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Bright Futures

Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's

April 09, 2021, Gary Kirkilas, DO
Help! My Child is a Picky Eater!
Picky Eater

One of the most challenging aspects of parenting a toddler is dealing with a picky eater. As parents, we place a lot of importance on being able to care for our children by providing them with nutritious food.  When a child refuses new or healthy foods, it can often feel like we are failing as parents. This, of course, is far from the truth. Parents should rest assured as we’ll discuss some of the reasons why toddlers become picky eaters, some common, but easily correctable mistakes parents can make in response to their child’s eating habits and several quick tips to prevent or improve this behavior.

Picky eating typically begins as a child becomes a toddler (1-3 years of age) and usually resolves by the time they start school (5-6 years of age). Picky eaters tend to be children who will only eat select number of known foods, refuse to try any new foods or who only eat very small portions or skip meals. The reasons for picky eating are both biological and behavioral. After their first year of life, their growth tends to slow down, so their caloric needs also slow to match this. In addition, toddlers are beginning to form their own food preferences during this time. Parents, therefore, should not be surprised if their child’s appetite sharply decreases around this age. It is not uncommon for toddlers to only want to eat one or two meals in a day and this often causes parents to worry their children are “starving.” However, it’s important for parents to trust their toddlers will eat when they are hungry enough. 

Common responses parents make to their child’s picky eating habits are to:

  • Try to prepare other meal choices specifically for their toddlers
  • Bribe them with desserts and sweets
  • Become frustrated and pressure their child to eat

Unfortunately, all these approaches only further perpetuate the picky eating behavior. 

Preparing separate meals with just the picky eater’s favorite foods, also known as being a “short-order cook,” may accomplish the goal of getting a picky eater to eat at that time. However, this also further perpetuates and reinforces the selective eating habits. By preparing a separate meal for the child, you are sending a message that they only need to eat what is already familiar and enjoyable to them. These separate meals continually prevent them from trying new foods they may end up liking eventually (not to mention adding extra work for whomever is preparing the meals). It’s always best to prepare one single meal for the entire family.

Similarly, bribing children with desserts and other sweets so they eat their meals does work in the short term, but tends to make matters worse. This is because bribing makes the meals appear less appetizing and desserts all the more appetizing. Therefore, the desserts become the better food option to them. The end goal should for them to want to eat their meal and enjoy nutritious foods as well.

Becoming frustrated is understandable but pressuring or forcing your picky eater to eat also tends to backfire as it ends up making mealtime a negative event. Much like potty training, the aim is to make the behavior be positive for the child. If a toddler refuses meals, don’t make a big deal out of it. If they are hungry enough, they will eat the meal that is prepared. Our job as parents is simply to provide healthy food, it’s always the child’s choice to eat it.

Here 7 quick and easy tips to discourage and improve picky eating: 

  1. Drinking their calories. Children who drink excessive amounts of calorie-rich beverages like milk or juice might actually be fulling their caloric needs before they ever reach the table for a meal. Cutting back on juice and milk throughout the day will help ensure they’re hungry when it’s mealtime.
  2. No media with meals. Distractions like TV, tablets and smart phones during mealtime can take the focus away from food. Try modeling good eating behaviors by sitting down together as a family and removing any media.
  3. Take a food dip. Toddlers like dipping finger foods and it may be a great way for them to add a familiar flavor to food items they may not like. Salad dressing or cheddar cheese works great for new vegetables. Honey serves as a great dip for chicken.
  4. Try food bridges. If your toddler likes one food, look for other foods that are similar in color, shape and taste. For example, if they like breaded chicken nuggets, try breaded fish. If they like peas, try cutting up green beans into small bits.
  5. Food = Fun. Adding fun shapes and colors to their meals often helps children to get excited about their meals. Cutting fruit and veggies into shapes or arranging the meal into picture might just be enough for them to try it.
  6. Kids in the kitchen. Including children in the food preparation can encourage excitement about mealtime and they usually will be more willing to try new foods. Some ideas to start with are having kids pick out foods in the grocery store or helping with rinsing off fruits and veggies in the kitchen.
  7. Don’t give up! Just because they refuse a food once doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line for that food. Children may need to be exposed to the same food 10 times before they start to like it.

While picky eaters can trial their parents’ patience, it is helpful to know that this behavior is a normal part of toddlerhood. If you can accomplish making mealtime fun and avoid some of the common pitfalls, your children will likely pass through this phase. If you need more help with your child’s eating habits or are concerned about their nutrition, please reach out to your Phoenix Children’s provider as we would be happy to help provide more individual attention.

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