How to Get a Picky Eater to Eat: 5 Proven Ways For Offering New Foods
Do you have a picky eater who will only eat a limited number of foods?
Are you worried about how this might impact their health and/or growth?
Does this impact how you grocery shop and what you make for mealtimes?
Do you feel like a short-order cook trying to get your child to eat or do mealtimes feel like a power struggle?
If you answered yes to these questions, know you are not alone, mama!
Picky or selective eating is common among kids, but knowing how to best approach this can be daunting.
Studies have found that between 13% and 22% of children have been reported to be “picky eaters” by caregivers, which includes:
Consumption of a limited variety of foods
Requiring foods prepared in specific ways
Expressing strong likes and dislikes for food
Throwing tantrums when denied preferred foods
If you can relate to this, these behaviors have undoubtedly made food and mealtimes stressful for you and your family as you learn how to best navigate this.
As a mama, you likely just want your kid to be healthy and enjoy food, but this can seem far-fetched when your child won’t move beyond the handful of foods they will eat.
There is hope, mama! Even if your child’s preferred foods are limited to the same few things (cue chicken nuggets and mac n’ cheese, anyone?), with a few simple strategies, you can feel more confident in how to get a picky child to eat.
In this article, I’m going to help you feel more confident with:
How to get your picky eater to eat
An effective approach to offering new foods
Setting up mealtimes to help your child feel successful
How to help your child build positive eating habits that will benefit them for years to come
How to set up meals and snacks in a way that supports healthy eating
Let’s get started, shall we?
Understanding the Big Picture in Feeding Kids
Before we dive in to some strategies for feeding picky eaters, it’s important to remember what your goals might be for feeding your kids.
After all, feeding kids is a full time, 18+ year job that requires diligence and consistency day after day.
Feeding kids is a BIG job, and it can be easy to get burnt-out if you aren’t keeping the long-term goals in sight. So what are some of these long-term goals?
There is a lot of overwhelming information out there about what it means to raise a “healthy” kid, and this can translate into confusion when it comes to what and how to feed them.
As a parent, you’ve likely faced both external and internal pressure to follow arbitrary rules to have a healthy kid. We’re often following a mental checklist of “Shoulds” and “Shouldn’ts” as we navigate raising kids.
Honestly, it can be so hard to keep up with:
-Should your kids eat sugar?
-Does your food need to be organic?
-What if your kids don’t like eating veggies?
-What if processed foods are preferred over healthy foods?
-Will your kids meet their nutritional needs if their diet is limited to a handful of foods?
However, feeding children is not so black and white, and feeding with “rules” may veer you off-course from the big picture goals that are more important for raising a child who is a healthy eater.
Health has been watered down to these trivial details, which can create more stress for parents and kids when eating doesn’t go the way we think it should.
These short term goals can create an unrealistic expectation about how your child should be eating that might not even be practical for them.
Redefining your idea of health can help you have a more realistic standard from which to feed your own kids.
This can also help decrease anxiety and stress at meal times, for both you and your kids.
The power struggles that you might be encountering with your child at mealtime may very well be triggered by your own anxiety about food and/or feeding.
When kids absorb their caregivers’ anxieties about food, they are more likely to be rigid with their own food.
As you read through this, try to keep the big picture in mind: Your child is more likely to grow into a competent, confident and healthier adult if they have mealtime experiences that help them feel good about food.
This might mean that you need to push your own expectations about nutrition and health to the backburner in order to help create the safe space your child needs to explore and learn about food on his or her own terms and at their own pace.
So as you’re navigating picky eating with your kids, keep the long term goals in mind.
The goal is not to get your child to eat new foods, but rather, to help your child build confidence with food and feel comfortable exploring and learning about food and their bodies.
Ultimately, you want your kids to trust their bodies and find joy in eating. This can only happen when mealtimes are positive and a safe place for your child to explore.
Will Picky Eating Hurt My Child’s Health?
If your child is drawn toward bland, plain foods, doesn’t like vegetables, or is skeptical about trying new foods - that is okay!
Not only is it okay, it’s perfectly normal for kids. Sometimes, it’s important to take a step back and realize that the bar has been set way too high when it comes to feeding kids, both for parents and children.
