son in another direction. It all began at the ripe old age of 2. Previously my baby boy would gobble up anything placed before him: peas, squash, avocados, blueberries, you name it.

It was like a switch was turned off (or on, depending on how you look at it), and he was suddenly suspicious of everything that was placed before him.

This sent me in a crazy spin for awhile. I wondered what I had done. Certainly I must have caused this sudden disdain for all things considered healthy. I was convinced it was because I introduced bananas first. Or, that I failed to introduce the veggies in the proper order.

Worse yet, I figured I must be missing the magic mommy touch. I didn’t have the finesse to cajole, coerce, or otherwise bribe my child to eat well.

I know (now) that none of that is true. I finally took a step back and made a mental list of the things I could do to encourage and support healthy eating habits.

  • I continue to offer him his daily dose of veggies. All I ask is that he gives them a try. It’s up to him whether or not he eats the rest. Did you know it can take up to 10-15 times of being offered a new food before a child will try it? It may feel futile at times, but don’t give up.
  • He’s old enough to understand that his body requires a balanced diet. We talk to him about needing protein, fiber, and the good vitamins found in fruit and veggies. He gets it. Hopefully one day it will sink in enough to not gag at the mere sight of broccoli.
  • Getting upset at him because he won’t eat the peas on his plate won’t make him want to eat those peas. He knows that he must taste them. Then, we move on. No drama, no tug of war.
  • I still modify his meals somewhat. If we’re having spaghetti and meat sauce, he gets plain spaghetti with Parmesan cheese and a side of chicken.
  • His being a picky eater has nothing to do with my mothering ability. Thankfully my daughter taught me this. At age 3, she is a much more adventurous eater and will gladly eat carrots, broccoli, edamame, and tomato soup.
  • I remind myself to look at the big picture. Instead of dissecting what he eats at each meal, I look at how he eats over the course of the week. Some days are better than others but overall, I am usually surprised to discover that he covers most of the dietary bases.

He continues to broaden his food horizons over time. It’s not overnight and I give him a multi vitamin to fill in the gaps. I hope someday he will allow a green vegetable past the obligatory “no thank you” bite. However, I am confident that his membership in The Picky Eaters Club is not life long.

Are you dealing with your own picky eater? Have you found ways to enjoy mealtime in spite of it?

Melissa Arca is a pediatrician who blogs at Confessions of a Dr. Mom.

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  • Adam Gross

    Dr. Arca,

    Thanks for the helpful post. What do you do to make sure your child will at least taste the food?


  • Melissa

    Yeah, that can be a bit tricky. It really has to do with the child’s age and cognitive ability. You can’t really force them to taste but you can encourage, especially at dinner time. My children know that they may not be excused from the dinner table until they have at least tasted what is on their plate. I don’t enforce a “clean your plate” rule b/c I think it goes against teaching children to tune into their own hunger cues.

    However, consistently encouraging a “taste” through repitition and dinner time “rules” should help in the long run.

    Hope that helps!

  • anonymous

    Any advice for a parent of a slow eater? And by that, I mean a 7 year old who puts a bite in his mouth, then pushes it to the side of his cheek, and doesn’t continue to chew and swallow unless constantly reminded. Even his favorite foods take an hour and a half.

  • Angela

    What about a child that gags when trying the “one bite”? My 4 year old son survives on bread products, dairy, multi vitamins, and V8. When we plead with him to try something not included in the list above, (and when he consents to try something), he literally gags. A couple weeks ago he threw up when trying to eat a chicken nugget. I understand picky eaters but this seems extreme.

  • Haleh Rabizadeh Resnick

    Have you checked with a good nutritionist and done any blood tests? Some picky eaters lack necessary vitamins that in turn reduce their desire to try to other foods. Other picky eaters may have allergies and sensitivities.

    I agree with your other tips. I would add to it- Don’t label your child as a picky eater and talk about it any longer. Your child can hear you and even when he is willing to try something new, it becomes that much harder because now he has to also change his identity of who he is- “the picky one”- who gets lots of attention for being that way.

    You can read about my approach to health and children in my recently published book Little Patient Big Doctor: One Mother’s Journey. I hope that it will be helpful to you.

  • Patricia

    We also initiated the “No thank you” helping and let it go. I refused to battle with my children about food. As a toddler, my eldest daughter would eat nothing but hot dogs. The pedi suggested buying the best quality hot dogs we could find and let her eat them. We did this, and also offered plenty of other foods, which she had to taste (no thank you) but not finish. We never made a big deal of what she ate or didn’t eat. By the time my oldest child was 10, her favorite vegetables were artichoke and broccoli; my youngest, fish of all varieties. My eldest no longer eats hot dogs and never did develop a taste for peas, but both girls, now in their late 20s, eat a wide variety of healthy, nutritious foods and they are adventurous diners.

  • Connie Johnson

    Story of my life. My son ate ANYTHING (except meat) when he was in the puree stage. As soon as we went to finger foods he became picky. He just turned 2 and food is a daily fight. My undergrad being in nutrition, it pains me more than you can know when he goes days only eating mac and cheese and bagels with cream cheese. Luckily I discovered a clif bar for kids that he loves to get some decent protein and nutrition. I even made all his baby food because that’s supposed to help make less picky eaters (and it’s so much cheaper). Didn’t work. Oh well, at least recently he started nibbling steamed “trees” and loves popping edamame out of the shells. Last night he even ate a few pieces of cucumber. Maybe things are looking up? :)

  • Pam Charney

    Please consider visiting an experienced pediatric Registered Dietitian (RD). We can give many, many tips and suggestions to support your picky eater’s food exploration while also making sure that you can be comfortable knowing that his/her nutrient needs are being met! As a pediatric dietitian myself, I teach kids to learn to like food, explore options, try new things (ok, sometimes they do; my own is currently loving all beige foods) and teach parents. I also recommend supplements and diagnostic lab work very, very rarely. We are a nation of worried well and all those lab tests typically prove nothing and cost a lot in terms of money and trauma to the child!

  • Rashaun P. Sourles

    Dr. Arca,

    What a great post! I’ve attached below a book that I created as a part of my masters program at Northwestern. It’s a cute little “e-book” that is intended to be distributed freely and teach kids, parents and teachers about the joys of eating healthy and locally grown foods. The title is “Percival Perkins: The Particular & Picky Eater.”

    I think you will enjoy it and please, share it with any group that needs a tool to incorporate fun into teaching kids about fruits and veggies!

    Attached below is the 58MB file in the cloud.


    Rashaun P. Sourles

  • gzuckier

    biggest mistake is to either get into a battle, or to cajole, or to bribe “if you eat your spinach you can have ice cream for desert” (there’s a great way to condition your kid to overeat). the first area where a human establishes autonomy is food.

    instead, stock the kitchen with reasonably nutritious treats insead of seventeen types of cookies, chips, ice cream, and soda, let the kid know what’s good for you and what’s not so good, show a good example, and leave it at that.

    another factor is the kid’s sense of taste is often better than an adult’s; and, sometimes, genetically better as well (“tasters” and “supertasters”). although you might think that being a supertaster might mean that your food is that much more enjoyable, in practice it means that the person tastes bitter components in vegetables or other foods that the average person can’t detect, and that accounts for a certain percentage of juvenile legumophobia, to coin a phrase.

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