9 Proven Strategies for Picky Eaters

Want to bring your family closer? Eat together! Dinner is the perfect opportunity to leave behind life’s stresses and connect in a meaningful way.
Stephanie Rausser

Whether your child is just scared of broccoli or is totally fearful of any food that isn't white, there are tactics that can help your picky eater. See what strategies experts at specially designed fussy eater clinics, as well as kids' book authors, have to help even the most reluctant children try new foods, plus their special tactics for kids with sensory issues.

1. Let kids play with their food. Really.

If you’ve ever gone head-to-head with a finicky child, then dinner probably feels like a war zone you’d rather avoid. The food on his plate doesn’t necessarily have to go into his mouth. If he moves a vegetable around, pulls it apart with his fingers, or sniffs it, then he’s at least getting more familiar with its look and feel. In fact, in a study at the University of Eastern Finland, kindergartners spent hands-on time with fruits and veggies in their classroom by baking and cooking with them, growing a garden, and seeing food-related themes in books and games. As a result, they were more likely to choose these food groups from a snack buffet than kids who didn’t have these classroom activities. 

Some kids, like Artie, seem to have been born wrinkling their nose. I’d put food in front of her, and she’d often take a couple of bites and say she was done. The more I pushed her to eat, the farther away she pushed her plate. The whole experience left me deflated, and I worried she wasn’t getting the proper nutrition.

Those are all normal reactions, says Chaparro, who admits that even she is not immune to these feelings when dining with her 2-year-old daughter, Emma Lucia. “I’m human!” she says of the frustration she feels when the little girl refuses a certain food. That’s when she remembers the advice she gives parents at her nutrition practice, Nutrichicos: Much of what we consider picky eating is actually normal developmental behavior—phases when kids assert their independence by controlling what they eat and being naturally wary of new foods. As long as you continue presenting healthy options, you’re doing your job, Chaparro says. “Parents are responsible for providing the meal. You go to the grocery store, you prepare the food. But ultimately, the child is responsible for whether she wants to eat it.”

That concept may be hard to swallow for Latinas raised to clean their plates.

“It takes patience and consistency” to work, assures Chaparro. There will be times when toddlers will eat very little one day and compensate the next, she adds. But if your child is growing normally and the pediatrician is not concerned, then don’t stress it. What you can do is involve children in the meal-prep process to entice them to chow down. Get their help in planning the week’s menu. Bring them along to the supermarket to pick out ingredients. Let them assist in the kitchen (cute aprons are an added bonus).

When it comes to dinnertime, balance the meal by putting veggies and fruits on one half of the plate, and protein and grains or starch on the other half, Chaparro suggests. With her own daughter, she introduces only one new food at a time, next to two others that she knows Emma Lucia will eat. Instead of getting frustrated about foods that are met with a closed mouth, she simply serves them again at future dinners, a strategy backed by studies showing that young kids are more accepting of a new vegetable once it has been presented several times (see “Just Try It!” on page 18). You don’t want to be the “food police,” Chaparro says. “If all you’re doing is nagging, kids are going to react negatively to eating altogether.”

2. Stick to the rotation rule.

To help him get into the habit of eating something different every day, don’t offer the same food two days in a row, says Dina Rose, Ph.D., author of It’s Not About the Broccoli. Say “You had carrots with lunch yesterday. Today you can have cauliflower or peas, and tomorrow you can have carrots again if you want.”

3. Start very small.

Sure, you're not giving your kid a giant bowl of peas. But Keith E. Williams, Ph.D., director of the feeding program at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, in Pennsylvania, says many parents offer a portion that's way too large. "We usually begin with pieces so small that they could literally be blown away," he says. At home, try a single pea, part of a noodle, or a crumble of cheese. Encourage your child by saying something like, "This is easy -- you could be done in a second." Once your child eats it, give him a food he does like. Then, at subsequent meals, increase the portion of the new food and phase out the follow-up food.

Dr. Williams's strategy worked for 4-year-old Gavin Lipp, of Hellertown, Pennsylvania, who would only eat pretzels, potato chips, applesauce, and a handful of other foods before he began appointments at Hershey. "We gave him a sliver of apple and immediately afterward, he got a few pretzels," explains his mom, Eilidh. "Every day we increased the amount of apple and decreased the amount of pretzels." In the six weeks since Gavin started, he has tried 13 new fruits and veggies and has even found several that he likes a lot. "Now he asks me for strawberries and blueberries," she says. "There's light at the end of the tunnel."

4. Be up-front about ingredients.

You want your kid to trust you about her food, especially if she’s picky. If she asks what that green speck is in her smoothie, tell her you added spinach recommends Rose. And if she responds, “Yuck, no way!” say, “Now you know what’s in it. Let’s investigate those specks.” Then show her what a spinach leaf looks like.