Many parents that I work with feel like a failure because their child won’t eat vegetables or turns their nose up new foods.
It’s easy to internalize this as a personal failure or think that there might actually be something wrong with your child, when in actuality, your kids are likely responding to food like normal kids would.
Kids are usually able to get the nutrients their bodies need to grow, even from the limited foods they’re selecting from what you are providing.
Periods of picky eating typically do not compromise nutrition or growth. For some children, underlying medical conditions may make eating more challenging, but that is a separate issue I will address toward the end of this article.
It’s easy to overestimate how much kids need to sustain steady growth that is uniquely appropriate for them. If you have concerns about their growth or nutrition status, it’s definitely important to check with your pediatric dietitian and/or pediatrician.
While every family’s situation is unique and picky eating is often multifactorial, how a parent engages with their child around food plays a crucial role in how a child will feel about eating.
This is not meant to create shame around YOU or any parent who might struggle with picky eating, but rather to shift perspectives when it comes to how you might feed your kids.
Sometimes kids will exercise control over their eating as a way to express themselves or find a bit of control when their surroundings feel overwhelming.
During times when kids are building autonomy, having rigidity around food may be a way that a child attempts to find some independence apart from parents.
Have you ever told your child, “You need to take a bite of this?”, only to be met by a defiant, “NO!”.
Sometimes this is more about a child finding their own voice and having a say in a manner that they can tangibly control.
It’s also important to recognize that food jabs, fear of trying new foods (neophobia), and outright food refusal are all normal and expected with childhood eating.
As a child learns to eat, you can reasonably expect that these will come up.
The good news is that kids have an innate ability to regulate what they need over time to meet their nutritional needs that best support their overall growth.
For example, if your child doesn’t much at meals, she will be more likely to eat more later in the week.
As another example, sometimes kids seem to go through phases where they predominantly eat carbohydrate rich foods, followed by periods where they tend to gravitate toward protein.
Bottom line: your kids will get what they need to sustain their nutritional needs over time.
Rarely can you look at one 24-hour period to see if what they ate that day reflects their overall nutrition.
For these reasons, it’s not reasonable to follow your child’s lead with food or to only cater to what they are willing to eat that day or week. Those preferences will inevitably change.
There are ways to help your child feel comfortable with eating what they need and increase their confidence with foods.
What’s most important is to remain consistent in your approach to feeding with your child, as this will most successfully help them learn to eat and feel comfortable with eating, even as they go through phases of food refusal, food jags, or even food fears.
These strategies are meant to help you navigate times of picky eating with your child, have more pleasant mealtimes as a family, and ultimately, to help your child grow into a healthy, confident adult that enjoys all foods.
How to Help Picky Eaters Eat and Learn to Like New Foods
These tips are meant to help you have positive feeding interactions with your child that will build his or her confidence at mealtimes and with food:
1.Give your kids multiple opportunities to interact with new foods without any pressure to eat
At the first signs of food rejection, it’s easy to assume that your child doesn’t like something, right? Some of these obvious signs might be:
Pushing food off a plate
Picking at food
Then there are the obvious verbal statements that clearly show how your child might feel about eating a particular food: “I don’t like it!”, “That’s gross!”, “Ewww, I don’t want to eat it!”.
Let’s be real: it’s hard to be on the receiving end of food refusal, no matter how old your child may be. So why would you keep offering the same food your child is telling you they DON’T want to eat?
The important thing to remember here is that learning to eat new foods is a skill that kids are developing. Like any new skill, it takes time, practice, and repetition.
Think about teaching your child how to ride a bike: Would you give up if your child fell? Of course not! You innately understand that falling is part of the process of learning, and you would help your child get back on again.
Look at eating (especially new foods) in the same way. Your child may need repeated exposure to new foods without any form of pressure to feel confident enough to start exploring them.
In order to learn, kids need repeated opportunities to interact with new foods. Even if a child is not actually eating the foods they don’t like or are unfamiliar with, exposure to these foods is helping them learn.
