If you are the parent of a picky eater, you might find yourself thinking, “Why on earth can’t they just sit down and eat!?” It seems so simple. But for our kids who are picky eaters, it’s a whole different story.
Table of Contents
Why Can’t They Just Eat?
Eating is one of the most complicated things we do. We use all of our senses, all of our organ systems, and all of our muscle groups. There is so much that can go awry and make this eating thing anything but simple. 
Many pick eaters feel a great deal of stress around coming to the table and experiencing the expectations that they may feel from their families. Unfortunately, when our bodies become stressed, they release the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol suppresses appetite (after all, in a real emergency you don’t want to be feeling hungry-you want to run or fight!), but that means that for our stressed out picky eaters, eating just became that much harder.
As the parent of a picky eater, it’s critical to learn strategies that will help your child explore new foods while remaining calm and relaxed.
Approaching Picky Eating
Take a little journey with me in your imagination. Let’s imagine that you move to a new place where they only eat worms. You are horrified. You might rather starve than eat the worms.
You sit down at the dinner table, and someone says to you, “You’d better eat or you’ll go hungry. Here are your worms.” You do your best to shut your body down. You pinch your nose, close your eyes, will your mouth not to feel or taste, and swallow the worm without chewing.
You’re not really learning to eat this new food, you’re learning to shut down and choke it down.
Now imagine you make a friend who says, “Hey, it’s okay. I’ll make sure you have other things to eat and help you learn about the worms.” At each mealtime the worms are nearby and others are eating them while you relax. Maybe you listen to your favorite music, or have your favorite beverage.
Eventually, after 6 weeks, you start poking around at the worm with your fingers, and you are calm and relaxed. By 10 weeks you can take a bite and spit it out. By 12 weeks you can eat the worms without becoming stressed or shutting down.
The first example is what we do to our kids when we tell them they have to eat something that is seriously scary to them. Sometimes they’ll do it to avoid the consequence or to get the reward, but they are shutting down their sensory system to get there.
The second example is the process we want to take our picky eaters on: one of calm and supported exploration. We want them to slowly feel more comfortable with new foods without feeling pressured to go farther than they are ready for. To do that, we have to become their feeding teacher rather than their feeding boss.
Think about it: when your child struggles with math, you don’t make a rule that they have to get all of the answers correct. Instead, you hire a tutor to help them, or you spend extra time working on their homework with them.
You teach them the skills they need to be successful. When our kids struggle with exploring new foods, they need us to teach them how, not to set rules around what they have to eat.
If your family uses rules like “You have to clear your plate” or “You have to eat [this] before you get [that],” there are other reasons to reconsider them. Research shows that kids who have these types of rules have less acceptance of new foods over time.
They are also at an increased risk for obesity, likely because they are learning not to trust their bodies’ cues about when they are hungry and full. 
Your Job as a Parent
So, if you aren’t supposed to make rules about what your child eats, what is your job as a parent? Ellen Sattyr, a leader in the field of feeding, provided guidance for parents with her Division of Responsibilities. Under the Division of Responsibilities, Sattyr taught that the parent’s job is what foods the child is offered, when they eat, and what the feeding environment is like.
The child’s job is how much they eat and whether or not they eat.
Once we let go of the idea that we should (or even can) make our kids eat, mealtimes can be so much more fun and less stressful for everyone.
1. Bring Your Child to the Family Table
If your child eats at their own small table or at a highchair with a tray, consider bringing them to the family table. This will give you the chance to model eating lots of different foods at the same table surface where they are sitting. Also, if your child throws food off their highchair tray, at the table you can teach them to push it away instead.
One of the most important things you can do is model eating the foods you serve your child. Research shows that whether they see their parents or trusted caregivers eating a food is one of the most important factors determining whether or not a child will accept that food 
Think about it: if you were a bunny in the wild, how would you know which plants to eat and which to avoid? You’d watch your mama and follow her lead.
Consider having a consistent meal and snack schedule, and only offering water between eating times. If your child is filling up on milk and goldfish right before dinner, they will be much less likely to eat the foods you are serving.
Ask your family doctor or nutritionist how often you should be feeding your child. Many young kids need to eat as frequently as every 2.5 hours.
2. Serve Both Preferred and Non-Preferred Foods
A good plan is to serve at least one preferred food and one non-preferred food at each meal. Your child will feel safe that there is something for them to eat when you offer the preferred food.
This should cut down on short-order cooking (you know, when you make dinner and then your picky eater orders something different), which isn’t good for your time or for your picky eater’s habits and routines.
Offering the non-preferred food ensures that your child is regularly exposed to foods that they might not be ready to eat. Often, as parents, we just serve our kids things we know they’ll eat. This seals their fate as a picky eater.
There is lots of research showing that many kids need to try a food as many as 15 times before they begin to accept it. It can be hard to take the time to prepare and serve a food you know your child isn’t going to eat. But offering non-preferred foods is one of the most important things you can do to help your picky eater.
3. Set Up An Enjoyable Environment
So you’ve brought your kid’s chair to the family table, cut down on the goldfish, and prepared a preferred and a non-preferred food….now what? Many kids thrive of predictable routines. Here are some ways you can develop a mealtime routine that will support your picky eater:
Before the meal, do something fun and relaxing that your child enjoys. Something active is an especially good idea to get your child’s body ready to eat. This can be as simple as running up the stairs a few times, bouncing on a ball, or having a game of chase and tickle.
