Health & Wellness

How to Help a Picky Eater Stay Healthy and Well-Fed

By: Kait Hanson
A picky child looking at their food.
4 minutes to read
For All Ages
Fine Motor Skills
Social Emotional

A balanced and nutritious diet is crucial for a child’s wellness. What should parents do when their child is a picky eater? How can moms and dads make sure their picky eaters stay healthy and get enough to eat? 

The answer is to offer a variety of foods often, with no pressure or fanfare, and to realize that picky eating is normal.

What is a picky eater?

Registered dietitian Chelsea Edwards of Salt Lake City told Highlights that parents will know they have a picky eater on their hands if their child is very selective about food choices.

“This can be in response to stimuli like taste, texture and smell, but some kids use it as a way to exert independence,” Edwards said. “I don't really like the label of ‘picky eater,’ as it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some kids are ‘supertasters’ who may be more tuned in to bitter or sweet tastes, and some have sensory issues, while others can be more stubborn.”

Offer a variety of foods often, with no pressure or fanfare.

For these reasons, Edwards emphasized that not all "picky eaters" are the same, and thus there is not a one-size-fits-all approach for helping them.

How can parents help a picky eater?

First things first: pressuring kids does not work and can backfire. 

“As difficult as it is, making a big deal out of when they do try something can also make the feeding dynamics more challenging,” Edwards said. “You want to play it cool around food, whether the kid does or does not eat it.”

Ideally, at all meals and snacks, it is wise to offer a variety of foods. 

“At least one familiar or preferred food should be offered at each meal, along with one or two new or unfamiliar foods,” Edwards told Highlights. “It can take repeated exposure for a kid to even decide to try something, and then further exposure for them to like something. Patience is key. Continue to offer new foods with no expectations or pressure.”

RELATED HIGHLIGHTS PODCAST EPISODE: Kids weigh in about becoming vegetarian

What is normal behavior for children when it comes to food?

“You want to play it cool around food, whether the kid does or does not eat it.”

Edwards explained that it is developmentally normal for kids to go through a picky eating phase around ages 2 to 4. 

“Continue to offer a wide variety of foods at meals and snacks, even if they reject the foods,” she said. “While I don't label my own child as a picky eater, she has preferences and is stubborn. It can be frustrating as a feeding professional and a parent, but I continue to offer a variety of foods at meals and snacks. Sometimes she tries them and sometimes she doesn't. It's difficult to not want to celebrate when she tries something new, but it applies pressure by getting excited. She used to eat just about anything put in front of her, so it was frustrating when she became more selective with food.”

As a word of encouragement, Edwards shared that kids often grow out of fussy ea

“Think about foods you may not have liked as a kid that you enjoy now,” she said.

The dietitian added that modeling appropriate eating habits is essential. 

“We cannot expect our kids to try or eat and enjoy a food we refuse to try, or that we state tastes bad,” Edwards said. “By limiting the menu to foods your child already eats and enjoys, you deprive them of the opportunity to try new foods and find new flavors they enjoy.”

If your kid willingly eats fruits but often skips the vegetables (or vice versa), don't stress. They're still getting lots of vitamins and minerals from the produce they do accept. 

Tricking kids by hiding fruits or vegetables in other foods can break their trust, which is not worth doing, Edwards noted.

What should parents NOT do with a picky eater to help avoid food trauma?

Force feeding or withholding foods are the two worst things parents can do when it comes to picky eating.

“Labeling a kid as a ‘picky eater’ can further exacerbate the problem as they can begin to identify as a picky eater and refuse to try new foods,” Edwards cautioned.

How can parents ensure their child is eating enough?

Without pressure from outside forces, most kids are able to identify when they are hungry and when they are full.

“By telling them they shouldn't be hungry, or they should be full, we deny them the ability to honor their internal cues,” Edwards said. “I encourage parents to follow the ‘Satter Division of Responsibility’ model, which helps caregivers raise competent eaters. Caregivers decide what, when, and where eating occurs, and kids decide how much and whether to eat the food offered. When implemented correctly, it is a low-stress way of feeding a family.” 

Author Photo
By: Kait Hanson