10 reasons why your kids are picky eaters

10 reasons why your kids are picky eaters

If only it was as simple as looking into our old Magic 8 Balls® to find out if it is “Very doubtful” or “Decidedly so” that refusing to stop at the Good Humor® truck on the way home from school will be the right thing to do for our children. It is worries like this, along with the challenge of raising children in a fast food, commercial-filled nation, that causes us to raise kids whose diets consist primarily of pasta and chicken nuggets. The truth is that we don’t know if controlling our kids’ food choices will result in food issues when they become teenagers and adults. But we can be sure that subsisting on processed food isn’t good for their growing bodies.

My expertise on this subject comes from being an M.D., a nutrition specialist, a healthy eater since my cancer diagnosis 14 years ago and, above all, a parent. Before I became a mother, I looked on with bewilderment at all those young, picky eaters who shook their heads and sealed their lips to guard against healthy food entering their mouths; and their parents’ attempts to cajole, threaten or bribe those children to get them to at least taste it. Could it really be so hard to raise children who would eat a healthy diet? Eight years later, I see that it is possible to raise children who enjoy vegetable juice, beans, guacamole and pumpkin seeds. All three of my children eat beautifully, but now I know that it takes daily effort and a strong conviction that healthy eating is as important for our children as anything else we do for them.

Here are some of the reasons people end up with children who don’t eat well:

1. Parents are afraid to say no. It’s not just that they don’t want to create an ice cream binger. It’s also that feeding our children is a way to nurture them and show our love. It is so tempting to give them treats like French toast or chocolate chip cookies just to see their joyful faces, especially if that was one of the ways our own parents showed their love. The question is, can we break this cycle and express our love with healthy foods?

2. Parents think it’s okay for kids to eat junk food in moderation. Even though parents themselves might not indulge, we are told kids can eat it “in moderation.” But what exactly is “moderation”? Once a week? Once a day? What would be a moderate amount of a chemical like artificial color, which some studies have linked to hyperactivity? Perhaps we are lulled into thinking kids have years to go before they have to worry about calories or fat. But the truth is that even babies have been found to have the early stages of plaque in their arteries, childhood obesity is considered an epidemic, and type 2 diabetes, once only an adult disease, is now all too common in children.

3. Doctors recommend it and schools provide it. Many of our pediatricians tell us we are supposed to feed our kids Cheerios® starting at 10 months old so they can work on their pincer grasp, never mind that the cereal is highly processed and full of simple carbohydrates which quickly turn into sugar in the body. Besides, anyone with kids knows they fine tune their pincer grasp by picking up the tiniest specks of dirt off the floor and skillfully putting them in their mouths. In addition to the doctor’s office, the other surprising place kids get exposed to unhealthy foods is school. It begins with the Mommy and Me groups, where children are handed Goldfish crackers to snack on, despite that they are high in sodium and simple carbohydrates; or, worse, Graham Crackers, which are nothing more than cookies hiding out in a box labeled “crackers,” along side apple juice, another hefty serving of sugar. By preschool my kids were served cookies or cupcakes, often with bright pink or blue frosting, at least once a week to celebrate a birthday or holiday.

4. It is appealingly easy to make a ready made meal we know our kids will eat. “Nuking” chicken nuggets that have been scientifically formulated to please the little ones or boiling up pasta takes a lot less energy than standing in the kitchen for an hour or two to make a meal. Understandably, after working all day inside the home or out, that may not be so enticing, especially in our over-scheduled, highly intense culture, where spending hours in the kitchen is no longer considered time well spent.

Whatever the cause, the question is, what to do now? Whether you have a clean slate with an infant or are trying to change directions with an older child, here are some suggestions.

1. Make sure your children are really hungry for dinner (or whatever meal you are serving). So, for example, don’t allow them to have any sweets or too much bread after school. If it is two or three hours before meal time, provide only fruits and vegetables if they are hungry.

2. Only keep food in your home that you want them to eat. “Sorry, we don’t have any Oreos” is so much easier than “Sorry, you can’t have any Oreos.”

