How to Handle Picky Eating

Picky eating involves a variety of behaviors. Here are some tips for helping your child develop a more tolerant attitude toward food.

Do

  • Serve age-appropriate portions. Give toddlers portions that are one-fourth to one-third the size of adult portions. A toddler faced with both a plateful of food and a parent who expects him to eat it all, is likely to become fussy and finicky at the table. Increase portion sizes for preschoolers and kindergartners, but don't expect your 5-year-old to eat the same amount of cooked carrots as you do. By scaling down portion sizes, you give your child the opportunity to ask for seconds, which will help him feel in control.
  • Offer new and unfamiliar foods, but do so in small portions and don't insist that your child eat everything. In fact, when a food is served for the first time, let your child know that you only expect him to sample it and that he may spit it out if he doesn't like it.
  • Serve your child's old favorites -- or at least a familiar, acceptable food -- at each meal. If you want to add a dish that your child has not shown much interest in before, pair it with something she likes. For example, if you are encouraging her to enjoy green beans, serve them with her favorite macaroni.
  • Serve a small dessert with dinner. It's likely your child will down her dessert first, but that's okay. The dessert will stimulate her appetite, making her more willing to move on to more nutritious fare.

Don't

  • Worry if each meal is not nutritionally complete. Though your child may eat only starchy foods one day, his natural desire for variety will motivate him to nibble on a piece of fruit or a vegetable later on and to try a small serving of meat the next day. During a week's time, he'll consume a variety of foods and get the majority of the nutrients he needs.
  • Use food as either a reward or a punishment. If you bribe your child to eat her spinach so that she can have a "yummy dessert," you inadvertently reinforce the idea that sweets are better than nutritious food. If you reward good behavior with a treat, you teach an unhealthy association between food and positive feelings. Likewise, if you threaten to withhold a food treat for any unacceptable behavior, you teach that food can be used as a weapon, an idea that even a young child can internalize and use at future meals.
  • Prepare separate meals for your picky eater. Most parents simply don't have time to be short order cooks. Also, if your child gets into the habit of eating only specially prepared meals, she may never want to dine on foods the whole family is enjoying.
  • Make enticing foods your child sees others enjoying completely off limits. Allow her the occasional candy or soft drink that's served at a birthday party, for instance, to avoid making these foods seem even more enticing. (If you disapprove of the menu at a party, feed your child well beforehand so that she won't be too hungry.) Likewise, having a sweetened breakfast cereal on occasion will not ruin your child's health. Consider allowing her to mix a restricted cereal with an approved one, showing her that you value her opinion, while helping her to maintain a healthful diet.

Healthy Portion Sizes with Dr. Ro
Healthy Portion Sizes with Dr. Ro

From The Parents Answer Book: From Birth Through Age Five, by the editors of Parents magazine. Copyright © 2000 by Roundtable Press and G+J USA Publishing.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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