The key here is zero pressure on your part: no tricking, bribing, promoting, etc. These tactics might seem like they will help your kids eat, but this will always backfire in the end.
Research studies have found that when kids were forced or pressured to consume a disliked food by an authority figure (such as a parent or teacher), they were more likely to develop a long-term rejection of that food altogether.
So if your child is struggling with eating a certain food or dislikes foods that you’re offering, it’s still okay to offer those foods and serve them as part of the family meal.
The most important thing is that you’re serving them in “silence” - meaning, you’re not forcing consumption through verbal cues.
When you are offering new and unfamiliar foods to your child, or even foods that your child is stil learning how to eat, considering offering them alongside an “anchor” food, or a food that your child is already comfortable with.
I refer to the foods that your kids may be comfortable with as “anchor” foods, because essentially, they serve as a way to keep your child grounded to mealtimes, when they can identify something at the table that they are familiar with and may already enjoy eating.
Even if your child only likes or willingly eats a handful of foods, having just one of these foods available with the rest of your family meal can help keep the mealtime experience safe and inviting, even as they continue to be exposed to and learn how to eat new foods.
2. Allow your child to learn how to eat new/unfamiliar foods in progressive steps
My second daughter was the most cautious toddler. It was like there was a sign on her forehead that said “Proceed With Caution”.
Even though we were frequent visitors at the beach, she was always skeptical about the environment. While her big sister was happily playing in the waves and sand, she would stay close to me and watch cautiously at a safe distance from our blanket.
I remember I tried once to dip her little toes in the water but learned quickly that was a mistake. She screamed bloody murder, and I swore I would never bring her to the beach again.
Well, not really, because we were back again next week. And the next week, and the week after that.
Sure enough, with each trip back to the beach, I watched her get more comfortable with her surroundings. Slowly she ventured off the beach blanket and into the nearby sand, happy to play with her bucket and shovel.
This gradually turned into waddling after some seagulls, but not venturing off too far before turning right back.
Eventually, she made her way down to the water, first inching her way in with a cautious toe dipping. It took MONTHS of her doing this before she felt comfortable enough to go into the water herself.
Flash forward 5 years, my now 7 year old daughter is like a fish in the water. I literally can’t get her to come out of the ocean, and she is a fearless swimmer. But you know what, I can’t take any credit for this!
She needed to build her confidence in her surroundings before doing something that was new and scary (at the time).
If I continued to force her to come in the water prematurely, before she was ready or comfortable, this could have created a negative experience for her.
What does this all have to do with your picky eater learning to like new foods?
EVERYTHING. Let me explain.
Kids learn to eat new foods in a similar way.
When you think about your child learning to eat new foods, think about it like climbing a ladder. When they master one step, they can move on to the next step.
Eating a new or challenging food isn’t the only sign of success when it comes to learning to eat new foods. Kids will actually progress through different stages of interacting with new foods before they actually consider eating it.
So even if your child isn’t consuming the food itself, any interactions with that food are signs that they are learning, progressing, and increasing their comfortability with that food.
Just like my toddler who took months to eventually get down to the ocean’s edge: she didn’t get there by immediately running down to the shore the first time we went to the beach.
No - instead, she had to take progressive steps to get her bearings down in her new surroundings before she felt confident enough to go down to the water, which was a new environment for her.
Keep in mind that learning to eat new foods is a skill that your kids are building. With any new skill, there are steps of progression to building confidence and mastering that skill. Food is the exact same way.
So what are some of the steps of progression you may see with kids learning to eat new foods?
You may see your kids interacting with foods in the following ways before actually considering eating a food:
Interacting with a new food on the table: While your child may not be ready for a new food on their plate, they might be curious to interact with it on the table. For example, they may want to use the salad tongs to touch a salad or a serving spoon for a new dish to scoop. They may even interact with a food/dish by picking it up and passing it to a family member.
Tolerating a new food on their plate: Your child might be interested in having a new food on their plate, though they may not be ready to touch it or eat it yet. That’s okay! I encourage family style dining for mealtimes to give your child the opportunity to plate food on their terms and as a way to help minimize any potential pressure from caregivers to eat certain foods.