5. Stick with it.

You've probably heard it before: A child has to try something ten to 15 times before he likes it. "While that sounds daunting to many parents who have a hard time getting their kids to try something once, it does get easier," says Dr. Williams. His research shows that once you get the ball rolling on tasting new foods, it takes on average only six attempts for kids to accept them. "Still, a lot of parents don't want to introduce new foods at lunch or dinner because it may ruin the meal for the whole family," he says. "Instead, offer them during snacktime."

6. Scale back on snacks and drinks.

Before the appointment, most feeding clinics ask parents to record what their child has eaten and drunk for at least the last three days. "When we look at these records, we see that a lot of kids who resist new foods eat snack foods or drink all day long, which limits their hunger for foods at meals," says Nancy Entgelmeier, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the feeding clinic at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Once families cut back to three meals and one to three snacks at relatively consistent times, Entgelmeier says they find that their kids are more receptive to trying something new because they're truly hungry."

Ditto for drinks: "We saw one toddler who consumed 60 ounces of milk and 12 ounces of juice every day," she says. "Because he filled up on liquids, he didn't want to eat anything."

7. Invite an adventurous friend over for dinner.

While feeding-clinic sessions generally take place one-on-one, Dr. Williams says that at home you can harness the power of peers. "You and your spouse do influence what your child tries, but no one can make a bigger difference than his friends," says Dr. Williams.

A study by a Penn State colleague, Helen Hendy, Ph.D., found that preschoolers were more likely to taste mango when they saw a classmate do it. "Sometimes all it takes is for a friend to snatch a piece of broccoli for your kid to want to nibble on it," he says. Of course, one taste probably won't make him a broccoli fan, but it will help him get over the hump of trying it, which is half the battle.

8. Encourage conversation

Dinner with eager eaters may be smoother, but it really takes off once everyone starts chatting. Tiffany Bendayan, a chef and baker in Miami, devises different ways to make the table a space where her daughters— Emily, 10, and Sofia, 8—feel comfortable sharing just about anything. She asks fun hypothetical questions as icebreakers: “What would you do with a million dollars? If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Where would you like to live one day?” “It shows me what’s important to them,” says the Venezuelan mom, who shares recipes on the blog Living Sweet Moments. “I’ve learned that Sofia is obsessed with traveling to Japan, and Emily, who has perfected her British accent thanks to the Harry Potter movies, would love to visit Buckingham Palace in England.”

Moms of younger children can start by sharing interesting details of their own day to help little ones feel included. Johany Torres’s kids, Livia, 5, and Joaquin, 3, love to hear about their mom’s fantastical creations as a cake artist. “Talking about everyone’s day teaches our kids that we also care about them and what they do every day, whether it’s making new friends at school or their latest trip to the bookstore,” says the Guatemalan– Puerto Rican mom in Bolingbrook, Illinois. She and her husband, Ruben, also encourage their children to be natural storytellers by recounting tales from their own childhoods. “They like asking about my favorite movies when I was their age, and then we’ll watch them together,” Torres says.

For some families, a change of scenery is all it takes to get everyone chatting and enjoying one another’s company. “Eating as a family doesn’t have to be defined by a table,” says Neyssa Jump, a food photographer in Douglasville, Pennsylvania. “It’s about being together.” The Cuban–Puerto Rican mom of five, ages 2 to 11, regularly gathers her tribe for picnics in the park or on their living-room floor if it’s raining. “You branch out, and all of a sudden, everyone’s happy, everyone’s eating, and they’re talking without a lot of effort,” Jump says.

9. Share the culture

Of course, the secret ingredient to any family meal for Latinos is our ability to pass on heritage and traditions through our food. Bricia Lopez grew up eating sweetsavory moles made with chocolate, plantains, spices, sesame seeds, nuts, and chiles in her native Oaxaca. “It was one of the first things that formed my palate,” says Lopez, who helps run her family’s Mexican restaurant, Guelaguetza, in Los Angeles. So it’s no surprise that her son, Eduardo, 3, now regularly requests chicken with mole coloradito. “It’s part of his DNA,” Lopez says. “I want him to grow up appreciating his culture through flavors.”

And so far, so good. The little boy even has a taste for Mexican dishes that other kids may consider spicy. “At dinner, I’ll tell him how I used to eat the same things at his age,” Lopez says. And his enthusiasm for learning more about—and trying—different foods continues when they visit Oaxaca. “Leading up to the trip, we always talk about what we’re going to eat.” 