3. Let them be involved with some aspect of food prep. My son once found some kid-friendly recipes online and became totally enthused about making and eating ants-on-a-log (nut butter and raisins on celery). Or, with your careful oversight, let them cut up or peel some veggies, or even just turn on the blender. It only takes me twice as long when my kids help me make a recipe, but it’s worth it (usually!) because they are so much more interested in tasting what they made.

4. If you can sit down to eat together, do it. Kids are so affected by what they see their parents and each other eat. Mind you, I haven’t had a relaxing dinner in the three years since we started eating with our kids, but I remain optimistic that one day soon it will happen.

5. Don’t push kids to eat something if they really don’t want to. When my daughter, the pickiest eater in the family, was younger and would balk at the lentils and brown rice I’d cooked for dinner, I would have easy, healthy back-up options available that I knew she liked, such as a handful of pistachios or whole grain crackers and hummus. Eventually, whether it was that she was bored of the back-up foods or inspired by seeing everyone else eat the lentils and rice, she started eating it, too.

6. Your child may need to try a new food 10-15 times before he is willing to eat it. That’s how it was with my daughter and vegetarian chili. Now she eats it, more or less happily, as long as I pick out the carrots and onions before I serve it to her!

7. Feed your children the same food you eat. This is particularly helpful if your children are fairly new to eating solids. As long as your children can chew the food, there is no reason their menu at home and restaurants should look any different than yours. That way they will have the opportunity to experience the textures and colors of ‘real’ food and not become partial to the soft, white food kids are usually offered.

8.Your children are smart! Talk to them. Explain why you are making the changes you are making — that you love them and are concerned about their teeth and their bodies. You want them to grow up to be healthy and feel well. They may not like the changes, but understanding them should help.

9. Don’t underestimate your kids. My oldest just had his 8th birthday with 14 friends, most of whom eat standard American fare. Although he convinced me to serve regular pizza (I had resisted for many birthdays), I put out piles of grapes, sliced apples and cucumbers all along the table instead of chips. By the end of the party, almost all were gone. I considered the victory to be mine!

Inconveniently, we don’t yet have research that tells us more reliably than the Magic 8 Ball® whether denying our children junk food will harm them, particularly when they see their friends indulging. However, we do have a multitude of studies that clearly show how unhealthy these sugary, fatty, processed, artificial foods are. Changing your children’s diet may seem daunting no matter what their age, but it’s not going to get easier as they get older, so now is the time to start! I know it is possible. This hasn’t just worked for my family. It’s worked for everyone else I’ve seen who follows these guidelines. You would do anything to raise healthy and happy kids. Why not make their diet a priority, too?

Lilli B. Link is an internal medicine physician and nutrition specialist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Melody-Harpole/100000600197965 Melody Harpole

    Pure BS! Children need to see adults eating and liking vegetables every day. New vegetables need to be introduced as something special (Look, we have baby trees today – cauliflower/broccoli). Parents need to also realize that if a child hates a food, perhaps they are preparing it wrong. ( I used to hate green beans, until I ate some that my mother didn’t cook.) Or that the child simply doesn’t like the food. (Don’t try to make me eat olives)

  • http://warmsocks.wordpress.com/ WarmSocks

    Creative preparation and repeated exposures don’t help if a child has food sensitivities or allergies, and it’s frustrating to have people label your child a picky eater and you a bad parent for permitting them to leave the table without eating everything served.

    A trip to the allergist led to diagnosis of food allergy to all the foods my daughter refused to eat. Eggs, dairy, soy, strawberries, potatoes, corn, wheat, barley, rye… There were 23 foods altogether. Don’t automatically label someone picky. Be aware enough to notice that there might be a very good reason behind eating patterns.

    • querywoman

      Food aversions in children can be important warning signs.

