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How to Help Kids Who Are Picky Eaters

Don't force them, but do find ways to help them feel good about trying new tastes  

Rachel Ehmke

Senior Writer
Child Mind Institute

Picky eating is one of the most common complaints among parents. It's the rare child who eats anything and everything, gamely taking on new vegetables, foreign cuisine, and walnuts in brownies. Instead, most kids (like most adults, only moreso) find some foods unpalatable. Vegetables are a frequent offender; processed desserts and chips typically aren't.

"I think all parents have said at one time, 'My kid is such a picky eater!'" notes Rachel Busman, PsyD, a psychologist specializing in anxiety at the Child Mind Institute. "It's very normal for kids to go through stages where they're a little more picky, especially when they are trying to assert their autonomy. Suddenly it's I want to put on my own coat; I want to brush my own teeth; I want to choose the food that I eat."

As kids get older their tastes buds start to develop, too, so it's natural if the toddler who happily ate whatever was in front of him becomes more selective as he matures. It's also not unusual for kids to be so cautious about eating that there are fewer things they will eat than things they won't.

But while we want our kids to eat every vegetable and embrace every level of the food pyramid, forcing the issue can have the opposite effect. "Making a child sit at the table until her plate is cleaned is not the best way to get her to eat," warns Dr. Busman. Forcing food distresses kids and parents alike, and builds up negative associations. As long as the pediatrician says your child is healthy and she is eating a variety of foods, don't pick a battle over every green vegetable.

Expanding the menu

Instead, for picky eaters Dr. Busman recommends respecting the things a child does like while encouraging her to try new things. You can be a good role model by being an adventurous eater yourself. Put together a list of new foods for the family to try and make a game out of it—what will we try tonight? You could even do something creative like Food Bingo.

Parents should also promote retrying foods that might not have been a hit the first time around. Sometimes it takes a second taste (or a new recipe) to discover that something tastes good after all. You can model this yourself as well. Try a food you haven't liked in the past, and explain that you're giving it another chance because your tastes may have changed. We want to show kids that we are adaptable.

Setting limits

When kids don't like what's for dinner, some parents feel compelled to make something else. However, this sets a bad precedent and doesn't really encourage kids to give new things a chance. "I always say, 'This is not Mom's 24-Hour Diner,' " says Dr. Busman. "Parents shouldn't be making a new meal every time a child decides she doesn't like dinner." However, Dr. Busman does suggest having a standard second option available—something quick like salad and a yogurt or a bowl of cereal—for nights when kids truly can't stomach what's being offered at dinner. It takes the pressure off of parents and kids alike when everyone knows there's a standard alternative to turn to. Of course, this strategy only works for the occasionally picky eater—not for kids who want to have a bowl of cereal for dinner every night.

It's also important to teach kids that a meal isn't ruined if it comes in contact with something they don't like. Finding an unwanted pickle on your hamburger will not contaminate it. Children should be encouraged to push food they don't like off to the side, or onto another plate, or offer to share it with someone else. This can be hard for some kids to accept, but it's an important lesson, and another thing you can model for your children. If you don't like bananas but the restaurant puts some on your pancakes, show how you can calmly put them off to the side, and enjoy your breakfast.

DIY strategies for converting picky eaters 

The best way to reform picky eaters is to get them more engaged with their food. One good way to do this is to go grocery shopping together. Dr. Busman recommends bringing your child with you to the grocery store and having him to pick out some new things he thinks he might like. Whole Foods is an excellent location for this because they let customers sample almost everything. Try an assortment of produce, breads, meats, and cheeses. Your child might discover that he likes food with smoky flavors or prefers apples that are more sour than sweet. 

Cooking together is another great way to get kids to feel more game about new food. Go through recipes, especially kid-friendly recipes, online or in cookbooks. Find something that you both think looks good and make it together. After choosing the recipe and stirring the bowl kids are much more eager to try something new. Family favorites like pizza or make-your-own sub sandwich night are perfect for this. Dream up a bunch of fun ingredients and start experimenting.

Published: January 29, 2013

When kids are so averse to foods that they're malnourished, or avoidance is seriously limiting their lives, they may need clinical help. For more information read More Than Picky Eating.

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