Addressing Picky Eating in Childhood: Solutions from Infancy to Teenage Years

Young girl staring at broccoli in frustration

If you’ve got a kid who wants to eat chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese for every meal, you’re not alone. Most parents will eventually find themselves in a battle of wills over mealtime because picky eating is like a rite of passage for many kids. It’s their way of exploring the world around them, including what goes on their plate.
Being picky isn’t always bad and can be a defense mechanism protecting a child against accidentally eating something dangerous. It’s also an effective way for them to explore their independence. You might notice that around the same time they want to start brushing their own hair or picking out their own clothes, they suddenly become more particular about the foods they’re willing to eat.
The good news is that most kids find their way through this phase with help from parents and caregivers. As long as they’re getting enough to eat, it’s probably nothing to worry about. However, being too picky can lead to physical or social challenges and deprive your child of an opportunity to experience new things.

Understanding the Behavior Behind Picky Eating

Like most things, you’ll have the best chance of success if you identify picky eating and address it early. A 2020 study in the journal Pediatrics found that picky eating typically starts when kids are young and can become more challenging to kick the older a child gets. While there is always time to expand the menu, you and your child will likely have a better experience if you act quickly before habits set in. That means offering a wide variety of foods early on, before the age of two.
Children have all of the same taste and textural hangups adults do but on overdrive. It’s not uncommon or unusual for them to balk at new foods simply because they are unfamiliar. Additionally, picky eating might be a symptom of a separate underlying issue. The research suggests that kids tend to be pickier when they have trouble regulating their emotions. When things feel too overwhelming, rejecting foods is a way of taking back a little bit of control. Depending on the root cause, picky eating might resolve over time, but it might require extra attention from loving adults.
If your little one suddenly has a lot of big feelings about what they’ll eat and what they won’t, there are a few things you should do and a few things you should avoid.

What to Do if Your Child is a Picky Eater

  • Model varied eating. Set an example by being more adventurous in your own eating. If your child sees you enjoying new foods, they’ll be more inclined to try them.
  • Offer foods more than once. Even if your child has yet to show interest in a particular food, make sure to offer it again. Studies have shown that it can take upwards of a dozen offerings before a child will accept a new food. Moreover, tastes evolve as your child develops, and they may find that foods they didn’t like in the past can become new favorites. Trying foods you previously didn’t like and explaining to your kid that you’re giving them another chance is another way you can model trying new foods.
  • Involve them in food decisions. Take your child shopping with you and let them pick out some of the groceries. Allow them to feel ownership over mealtimes without pushing certain foods away. Encourage them to choose a few things they haven’t tried before that you think they might like.
  • Let your child help in the kitchen. If they’re old enough, include your child in cooking duties. Look through recipes together and pick out meals they might want to try. Anyone who has ever cooked before knows how hard it is to avoid sampling.
  • Mix it up. For babies and young children, try mixing new foods with breast milk or another food you know they like to help ease the transition. Blending vegetables into pasta sauce or fruit and veggies into a smoothie is another great option for kids, teenagers, and adults!
  • Give them a choice. Offer multiple new food options and give them a choice of what to try. It’s often less about the food than it is about a sense of agency.

What to Avoid if Your Child is a Picky Eater

  • Don’t lose your temper. It might be tempting to become stricter about mealtimes, insisting that your child eat specific things or a certain amount of food. Generations of kids grew up being forced to clear their plates, but research suggests that can backfire. Depending on the reason for the aversion, they might dig in their heels if they feel backed into a corner.
  • Don’t make a separate meal. A typical response to picky eating is to make one meal for the family and something separate for a particular child. That can reinforce their desire to eat only a few specific foods and make it more difficult to introduce more variety later on.
  • Don’t force specific foods. Ensuring children get adequate nutrition and enough calories is about more than making them eat whatever vegetable is in front of them. Instead, experiment with a variety of foods and give your kiddo choices. Over time, they’ll find a variety of nutritious foods that work for them.

With a bit of patience, you and your child will get through the picky eating phase, and you might even discover some new favorite foods for yourself in the process! So, keep introducing new foods, keep mealtimes positive, and before you know it, your child might surprise you by trying—and even loving—something new!

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