Most children are picky in the toddler years but seem to outgrow it as they explore new foods and start preschool or elementary school. But we are going to discuss those anxious kiddos who still pick at their meals or refuse to try new foods often not only in preschool but far into elementary school.
It’s this group of kids that frustrate parents the most. We have all read the books and articles (and well-meaning friend and families have shared) that toddlers are picky but rarely have great advice once the child is 8 or even 10. The tips and techniques I will share here are not only my tried and true as a parent of four, but I have always been a picky eater as well. Parents I work with in my Private Practice use these techniques and find many, if not all, work for them too. I suggest you try a few and build from there. It is always advised to speak with your pediatrician to make sure there are no underlying health issues and be aware that this is not medical advice. At the end, I will share what to look for if this may be more serious than a picky eater and may require a specialist in childhood eating or feeding disorders.
One of the issues parents find with their picky eater is that they themselves become frustrated and make the situation worse. The Mayo clinic shares, “Be patient with new foods. Young children often touch or smell new foods, and might even put tiny bits in their mouths and then take them back out again. Your child might need repeated exposure to a new food before he or she takes the first bite. Encourage your child by talking about a food’s color, shape, aroma and texture — not whether it tastes good. Serve new foods along with your child’s favorite foods. Keep serving your child healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred.”
Patience is key. The following are some steps you can take to lower your frustration and help your child to see food as fun and to become more adventurous with food.
Step 1: Check your own perceptions about food, food waste and any protentional or known food issues you have been dealing with yourself. Healthy children will not starve themselves purposefully and a parent’s behavior and beliefs about food and eating easily transfer to their children. Get help for yourself, if needed, so you and your child can have healthy relationships with food. No shaming language around food as this causes more distress in children (and adults) of all ages.
Step 2: Help your child draw or write a list of foods they do like separated by food groups that are easy to understand such as fruit, vegetables, meat, breads, nuts, etc. Post this on the refrigerator and have your child add to it as they try new foods and decide they like them. This allows your child to be in control of what they eat and to see how many foods they really do like. It also puts a positive spin on the issue verses listing what they won’t eat and making them feel shame.
Step 3: Have your child go to a healthier grocery store like Whole foods or Sprouts. Make a plan that they will get to purchase 5 new foods of any type and have a taste test party.
You can use the chart to share the results of the tasting. This is meant to be fun and adventurous. Your child may find only one or even no new foods to like. The purpose of this activity is to show them food can be fun and an adventure. We tried this activity when my daughter was getting migraines from typical fruit (like apples and grapes). We wanted to find a place with more unusual fruits and we discovered some fun options from around the world that didn’t bother her and were also organic.
Step 4: Grow your own veggies, attend farmers markets and go to U-pick local fruit and veggie farms. Look up recipes with your child to make new recipes with these foods. Have them try the foods when they are super fresh. It is an amazing family experience and the fresh air is great too!
Step 5: Take kid-friendly cooking classes with your child. Check your local grocery stores, restaurants and community centers for classes that involve or are specifically for kids. This is yet another way to make food fun and take the pressure off trying and eating new foods.
Step 6: It takes up to ten times or more to accustom your taste buds to a new food or flavor. Patience is key with this one. Present a new food alongside foods they already eat and ask that they taste it when it’s on their plate. They do not have to finish the whole food item. After 10 “tries” if they still don’t enjoy the taste or flavor, then they most likely will not prefer that food until they get older or may never prefer it. Taste buds change as we age, even being less sensitive when we are older. Young children may even be more sensitive to certain foods and flavors.
Step 7: And Finally, a great cookbook by Jessica Seinfeld (yes, that Seinfeld!) on hiding healthy things in typical favorite foods of your kids. I loved loved loved the cookbook when my kids were little. The recipes tasted great to me too and were easy to make. It even helped me as a picky eater to get more veggies in my diet. Just keep an eye out for food allergies. We didn’t know my little one was allergic to sweet potatoes until I hid them in a recipe.
When trying, and eating new foods and flavors is fun and no pressure, children are more likely to loosen up on their picky ways and make dinner time enjoyable again
I also included some great additional information from the Mayo clinic and UCSF Banioff Children’s hospital.
They share additional thoughts on not offering dessert as a reward, setting a mealtime schedule, limiting high calorie drinks, minimize distractions as mealtimes (no electronics) and allow for their personal quirks around food.
Article on Picky Eaters from the Mayo clinic.
by UCSF Benioff Children Hospital.
*your child is not just a picky eater if they:
- refuses to eat multiple meals in a day, more than one day in a row
- eats when sad, angry, hurt
- is not eating or overeating due to how they perceive their body to appear
- gets sick after eating
- eats non-nutritious, non-food items
- hides food, hordes food
- get rashes, trouble breathing, tummy aches from certain foods
Final note: I am not a medical professional nor an eating disorder specialist. These are tips for healthy children who are being picky about new foods at any age. Always see a doctor before taking advice or using these ideas.