Dealing with a Picky Eater? Try These 6 tips from Food Experts

Dealing with a picky eater can turn meal times into something you dread as a parent. Learn about the types of picky eater and get some expert tips on beating picky eating.

Professor of nutrition Sharon Donovan and sensory scientist Soo-Yeun Lee recently completed a study on picky eating that was published in The Journal of Food Science. Along with the results, they shared some tips for parents of picky eaters. Food is one of the few things in a young child’s life that he can totally control, so it makes sense that kids — especially toddlers — will refuse food or refuse certain foods. My son is almost two, and he’s definitely begun asserting his independence at meal times. His picky eating seems to come and go, and it can be exhausting.

The common sense tips that Donovan and Lee share feel like they’ll be easy enough to put into practice.

4 Types of Picky Eaters

But before we get to the tips for picky eaters, let’s talk about what a picky eater is. The study divided picky eaters into four categories:

1. Sensory-Dependent Eaters – These are picky eaters , who are particular about taste or texture. Maybe your kid won’t eat anything mushy or rejects all bitter foods.

2. Behavioral Responders – Will your kid only eat baked potatoes, but not mashed ones? Raw broccoli but not cooked? You may have a behavioral responder on your hands.

3. Preferential Eaters – This type of picky eater is very wary of any new or exotic foods.

4. General Perfectionists – Does your kid throw a tantrum if her peas touch her mashed potatoes? Will she only eat a few very specific foods? Lee and Donovan say that this is the largest group of picky eaters.

Like I mentioned, my own child’s picky eating seems to ebb and flow. He also doesn’t really fit into just one of these categories, but seeing them laid out like this does help me feel like I’m not totally blowing it in the food department. Just knowing that picky eating is so common is kind of cathartic, isn’t it?

6 Expert Tips for Dealing with Picky Eaters

6 Tips for Picky Eaters, Straight from the Experts

The long-term goal with this research is to find ways to help parents better deal with each of the four types of picky eater. In the meantime, Lee and Donovan shared some all-around good advice for tackling picky eating at your supper table.

1. Respond calmly. If your kid is refusing food, try not to push too hard. Donovan explains that, “A parent’s response to pickiness can determine how bad the behavior will be and how long it will persist. Don’t let every meal become a battle.”

2. “If you don’t eat your meat, how can you have any pudding?” is not a good strategy. Forcing your kid to eat his veggies before he can have the food that he really wants just intensifies his dislike for the veggies. Lee uses broccoli as an example: “Requiring kids to eat their broccoli before they can have dessert may simply give the child negative feelings about broccoli in the long run. The child then regards broccoli as something he has to get through to get a reward.”

3. Introduce new foods early and often. The younger your child is, the more likely he is to try new foods. Donovan points to research from the 80s showing that kids exposed to more flavors and textures were more likely to eat those foods as they got older. Try serving a new food alongside a food that your kid really likes. No big deal. Just dish it up and see what happens.

4. Don’t give up. Keep dishing up the broccoli at meal time, even if your kid refuses it at several different meals. Donovan cautions that we shouldn’t “pressure them to eat it but show them that parents and siblings are eating the food and enjoying it.” Some parenting experts say that it can take around 10 exposures to a new food before a kid is ready to try it, so keep on keepin’ on.

5. Don’t let picky eating get you down. This was the piece of advice that I found most heartening. Donovan says that, “Picky eating peaks between two and three, and at this age, children simply don’t like new things. They’re afraid of strangers, and they’re also less accepting of new foods.” If your kid is somewhere around this age range, simply keeping calm and waiting it out might be the best strategy.

6. Let it go a little bit. Lee warns against labeling your child a picky eater at all. “When you slot your child into a negative category, the way you approach that issue is so different than if you accept the behavior as part of the child’s normal development,” she says. Donovan suggests that parents “trust your child’s ability to eat what and how much they need.” The best thing parents can do is be gatekeepers over what food comes into the house, then let the child decide what she is going to consume, and allow for the occasional treat.” That makes sense, right? Focus on the healthiest foods that your picky eater likes, and include those with each meal. At least if she only eats the sweet potato and avocado on her tray, you know what she ate and that the food was healthy.

58 comments

william Miller
william Miller3 years ago

interesting

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill4 years ago

Our 3 year old grandson doesn't want to eat most meats and few vegetables. I only give him 1 bean to eat and maybe 2 pieces of meat. When he was a baby he loved them. I just keep pushing them and hoping for the best. He loves rice so I make it most of the time when he is here.

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Angela K.
Angela K4 years ago

Thanks for sharing

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Carole H.
Carole H4 years ago

Thank you, I have always been a fussy eater, so an interesting article for me, at least I now have a description of what I have been trying to explain to people for years viz. that I am a sensory dependent eater. Some things I do not like through texture, some through taste, some smell etc. I see no merit in these omnivorous eaters who will 'proudly' put anything into their mouths including the flesh of endangered species. I personally have more taste..

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Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen4 years ago

Thank you

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Quanta Kiran
Quanta Kiran4 years ago

i am a picky eater. and when i didn't like what was for dinner, i made a plan (usually peanut butter or jam bread/toast and tea).

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Hent catalina - maria

thanks

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Dave C.
David C4 years ago

.....w/r #2, don't even let the picky eater know there is pudding/dessert until after the meal????

thanks, but #1is be a role model.....nothing more bothersome than seeing parents argue over food with a child, but be a picky eater themself

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luna starr
luna starr4 years ago

we tried EVERYTHING;he is so strong willed he would do without food that night and throw up bile next morning because he had not eaten

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