Touching a new food: When your child is ready, they might be interested in touching a new food on their plate. They may start by touching with a utensil, or they might be curious to hold it in their hands. If you notice your child interacting with their food in this way, you can consider asking neutral questions to help spark their curiosity about textures, colors, etc. For example, “How does that pea feel when you squish it with your fingers?”, or “What colors are you holding in your hand right now?”. This will help build your child’s confidence in interacting with these foods.
Bringing food to their mouths: As a next step of progression, you might see your child actually bring a new food to their mouth, but set it back down again. They might hold up a food and smell it or even press a food against their lips.
Putting it in their mouth then spitting it out: Does your child try putting a food in their mouth only to spit it back out? If so, that’s okay! This is also a step of progression. A child might be ready to put a new or unfamiliar food in their mouth but may not be quite ready to chew the food or able to tolerate the flavor of that particular food. Allowing your child to spit it out (without any negative reactions from caregivers) can reinforce that they are safe to learn and eat at their own pace.
This is where allowing your kids to play and interact with their food can be appropriate and should be encouraged.
Remember that kids learn about their environment and new surroundings through play.
Allowing your child to interact with their food in different ways can help encourage their comfortability with new foods.
While not all kids may feel ready to engage with unfamiliar foods, most kids love playing - especially with food! This might include:
Making a face or shape with foods on their plate
Smashing foods with their utensils
While some of these steps may seem insignificant, they are all ways your child may be learning and building their confidence with new and unfamiliar foods.
An important thing to keep in mind is to remain neutral while your child is progressing through steps of learning with new foods.
You might get excited when you see them eating a food they’ve previously rejected, or you might feel frustrated when you see them spitting out a food or pushing it around on their plate.
Any positive OR negative verbal cues can inadvertently create roadblocks for them.
To keep the mealtime a safe place for your child to learn and explore, try as much as possible to remain a neutral presence at the table. I encourage parents to serve food in silence to let your kids do their thing.
Sometimes the amount of time it takes for a child to progress through these steps of learning can be frustrating when you want to see your kid eat new foods.
Just remember - for your child to be successful with eating and confident in their bodies, they need a safe space and permission to learn at a pace that is right for them.
This might look different from one child to the next, but each kid’s journey is unique to them.
They need to be comfortable progressing through these steps to get to a place where they might eat it. It takes time.
3. Expose your child to different foods outside of mealtimes to boost their confidence and curiosity
Anytime your child has the opportunity to interact with food, they are building their confidence and familiarity. As you go through this process, keep in mind that a child does not have to actually be eating new/unfamiliar foods to be learning and building new skills around food.
The key is to expose them to food in neutral settings, which can naturally help them feel more comfortable and curious.
Exposing kids to new foods outside of mealtimes can be an easy way to help them interact with food.
These can include things like:
Cooking with kids
Sensory play with food, like letting your child measure and scoop dried beans or pasta into containers
If your child sees or interacts with a food outside of a mealtime setting, this will also help increase their familiarity with new foods.
For example, if your child sees certain fruits or vegetables in a grocery story and also in your kitchen while you’re cooking, this will be something they will more easily recognize when it appears on the dinner table.
Again, the more opportunities you can give your child to interact with food outside of mealtime, the more you can help build their confidence around food in general.
Sometimes, mealtimes can be stressful for kids, especially kids who may fear new foods.
Exposing them to foods in neutral settings can help them feel more comfortable. Again, this is another way to help kids progress through the steps of learning to eat new foods.
4. Keep eating experiences positive and language around food neutral
Having a picky eater can trigger a lot of emotions that make mealtimes stressful for everyone (anxious, fear, etc when we see our kids struggling or not eating at mealtimes).
Shedding light on this reality is not intended to create any shame here whatsoever. We worry about our kids and their well-being because we care.
Keep in mind that kids can pick up on our anxieties, and this can make meal times harder for them.
Your kid will feel more comfortable exploring and learning about their food when mealtimes are more relaxed and positive.
Taking the pressure off yourself can help you take the pressure off your kids.
You’re not failing as a mom if you have a picky eater.
