Picky Eaters

Help children try new foods.

Do any of the sentences below remind you of your child?

"Michael won’t eat anything green!”

"Ebony will only eat peanut butter sandwiches!”

"Maria won’t sit still at the table long enough to eat a meal!”

If so, you’re not alone. Picky eating is common for many children.

If your child is a picky eater but is healthy, growing normally, and has plenty of energy, he or she is most likely getting plenty of nutrients. If you have concerns, talk to your child’s doctor.

This tip gives ideas for :

Adapted from the United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service handout “Picky Eaters.”

Picky eating can be a sign that your child is uneasy about new things, or showing his or her independence. Helping your child to welcome new foods can:

  • Lower your child’s fears about other types of new things. Help your child to view new things as adventures.
  • Help you resolve other parent-child conflicts. When you succeed in solving conflicts over food, you learn how to work out other problems that may come along.
  • Set in place healthy eating habits that last a lifetime. Help your child grow into an adult who likes many different healthy foods.

Mealtime Strategies

It’s mealtime, and you’ll be serving something new. How can you encourage your child to try it?

Here are some ideas, check off the ones you'd like to try with your family or that you do already:

Offer choices. Instead of asking, “Do you want broccoli for dinner?” ask, “Which would you rather have, broccoli or carrots?”

Respect the child’s rules. For example, respect the "no foods touching" rule or the “no crusts” rule if those are important to your child.

Don’t take special orders. Avoid becoming a "short-order cook." Expect your child to eat what the rest of the family eats. Prepare at least one of your child's favorite foods for each meal, even if it's the same thing over again.

Change things up. If your child dislikes a food, try cooking it differently. For example, you could add new ingredients to old favorites — shredded carrots in meatballs or mashed pumpkin in muffins.

Try a lookalike. If your child likes a certain food, consider swapping it for a similar food. For example, if your child likes mashed white potatoes try serving mashed sweet potatoes.

Make the food fun. Cut the food into fun shapes. Use cookie cutters for soft foods like peanut butter sandwiches and pancakes. Arrange veggies into a smiling face on your child’s plate. Give the new food a fun name. For instance, when serving broccoli, call it a fairy tree.

Set the scene. Turn off the TV. Help children think of mealtime as a time to enjoy food and to talk about fun and happy things. Try using "Cards to start mealtime chats" to get your family talking.

Try the buddy system. Seat a picky eater beside a friend, brother or sister who is a good eater. This is helpful when you give them a new food.

Start slowly. Introduce one new food at a time. Let your child know if the new food will taste sweet, salty or sour. Offer the new food when your child is most likely to be hungry, and offer it as the first food item of the meal or snack.

Make a friendly plate. Serve a new food along with foods your child already likes. He or she will be more likely to try the new food. For example, serve a peanut butter sandwich made with one piece of white bread and one piece of whole wheat bread.

Make it pretty. Most children prefer bright colored foods with fun textures, such as crunchy carrots or celery.

Skip the sauce. Serve food plain. Many children like foods they can easily recognize.

Let your child explore. When giving a new food, do more than ask your child if he or she wants some. Let your child see it on the plate or in his or her cup or hand. Encourage your child to look at, touch and smell the food before trying a small bite.

Give tiny tastes. Let your child decide the amount of food to try. Then wait for him or her to ask for more. Tell your child it’s okay to eat tiny amounts such as half a spoonful.

A taste is enough. Encourage children to at least taste foods. Never force them to eat a food. If the food is not eaten, simply take it away and try it again later.

Focus on the positive. Praise the small, positive steps a child makes in trying a food, for example, by smelling it or touching it. Avoid making negative comments if the child decides not to taste the food. Avoid calling your child a picky eater. Your child believes what you say.

Don’t demand a clean plate. Trust your child's hunger. Forcing children to clean their plate may lead them to eat too much.

Have an exit plan. Let kids not swallow a food if they don’t like the taste. Show them how to carefully spit the food into a napkin.

Prepare Your Child to Welcome New Foods

Help your child to think of trying new foods as an adventure.

Here are nine ideas, check off the ones you'd like to try with your family or that you do already:

Read stories about healthy foods with your child. Kids may be excited to try a food if they hear or read about it in a story. Check out the Food Hero Storybook Idea List for storybooks that focus on healthy foods  — look for them in your library.

Take your child shopping. Invite your child to help you choose a new fruit or veggie each week.  As your child explores different foods, he or she will get more comfortable with them and might be more excited to taste them. Depending on your child’s age, ask him or her to tell you:

  • the color of the food
  • the food group (fruit, vegetable, dairy, etc.)
  • what the food looks like, smells like, or feels like.

Get your child involved in meal planning and cooking. Invite your child to visit the Food Hero website with you. Read aloud the names of fun-sounding recipes like Berry Blast Off or Potato Pals and ask if he or she would like to help you make them.  Even picky eaters are more likely to try a recipe they chose and helped cook. If they feel like they own it, they will want to taste it!

Keep healthy foods on hand. Make sure you keep fresh fruits and veggies available for snacks. Leave on the kitchen counter a few tangerines in a small basket, or a bowl of carrot or celery sticks. Your child will soon learn that these foods are around to eat and enjoy.

Set a good example. Kids often learn by example. Make sure they see you drink milk and eat fruits and veggies.

Practice what to say. What you say to a child shapes his or her eating behavior. Check out the "Phrases that help and hinder" tool for ideas of what to say at meals to help promote healthy eating. Then choose a quiet time to practice these phrases.

Start now! The sooner you introduce new foods to your child, the sooner he or she will learn to like them. So plan to offer a new food at your very next meal.

Try, try again. If your child has said "no" to a new food, that doesn’t mean he or she will never eat it. Expect to offer new foods several times. Keep offering, and don't give up. Many young children must be offered a food 10 times or more before they will take a bite.

Allow your child to repeat familiar foods if needed. Be patient if your child wants to eat the same food over and over. This is called a "food jag," and rarely lasts long enough to cause harm. If the food is a healthy one, allow the child to eat it often until the food jag passes.

Last updated: 08/04/14

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