Picky eating is a common behavior in children. Ashley Kim, a Registered Dietitian with the Children's Health℠ Get Up and Go program, explains that toddlers and young children begin to say "no" at meal time to assert their independence as they begin to develop food preferences.
"It can be a challenge to get a meal on the table that everyone will enjoy. A child's appetite and preferences can vary each day and that is okay," Kim says.
While introducing new foods can take time, there are steps parents can take to make attempts more successful.
How to introduce new foods to picky eaters
- Begin to offer a variety of nutritious foods and flavors at an early age to promote food acceptance.
- Introduce new foods one at a time and serve with familiar foods, as offering several new foods at once can be overwhelming.
- Involve children in food preparation and cooking activities to introduce and experiment with new foods through sensory cues.
- Create a supportive meal time experience free from distractions.
- Offer bite-sized portions of new foods at meal time and avoid pressuring children to "clean their plate," which interferes with their natural hunger cues.
- Praise children when trying new foods and refrain from using dessert as a reward.
- Don't give up, as it may take up to 12-15 exposures for a new food to be accepted.
Kid-friendly meals for picky eaters
A deconstructed meal can be beneficial when trying to feed picky eaters. A deconstructed meal is one where you keep ingredients separate instead of mixing them together to prepare the dish.
Tacos or stir-fry are examples of meals that can be served in this way. Each member of the family can create their own meal based on their preferences. Serving children the ingredients separately gives them options, allowing them to choose what and how much they want to eat. Other deconstructed or build-your-own meal examples include burrito bowls, quesadillas, pizzas, omelets, salads and pastas.
The main purpose of a deconstructed meal is to take your child's preferences into consideration without creating a separate meal for your child. It’s important to let children know that you listen and care about their taste preferences, but communicate that they are expected to choose foods from the options you provide.
Help put the joy back into eating
Making meal time enjoyable is an important part of working with picky eaters. Some ways to make meal time more fun include:
- Eat the rainbow by including colorful vegetable options on the plate
- Organize foods into the shape of a smiley face or heart
- Use cookie cutters to cut food items into fun shapes
Kim says it's important to remember that every child is different. Even if you follow all of these suggestions, there is no quick fix to a picky eater. Continue to provide a variety of healthy options at meal time as the child learns which tastes and textures they like or dislike. Raising a child who eats a wide variety of food takes time, patience and repeated exposure.
Ellyn Satter, an internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding, shares more advice to help transform family meals into enjoyable, healthy times together.
Making one healthy food choice at a time can help your family on the journey to wellness. Learn more about our pediatric weight management programs and services.
Stay current on the health insights that makes a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.