6 Words that Will End Picky Eating
Remember that it is not your job to get your child to eat. Your job is to provide food and to determine the time and place you’re offering food. But it’s your child’s job to decide whether or not they even want to eat and how much they want to eat from what you have provided.
When you can keep this important aspect in mind, it can help you stay in your lane and take the pressure off of you and your kids at mealtimes.
To reinforce this and to help you remember your role in the feeding relationship with your child to promote successful mealtimes and confident eaters, keep this powerful phrase in mind to tell your picky eater on repeat:
“You Don’t Have to Eat It.”
So if your child is put off by something unfamiliar on their plate and you find yourself getting pulled into a battle of the wills, pull out this phrase from your pocket.
Remind your child that they don’t have to eat anything if they don’t want to.
When kids hear these words coming from their caregivers, the pressure they may be feeling will instantly come off their shoulders, and they’ll feel safe to explore food on their terms.
This 6 word phrase can do wonders, in terms of alleviating stress from mealtimes and making eating more enjoyable again.
5. Build a Trusting Feeding Relationship
The basis of positive mealtime experiences is TRUST - trust that your child can eat what they need to grow at a rate that is right for them.
When you feed your child from a place of TRUST rather than fear, you are fostering confidence in your child that will help them flourish throughout their lives.
If you are worried about your child’s stature, growth, or overall health, be aware of how these fears and anxieties may play a role in how you feed your child.
It’s not uncommon for parents and caregivers to overstep their boundaries with a child when feeding from a place of fear rather than trust.
For example, if you’re worried that your child is small for their age or that they don’t eat enough, you might find yourself pressuring, coercing or bribing them at mealtimes.
Even though these feeding tactics are well-intended, they will almost always backfire.
When your kids can feel your trust in them to eat, this will help encourage a positive feeding environment from which they will learn about food and eating.
Remember that your children have an innate ability to regulate what they need to eat to grow at a rate that is right for them.
This may look differently than what you might expect, but that is okay.
How to Overcome Picky Eating - Signs of Progress
If you have a picky eater in your home, you may be desperate to see changes immediately. Having a picky eater can bring up many challenges, stressors, and power struggles for parents and kids alike.
As you walk through these steps and implement these strategies in your own home, I’m hopeful that you will begin to see positive changes for your family at mealtime. As kids build confidence around food and feel more comfortable at the dinner table, this can help bring the joy back to eating for everyone in your family.
Keep in mind that feeding kids is a long-term game, and don’t expect any drastic changes overnight. This is important to know to help you develop realistic expectations for your child, in terms of outcomes.
Understand that there will be many other signs of progression for you and your family as you work together to overcome picky eating, some that may be more obvious than others.
Here are some signs to be aware of that might show you that your child is progressing in their confidence and comfortability with food:
Decreased anxiety around food and during mealtimes
Decreased power struggles at mealtimes between child and caregivers
More willing to engage with food
Able to tolerate sitting at mealtimes longer
Asks questions about the food or has increased interest in it
Puts food on their plate, even if they don’t touch it
Engages in conversation and with family members at the table
Engages with food on their plates
Expanding repertoire of food they will eat
If you’re feeling discouraged through this process, I hope these markers might help you stay the course and remain consistent in this approach with your kids.
When is Picky Eating a Problem?
Extreme picky eaters might be children whose intake is so limited that it begins to negatively affect the overall quality of their lives.
While periods of picky eating can be an expected typical pattern of eating in kids, there are some red flags that might warrant more attention and evaluation.
Remember that every child is unique and different, and complex feeding issues are often the result of a combination of different factors.
One of the most telling factors is how your child behaves around and relates to food.
If your child is struggling to eat at mealtimes, eats very limited amounts, or has a limited number of accepted foods they will eat, this can be more of an extreme form of picky eating.
Signs that extreme picky eating is becoming problematic for your child may include but are not limited to:
Weight loss or inappropriate weight gain for expected growth
Not meeting developmental milestones
Visible distress or pain while eating
Recurring gagging or vomiting while eating
Chewing or swallowing difficulties
Unable to tolerate different textures of food beyond purees (for toddlers and older children)
Some children may have underlying medical, sensory processing, or oral motor challenges that might make it more difficult for them to eat.