Start the meal with a routine, such as washing hands before coming to the table. For young kids who love water but hate coming to the table, having a little bin of water at their spot at the table can be a nice way to help them transition. Once they sit, they can “wash” their hands in the little bin of water. Now they are at the table and happy, ready to eat.
Try serving foods family style, passing each around the table. Many picky eaters feel less threatened by an empty plate at their spot. Encourage them to put a little bit of each food on their plate but let them know they don’t have to eat it if they aren’t ready.
If your child doesn’t want the food on their plate, let them put it on a “learning plate” just outside of their space, or even cover it up with a napkin. Remember, relaxed and happy is the name of the game.
Have a clear cleanup routine to signal the end of the meal. That way if your child leaves early, you can say “Uh oh, we haven’t done the cleanup routine yet!” to get them back to the table. This routine can be as simple as having your child walk with you to the kitchen while you put the plate in the sink; older kids can do more of the clearing plates and washing dishes.
Cleanup provides a safe opportunity for your child to interact with the food (even if it’s just scraping it into the trash with a fork) knowing that they won’t be asked to eat something they aren’t ready for.
4. Become Your Child’s Feeding Teacher
We know that telling your child that they have to eat foods they aren’t ready for doesn’t really work. Here are some strategies you can try instead to help your child become more comfortable with new foods.
Describe the food. During meals, talk about how the food looks, smells, feels in your hand, feels in your mouth, and tastes. Try to use language your child can understand, and avoid subjective words like “delicious” and “yucky.” For instance, you can say, “This carrot is crunchy! I have to chew hard to break through it.” Or for a younger child with less language, “Crunchy! Crunch crunch crunch.” This strategy will encourage your child to develop open curiosity about new foods.
Use “you can” language. It can be tempting to fall back on telling your child what to do. For instance, you might say, “The orange feels wet, feel the orange!” Even this can feel like a stressful demand to a picky eater. Instead, try saying, “You can feel the orange!” Saying “you can” shows confidence that we believe they can do it, but allows them the choice of whether or not they try it.
Praise your child and others. If your child interacts with a non-preferred food, make a positive statement about it such as, “Hey you touched your green beans!” You can also praise your partner and other kids to draw attention to the behaviors you want to see. You might say, “Wow honey you chewed up all of your chicken!” Meanwhile, try to avoid any negative comments (“You haven’t eaten anything!”) or demands (“Taste your apples!”).
Model open exploration. When you are faced with a food you don’t like, model exploring this food for your child. If you touch, smell, and taste it but decide it’s not for you, resist the urge to declare it “gross” or to make a show of not liking it. Instead, you can say something like “I’m not ready for this food yet. It has a big flavor! I’ll leave it on my plate for now.”
Read books about food. Read books and watch movies about food, feeling hungry, and exploring new foods. There are tons of great books for picky eaters out there!
Involve your child in cooking. Cooking is a great time for kids to get involved with food without the pressure to eat. Kids love slicing, scooping, measuring, stirring, using new tools, and conducting food experiments. Many kids are more likely to eat a food that they were involved in preparing.
Let your child play with food. Remember the earthworm experiment? You took it apart with your hands before you tasted it! This is totally normal, and our kids need the opportunity to explore foods in many ways before they eat them. Let your child touch and smell their food during mealtimes. You can also offer opportunities to play with food during non-eating times. For example, kids can paint with purees, create art with pasta and beans, or squish fruit in a bowl with their hands.
Summary of Strategies
Remember, your job as a parent is not to make your child eat. It’s to give them lots of opportunities to learn about food in a way that does not make them feel stressed. To do this, create positive mealtime routines that support your child’s exposure to non-preferred foods.
Make a big deal about any steps they take with foods they don’t like, no matter how tiny those steps seem. The more opportunities you give your child to have a positive interaction with a food, the more likely they are to one day eat it.
When and How to Get Help
While picky eating is very common, some kids are more than just picky. Here are some signs that you might want an experienced feeding therapist to help your child explore new foods:
– Mealtimes are a battle at your house, and they leave everyone exhausted and frustrated.
– Your child does not eat any foods from an entire nutritional category (e.g. no fruits), only eats one texture, or you are concerned about nutrition or weight gain.
– Your child eats a very small number of foods (less than 25 for kids over three, less than 15 for younger kids), and that number is getting smaller and smaller.
– Your child is over two and only eats soft foods, or frequently gags or chokes when swallowing. This is a good indicator of a chewing problem and should be looked at by a therapist.
When looking for a feeding therapist, know that there are lots of different approaches. It’s important to find a therapist who is a good fit for your family and who uses strategies that feel right for you and your child.
If your therapist suggests rewards, consequences, force-feeding, or other strategies that don’t fit into your parenting style, it’s okay to keep looking until you find someone who is qualified and a good match for your family.
The earlier we make changes to help our picky eaters, the better off they will be on their lifelong journey of eating.
- Toomey, K.A. (2017). Top 10 myths of mealtime in America.
- Savage, Jennifer S., et al. (2008) Parental Influence on Eating Behavior. J Law Med Ethics.
- Satter, E. (2017). Raise a healthy child who is a joy to feed.
- Carruth, B R, et al. (2004) Prevalence of Picky Eaters among Infants and Toddlers and Their Caregivers’ Decisions about Offering a New Food. J Am Diet Assoc.