Tips to Deal With Your Picky Eater's Biggest Issues

Preschool & Older

You can count your picky eater's favorite foods on one hand. He eats less than a bird. She loves all the wrong things. Mealtime is stressful.

Sound familiar? Strong4Life’s dietitians tackle this challenge with creative ways to encourage healthy eating.

The most important thing you can do is be a good role model. Drink water with your child, eat your veggies and try new foods (all with a smile on your face!). Children usually adopt their parents’ eating habits—for better or for worse!

My picky eater hates the taste of water

Because water doesn’t have a flavor, this complaint is pretty common, especially since some small children are exposed to sweets early in life. The first thing you can do is limit the sugary drinks in the house, like juice, soda and sweet tea. They can’t choose what’s not there! There are ways to make drinking water fun:

  • Add fruit or herbs (think citrus, berries or mint) to water for flavor and color.
  • Let your child pick out a new water bottle, or use a special straw.
  • Give young children a choice about how they drink the water to avoid a power struggle. Ask them, “Would you like your water in a red cup or blue cup?” or “Do you want a straw or no straw?”

My child won't eat vegetables

You know veggies are good for them, and you will do anything to get them to eat! But pressuring and bribing will likely lead to a power struggle.

First, and most important, eat the same veggies you are serving your kids. Being a role model involves promoting healthy eating. Hiding veggies in sugary smoothies and juices doesn’t help picky eaters learn to like veggies. It actually reinforces the idea that they taste bad. Instead, add vegetables to familiar foods.

You can try:

  • Adding bell peppers to pizza, spinach to pasta sauce, broccoli to mac and cheese. This boosts your child’s veggie intake while helping them develop a healthy habit.
  • Offer veggies with a dip like hummus or salsa or a yogurt-based dip.
  • Don’t bribe with dessert (“You can have a brownie after you finish your veggies”). It may lead to overeating, and it reinforces the idea that eating vegetables is a chore. 

My picky eater won’t try new foods

Research shows that children may need to see a new food 15-20 times before developing a taste for it or, sometimes, even before deciding to try it. Be patient as you encourage healthy habits, but don't pressure your child to try something new.

More tips:

  • Involve your child in picking out or preparing new foods. Picky eaters are more likely to try something they helped make.
  • Offer new foods on the same plate with foods your child already enjoys. It’s less overwhelming to see one new food at a time.
  • Don’t be a short-order cook! Your child will continue to refuse new foods if he knows you will go back to the kitchen and make his favorite dish instead. A hungry child will be more willing to eat what’s on the table.
  • Cut back on snacking between meals by setting meal and snack times, and offer only water in between.

My child only eats a few bites

Don't worry, this is normal. Children have smaller stomachs and smaller bodies, so they need smaller servings than adults.

Encouraging them to eat more than they want teaches them to ignore their fullness cues, which can lead to overeating. On the other hand, if he says he’s full, and then asks for a snack 15 minutes later, he’s just passing on dinner knowing he can get something different from the pantry.

More tips:

  • To make sure your picky eater is getting enough to eat, stick to a meal and snack schedule. Three meals and one or two snacks is enough for most kids, with only water in between. A hungry child will eat more than a child who has been snacking throughout the day.
  • Most kids like to eat small portions of several different foods rather than a larger portion of one food. Aim to offer a balanced meal by putting veggies and fruits on one half of their plate and whole grains and protein on the other.