      Some people think food allergies are a joke! I was a picky eater as a child and still am, in middle. I stopped drinking milk fairly early and wouldn’t eat eggs. The family doctor told my mother not to worry, that I got that stuff out of other foods.
      Lactose intolerance is part of the normal aging process for most humans. Milk is for baby animals. I would eat milk in other forms, like cheese or the chocolate milk that some people think is so wretched. A little bit of chocolate makes milk more digestible for lots of us. I didn’t taste yogurt till my teens, but I love it.
      Eggs are a common allergen, and the white is the most allergic part of the egg. I was thrilled when I tested allergic to eggs as an adult I would eat them in things, but not as just eggs. I hate the sight of them. My only flu shot, grown in chicken eggs, left me with a serious baseball-sized knot. I try not to eat too much stuff with eggs in them now.
      I threw up lima beans in 1st grade. I was trying to earn myself some ice cream. Years later, I tested allergic to peanuts, and realized I have problems with the entire legume family.
      I can’t tolerate barley. I have only drunk a whole beer twice in my life, and the next day, I was seriously ill. Eating something with barley flour in it once after an illness landed me in a hospital.
      I have also been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s, as an adult. This includes sensitivities to the external world. Aspie children are notorious picky eaters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Natalie-A-Sera/743004321 Natalie A. Sera

    My mother, in the 50′s, no less, did all the things you recommend, because as an RN, she wanted us to be healthy. So what did she get? Me, a picky eater at age 65. You make it seem as though picky eating is a simple thing to “cure”, when it hasn’t been studied thoroughly, and there is not enough known about it to make such simplistic pronouncements as you have made. On the other hand, I never made a big deal about food with my son, and he’s a MUCH better eater than I am, and doesn’t have the food/body image issues that I have. (I’m NOT obese, nor do I eat fast food — but I find it almost impossible to eat fruits or vegetables). So I think I will listen when I see some carefully conducted studies about picky eating, and not just the n=1 sample that you so proudly report on.

  • Donna

    I think these are great ideas! As a health coach, I can’t tell you how many children I’ve dealt with who have taste challenges. I do, however, agree with other readers that for some children, at least, the issue is deeper and does require more research. Whether all these genetically-modified foods, artificial flavors, extra sugars and fats have completely destroyed taste buds would be good to know. Have they done something at a neurological level that makes children more resistant? Also would be good to know. I do think your suggestions are a great place to start. Thanks for sharing.

  • Lilli Link, MD

    Thanks for all your thoughts. My suggestions will likely be helpful for many parents, but I’m sure not work in all situations. As some of the comments indicate, it is important to know your child.

  • http://www.facebook.com/beau.ellenbecker Beau Ellenbecker

    I enjoyed this, may print it for my patients with similar complaints

  • Molly_Rn

    The main reason why children are picky eaters is because adults let them. Of course there could be one other reason. My mother, who was mentally ill was the worst cook on the earth; she would boiled canned peas out of existence and serve them with pork chops that were black and tough enough to make soles for your shoes. When eating with my grandparents and aunts and uncles, I loved everything, especially fresh vegetables. So if you aren’t a crap cook, maybe you should just serve your healthy meals and let them learn to love it. Start young, my grandsons think the best treat in the world is fresh berries.


    An excellent article with great advice. I am the co-author of the textbook Pediatric Feeding and Swallowing Disorders, with Dr. Joan Arvedson. I am also a pediatric ENT surgeon who has taken care of children with feeding and eating problems for more than 30 years. I deal with obesity in reflux and sleep apnea, airway issues and sinusitis due to dietary problems, and the list can go on.
    I am also a mother of 3 who ate what they were served, as we did. And they learned to like it or not eat. Eating is not simply nutritional. In the first years of life it is one of the ways children learn self-regulation, something that is increasingly missing and compounding the explosion of troubled/emotionally damaged children.

    Thank you Dr. Link. This is an article I am going to pass along b/c there is good common sense here. And excellent medical and living well advice.
    Linda Brodsky, MD http://www.lindabrodskymd.com

  • querywoman

    My younger brother, who was diagnosed with food allergies as a child
    before I ever was, experiences throat closing as adult when he eats
    certain foods. This has never happened to me with my own serious food
    allergies/intolerances, but it might.

    You have to be very careful forcing children to eat something they don’t want to eat.

  • Aspie Mom

    How’s the air up there on your high horse?

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