How to Handle Picky Eaters

1-5 Years

We’ve all met them. Heck, some of us have a household full of them! We’re talking about picky eaters. No one wants their kids to be picky, but it happens. While the easiest way to prevent picky eating is to establish healthy eating habits from birth (and quite frankly from the womb), life doesn’t always go as planned. So for those of us who don’t have the perfect eaters every parent wishes they had, here is some information on why kids are picky and what we can do.

Why are some toddlers and preschoolers picky eaters?

A lot of times, picky eating is just a phase, but for some kids, it’s more than that. Either way, your child’s pickiness may have something to do with the following:

  • Control and independence. Toddlers and preschoolers don’t have a lot of control over the big decisions in their lives, so sometimes they try and control what they will and won’t eat. When they refuse to eat something, chances are they’re testing their boundaries and showing their independence.
  • Curiosity. Children are extremely curious and will inspect their food, touch it and maybe even put in in their mouth several times before deciding to actually eat it. This is especially true with new foods. It’s also important to keep in mind that some kids may need to be offered a new food 15 to 20 times before being willing to accept it.
  • Hunger. A lot of times, kids simply aren’t hungry when it’s time to eat—especially if they’ve been snacking all day or have been filling up on milk or juice in between meals. So, if they aren’t hungry and are being forced to eat, they’re bound to act out.

Picky eater tip: Take away the pressure

One of the most powerful phrases a parent can use at the dinner table is, “You don’t have to eat it.” Our natural instinct as parents is to push healthy foods on our kids, but a lot of times that backfires. While we do it with the best of intentions, pushing food can create an unnecessary power struggle between parent and child, and it can cause the child to continue to refuse those foods in the future simply because of the negative association.

Picky eater tip: Make mealtime positive family time

We know how difficult it can be in our busy lives to sit down as a family to eat, but whenever possible, take advantage! There are so many benefits to eating together beyond nutrition alone.

When you do make mealtime family time, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Even if your child refuses to eat or complains that she’s not hungry, that doesn’t mean she gets a “get out of dinner free card.” It’s OK if she doesn’t want to eat (remember the no-pressure thing), but she should still be engaged in the positive conversations around the dinner table. You can always save her meal for later in case she comes around to wanting to eat. That way, you have healthy options ready to go.
  • If your child doesn’t want to eat a certain food, try your hardest to let it go and not make a big deal of it. We understand it’s frustrating—especially when you took the time to make the food—but punishing a child for not eating makes the mealtime experience negative and provides negative attention for that child.
  • Seeing you and other people in your family eating the same healthy foods can go a long way in influencing your child’s eating habits, especially when everyone is happily enjoying the foods.

Picky eater tip: Avoid being a short-order cook

We hear from so many parents of picky eaters who just want their kids to eat anything! And a lot of times, that means they’re catering to the picky eater and feeding her something different than the rest of the family. While that may seem like a good, quick fix, it can actually cause more problems down the road. When you offer to serve your child something other than what the rest of the family is served, you’re teaching her that if she refuses the healthy foods, she’ll get rewarded with something “better.” And that’s a hard habit to break! Trust that your child gets her nutrition over the course of a day, not one meal, so it’s OK if she refuses to eat certain foods. And if she goes to bed hungry every once in a while, that’s OK too. When she gets hungry enough, the healthy foods she refused are bound to become more tempting.

Should you be concerned about your picky eater?

Picky eating is very common and developmentally normal in toddlers and young preschool-age children. However, if you are experiencing any of the following with your child, reach out to his pediatrician right away for a medical evaluation:

  • Your child is having a lot of trouble swallowing certain kinds of foods, constantly choking or gagging on foods.
  • Your child has repetitive spit-ups or vomiting with each meal.
  • Your child is failing to gain weight or is losing weight.
  • Your child is having frequent diarrhea, frequent loose, watery stools, or stools with blood or mucus in them.
  • Despite eating adequately, your child is constantly hungry, thirsty, urinating excessively or still losing weight.