Picky eating in childhood, especially between 2- and 4-years-old, is very common. It can cause a lot of mealtime conflict, with parents highly invested in children eating their vegetables and children highly invested in refusing to do so.
Recognizing that pickiness is normal and usually short-lived can make mealtimes more enjoyable. A low-key approach to picky eating can help kids come around and try a wider variety of foods. Here are some basic strategies to try.
Whenever possible, eat family meals together and model healthy and adventurous eating. Children often watch and adapt habits from parents, older siblings, and peers. When the rest of the family eats well balanced meals that include fruits and vegetables, children are more likely to do the same. And when parents show a willingness to try new foods, kids will, too.
Follow regular and structured meal and snack times. Make it a rule that kids sit at the table to eat free of distractions and devices.
Let your child to choose what and how much to eat from what's offered. At the same time, avoid offering separate meals or snacks if they refuse to eat. Include at least one food at meals and snacks that the child likes.
Involve kids in helping to select, grow, and cook foods. The more engaged they are, the more likely they will be to try the foods eventually.
Show an interest in learning about food, nutrition, farming, and cooking. Many kids will also become interested in foods and seeing what they taste like.
You might also want to try these tips geared toward specific age and developmental stages:
During pregnancy. Make a habit of eating at least one "unusual," new, or bitter food a few times per week. The flavors pass into the amniotic fluid, giving your unborn baby an early "taste" of foods that they may then be more willing to eat later. Plus, the more you try new foods, the more you will grow to like and model eating them.
Infancy. Eating a wide variety of foods while breastfeeding can increase your child's exposure to those foods through breastmilk. Making flavors more familiar decreases the chance your child will reject them in solid foods.
Once you do introduce solids at about 6 months old, offer one new food at a time, with a plan to include bitter vegetables, fish, and a little bit of spice from the very beginning. Introduce foods with a variety of textures and smells. (Once all the ingredients of a recipe have been introduced, it is fine to prepare them together.) Babies have immature taste buds, which make them open to eating just about anything their first year or so of eating solid foods. When starting solids, be sure the food is soft and small enough to prevent choking.
Toddler. Between 18 months and 2 years of age, many children start to show a dislike of unfamiliar foods called "neophobia." Go with the flow while also making it a habit to eat family meals together. Resist the urge to force a child to eat or engage in mealtime battles. But don't cater to picky preferences, either.
Continue offering at least one food your child likes at each meal along with a healthy balance of other foods whether your child eats them or not. To avoid food waste, serve small portions of foods more likely to be rejected.
Preschool. Engage preschoolers in the process of choosing and preparing foods. Kids are more likely to eat what they grow, choose, or prepare. Preschoolers tend to love garden-grown vegetables paired with a dip, sauce or nut butter. Try out a healthier take that the kids can also help prepare with the Greek Yogurt Ranch Dip recipe (below).
School-aged. Help kids learn where their food comes from by growing a miniature garden. Plant easy-to-grow foods that the child might otherwise resist trying, such as spinach or sweet peppers.
Adolescence. Make a commitment to eat family meals together at least 2 to 3 times per week. This makes it more likely a teen will eat a balanced meal, In addition, research shows shared family mealtimes can help strengthen family relationships and decrease the likelihood of risk-taking behaviors.
Task your teen with occasionally helping to choose and prepare meals, which will help them develop cooking skills. Require that the meal contain a protein, grain, fruit, and vegetable, but otherwise avoid the urge to micromanage what your teen chooses.
Recipe: Greek Yogurt Ranch Dip
This is a lighter and healthier yet tasty take on Ranch dressing – try adding chopped fresh herbs (chives, dill, parsley) at the end for a fresh addition!
- 1 cup of low-fat Greek yogurt
- 1 teaspoon dried dill
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
Mix all ingredients above until combined well.
Recipe by Mary Tanaka, MD, MS, FAAP. Find more of Dr. Tanaka's kid-friendly recipes at healthychildren.org/recipes
Talk with your child's pediatrician if you have any questions about their diet and health.