In this case, it is important to partner with professionals to help you address the complexities that may make eating and feeding more challenging for you and your child.
The most important thing here is to trust your gut and connect to professional help if you feel like something is not right.
Picky eating in any form is not your fault as a parent, and partnering with specialized professionals can be a way to support your child to have a more confident and positive relationship with food.
Treatment for extreme picky eating is most effective when it is comprehensive. This includes a combination of pediatric feeding specialists who are trained to provide developmentally appropriate feeding therapy.
This may include an occupational therapist, speech therapist, pediatric dietitian, GI doctor and/or pediatrician who might work together as a team to partner with you and your family in helping your child progress with eating.
Picky Eating vs. Eating Disorder
If you’re concerned about extreme picky eating, it may be helpful to differentiate between picky eater or eating disorder.
Eating disorders are severe psychiatric illnesses with biological underpinnings and are influenced by both genetic and environmental components.
Eating disorders, like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, are primarily characterized by a preoccupation with body image and abnormal eating patterns that can be fatal if left untreated.
Like extreme picky eating, there are many complex factors related to the development of an eating disorder.
However, eating disorders include a wide range of detrimental eating habits, such as intentional restriction of nutritional intake, obsession with healthy eating, binging on an abnormal amount of food, and purging.
These abnormal eating behaviors are often seen alongside an unhealthy preoccupation with body image, weight, shape, and food.
Eating disorders are also more likely to co-occur with other mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.
For these reasons, proactively addressing any feeding problems can be instrumental in decreasing the risk of an eating disorder in the future.
If you are concerned that your child might have an eating disorder, please connect with a professional. You can start the conversation with your child’s pediatrician or call the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline.
Understanding Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) in Children
Avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is a relatively new eating disorder diagnosis used to classify individuals with clinically significant restrictive eating, but without weight and body image concerns that are typically seen in eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia.
ARFID can occur in individuals of any age across the lifespan, including kids, adolescents, and adults.
While research on assessing, preventing and treating ARFID is still emerging, these are some characteristics of this eating disorder:
A child with ARFID may severely limit food intake due to extreme fear or anxiety around food or eating.
This may be influenced by a past traumatic experience associated with eating, such as choking on food or recurrent vomiting.
Foods may also be limited due to certain characteristics, including taste, texture and smell
ARFID can result in numerous medical complications due to limited nutrition intake. Severe nutritional deficiencies may require medical intervention or hospitalization for intervention.
Kids who are struggling with ARFID may experience weight loss or lack of weight gain to meet their expected growth trajectory.
Unlike other eating disorders, children with ARFID typically do not have fear of weight gain or preoccupation with their own body image and/or weight.
AFRID typically occurs with other co-existing conditions, such as a mood disorder, anxiety, or autism.
If you suspect that your child may be struggling with ARFID, please talk with your child’s doctor immediately about your concerns.
There are effective treatment approaches that can help support your child’s recovery and healing.
Help is Available for Picky Eating Habits
No matter where your child may be on the spectrum of picky eating behaviors, please know that you and your family are not alone as you navigate this journey.
There is absolutely hope that your child can progress to more confidence around food and to a place where they are able to competently eat a variety of foods that support their growth.
Going through this process with your child can inevitably bring up many insecurities, fears, and frustrations.
Watching your child struggle with eating, no matter how mild or severe this might be, can also cause any underlying anxieties or unresolved issues you may have with food right back to the surface.
If you find that you’re having a hard time, please be sure that you’re taking care of your own physical and mental health as well.
This might look like joining a support group or getting some kind of professional help for yourself. By taking care of yourself, you will be better positioned to care for your own child.
Lastly, please check out these great resources to help better inform, support, and educate you as you learn how to best help the picky eater in your life:
Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense, by Ellyn Satter
Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating, by Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin
If you would like the support of a pediatric dietitian specializing in eating disorders and feeding disorders, please connect with me today.
I currently offer free phone consultations and would love to hear your story to learn more about how I can help you and your family progress to more peaceful family mealtimes.