8 Tips For Picky Eaters
By Kristi Kalinsky, RD, LD
June 21, 2022
Are you a parent or a caregiver of a child? The role of a parent or caregiver can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience, but it can also be challenging. How do I know this? I speak from experience as a mother of two who are currently teenagers. I’ve also worked at WIC (Women, Infants and Children) counseling mothers with children, ages birth to five. One of the challenges I have faced, along with parents I have counseled, is having a child who is a picky eater. It can test limits and patience you never knew you had! If you are struggling, you are not alone. There are many tips and tricks that have helped picky eaters in the past (such as with my own two kids) that I would love to share, especially as we hit the summer when kids might be eating more meals (and lots of snacks!) at home.
Tip #1: Expose your child to a wide variety of flavors and textures.
If you are the parent of a young child, it is important to expose them to a wide variety of foods early in life. Studies have shown that if they are presented with an array of varying tastes and textures, they can develop a wider acceptability to many different types of foods. Have you thought of giving your child Indian or Thai food, various types of fish, bison, eggplant, avocado, quinoa, or lentils? Even though a kids’ menu at a restaurant offers very limited choices such as the standard chicken nuggets, hot dogs, grilled cheese, etc., it doesn’t mean that you need to do the same at home.
Tip #2: There is a clear division of responsibility between the parent/caregiver and child during mealtimes.
Something important to keep in mind when you do sit down to a meal is that there is a division in responsibility at the table. You, as a parent or caregiver, are responsible for picking what foods are served at a meal or snack. Your child, on the other hand, is in charge of what he/she eats and how much. When those lines blur, it can cause a whole host of complications that can cause battles at the dinner table, which makes it unenjoyable for both parent/caregiver and child. When there are clear boundaries set, everyone knows what is expected and it can alleviate much tension. Bottom line, the parent picks and serves the food and the child chooses what to eat and how much.
Tip #3: Serve new foods with familiar foods.
Serving one or two familiar foods, along with a few new foods, is a great way to approach mealtime. When the child knows or recognizes some of the food items being served, it creates less anxiety for the child. If anxiety is reduced or eliminated, it allows the child to be more accepting of the new foods being presented. They may play with the food, smell the food, touch it to their lips or tongue and even spit it out. This is a completely normal process when learning how to accept a new food. According to Ellyn Satter, registered dietitian and family therapist, it can take repeated exposure (think 20 to 30 times) before your child is willing to accept a new food in their diet. The take home message is don’t give up only after a few attempts at serving a new food. You never know what they may end up enjoying in the long run.
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Tip #4: Try a fun or tasty dip to pair with new foods.
Kids really enjoy dipping their foods, especially new or unfamiliar ones, into different condiments or sauces. For a delicious dip for veggies such as celery, jicama, baby peppers, mini cucumbers or snap peas, try the Lil Dipper recipe from our website. As my son has discovered, this dip also makes a great addition to pair with a protein that may be more difficult to chew or swallow or may be a little bit drier in nature. Another great dip to try is our Healthy Apple Dip. Although the name implies that it is good paired with apples, it can be used with any type of fruit. Think outside the box and branch out from typical fruit items and try dragon fruit, blood oranges, kiwi or star fruit.
Tip #5: Purchase new foods together.
Another great idea is planning a field trip to a local farmer’s market or to arrange an outing to the grocery store together. Exposure to new and different foods is important in opening their eyes to various options. After they have had a chance to explore, allow your child to choose a new food or two to try to give them a sense of control in the process. When they have some say or control in what they are choosing to try, it makes them more likely to want to eat that food.
Tip #6: Get your child involved in the cooking process.
Once a new food or foods have been chosen, the prep phase in the food process is an important step to get kids involved with as well. When helping in the kitchen with the meal, whether it is washing fruits and veggies, measuring ingredients, stirring, etc. they take ownership in the process and they are more likely to enjoy what they have invested time and energy into making. From shopping, prepping and then eating the new food, the process becomes full circle.
Tip #7: Watch beverage choices.
Be especially careful with what your child is drinking. Most kids, especially younger kids, aren’t interested in being interrupted in their daily routine with eating. It robs them of the joy of playing and doing other fun things they enjoy. One way they try and get around eating is by drinking their calories. It is a fast and easy way for them to feel full without having to take the time to sit down and chew their food. A helpful way to navigate this is to only serve water between meals and snacks. At mealtimes, offer 1 glass of milk or unlimited water and at snacks only offer water. As a side note, too much milk can hinder iron absorption and cause a child to become anemic. Limit milk to no more than 2 glasses per day.
Tip #8: Be a good role model with your own food intake.
Have you ever noticed that your child mirror’s what you, as a parent/caregiver, do? Sometimes that can work for or against us. If you are eating a wide variety of foods at the table and your child sees you enjoying these foods, they are more likely to want to try them. Avoid negative comments about foods to prevent tainting their outlook on a new or existing food. The same type of influence applies at school. You may notice that your child is open to new opportunities or options, when they see their peers eating certain things at lunch that you may have never thought to offer. The power and influence can sometimes work in your favor in these types of situations.
Even after incorporating these strategies, you still may experience some difficulties at the dinner table. If you are worried about your child’s intake, a high-quality multivitamin may be able to cover the nutrients they are missing in their diet. The NutriKey Liquid Multi is a great option as it is easy to swallow and has a tropical fruit flavor. Another way to incorporate additional fruits and vegetables into your child’s diet is trying Key Greens and Fruits. One scoop of this powder contains 20 servings of fruits and vegetables. It comes in a variety of flavors to appeal to a wide range of varying palates. My kids’ favorite flavor is the chocolate Key Greens and Fruits that we mix into smoothies, plain yogurt or with full fat coconut milk for a quick and delicious hot chocolate.
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When the day is done, it is important to remember that mealtime doesn’t need to become a battle ground. A child will not intentionally starve themselves. When you have healthy options to serve, and that is the only option, they will not have the opportunity to indulge in unhealthy food options . My kids still have their own quirks regarding food, but they do eat a wide variety of foods, which makes my life easier with meal prep and what to serve for minimal complaints. Hopefully you will experience the same. If you are still struggling, schedule an appointment with one of our nutritionists or dietitians to further assist you in your journey to guide your child with better nutrition.
For more information on eating healthy with picky eaters, check out these resources:
- Listen: Tips to Help Picky Eaters
- Read: Why Do We Need Snacks? (And How To Make Them Healthy!) for some kid-approved snack ideas!
- Read: What A Nutritionist Eats In A Day | Kristi Kalinsky RD, LD for tips on how Kristi meal preps for her family
- Try: Healthy Chicken Nuggets Recipe