Getting extended family involved is another way to create an atmosphere that lends itself to sharing traditional meals. Twice a month, Torres and her brood join her two sisters, her brother, and their families for a feast at their mother’s house. “The kids will call my mom ahead of time and request special foods she’s really good at making, like caldo de res, a beef and bone-marrow soup that Guatemalans believe cures anything,” she says.

Once in Abuelita’s kitchen, Torres and her daughter help the matriarch make sweet bread rolls known as pan de mujer. “My mom used to work at a bakery in Guatemala, and because she has no recipe for it, we have to ask lots of questions and write down everything,” says Torres, who recorded footage of her mother in action last year, in an effort to document the process. “Traditions that brought you so much happiness as a child start to get lost if you don’t pass them down.” That’s why no matter how busy life gets, she makes sure these important meals stay on the calendar. “The kids get to see where everything I teach them comes from—my mom,” Torres says. “I want them to know that they have a beautiful culture that they can tap into, and family that loves them.”

It’s a sentiment that can transform these nightly sit-downs—whether you enjoy them with your immediate family or every one of your relatives—into a fun experience worth clearing your schedule for. I, for one, am committed to making time to connect over a meal with the people who matter most to me. And if in 20 years my children tell me that all they remember about dinnertime is that we were together, I’m more than okay with that.

Extra Eating Help for Sensory Children

If your child is okay with trying foods but never seems to like any of them even after multiple attempts, he may experience flavors or textures more acutely. These suggestions work especially well for children with sensory problems although all picky eaters may benefit from trying them.

Keep your cool. Some food avoiders relish the attention that it brings them. "We had one patient who told his mom that he wanted to try a bagel," recalls Dr. Girolami. "She sent her husband out for bagels and played with her son the whole time they waited. When Dad came home with every flavor of bagel the bakery sold, their son wasn't interested in eating anything despite lots of coaxing." The message: Don't necessarily make a huge deal when your child wants to try something -- the more casual you are about it (offer him a piece, but don't watch him eat it for instance), the more likely it is that he'll actually follow through, says Dr. Girolami.

Record progress. At some feeding clinics, the staff takes pictures or video of accomplishments for parents to show their child at home as a reminder that he or she liked a new food. "We encourage parents to casually say something like, 'Oh, look at the day you tried baby carrots at the clinic and thought they were okay. We're having carrots and dip for snack,' " says Kerry Glidewell, a pediatric speech language pathologist in the Little Bites Feeding Program at Wolfson Children's Hospital, in Jacksonville, Florida.

Go slow and steady. You may think it's ridiculous to puree foods for your 5-year-old. But that's exactly what they sometimes do at feeding clinics. "We might try reducing the texture to a smooth consistency, which makes it easier for the child to consume a new flavor," says Dr. Girolami. "As the sessions go by, we make the puree chunkier and chunkier until a couple of months later, she's able to eat the actual foods." The experts work on color preferences in the same way: "We have mixed mashed sweet potatoes and mashed white potatoes together," he says. "At first, it's 95 percent white and kids can't detect a difference. But as the weeks go by, the color starts to change. When it begins to look orange, they generally don't freak out because the progress has been so gradual." If your child doesn't like potatoes, you can try this at home with other foods, like plain yogurt (stir in a small bit of fruit sauce or jam) or pancakes (add pureed fruit or veggies to the batter).

Focus on flavor. Not all picky eaters want bland food. Some seek flavor and/or crunch, says Nicole Lidyard, R.D., a clinical dietitian at UH Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, in Cleveland. "One mom told me that her son licked her Buffalo chicken wing and he loved it," says Lidyard. If your child prefers sweetness, glaze carrots with a little honey or ketchup (try Simply Heinz Ketchup, which is made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup). If he likes spice, season crab cakes or chicken with chili powder. 

Build on success. Some feeding clinics follow a strategy called food chaining, fading, or graduated exposure, using a food that the child prefers to get her to try something similar. For instance, if your kid is obsessed with chicken nuggets, it's likely going to be harder to introduce shrimp than another kind of chicken. "We might go from chicken nuggets to the same kind of nuggets with less breading, or a different brand of chicken nugget or chicken strip, to pieces of a grilled chicken breast," says Entgelmeier. "And then we'll move on to chicken with noodles or rice." If you've got a pizza fan, you might progress from pizza to pasta with tomato sauce and cheese, to grilled cheese with tomato soup, to a cheese quesadilla with salsa. You can also select foods based on shape or texture (crispy french fries to sweet-potato fries, chicken sticks to fish sticks) or color (plain pancakes or waffles to waffles with jelly or peanut butter to PB&J). "Don't rush from one food or texture to the next," says Dr. Girolami. "Give it at least a week or two until the gains seem maintained. A few months from now, you'll be rewarded with a healthier eater."

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