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How to Get Your Picky Eater to Eat Without the Battles: 7 Tips for Parents in 2023

How to get picky eater to eat

Picky eating is a very typical phase that almost every toddler goes through as they become more independent and create their own opinions about the world around them. It can be a source of frustration for parents, but it’s essential to approach this phase with patience, understanding, and a balanced strategy to ensure your child receives adequate nutrition while fostering a positive mealtime environment. 

We know that is easier said than done.  Especially when your toddler seems to only want to live on goldfish and candy! Sometimes we don’t know how they still have so much energy to terrorize our home when they are constantly leaving their meal plate untouched.  Seriously, how have they not shriveled up by now?!

First and foremost, it’s crucial to recognize that picky eating is often a normal part of a child’s development. Toddlers are naturally curious, and their tastes and food preferences may change frequently.

What is a Picky Eater?

A picky eater is someone, usually a kid, who has strong likes and dislikes about the variety of foods they eat. They might only want to eat the same foods and say ‘no thanks’ to others. Sometimes, they don’t like how certain foods feel or taste in their mouth. It’s like having special food rules! But that’s okay, lots of kids go through this. The important thing is to be patient and keep trying new tastes and foods together. With time, picky eaters might surprise you by trying and liking new things!

Many times picky eaters avoid many healthy foods like vegetables.  How many kids do you know that are just obsessed with broccoli? Yeah, pretty much no kid! But with the right tools and techniques you can find the vegetables and other healthy foods that your kids enjoy!  Our oldest would actually choose to eat a sweet pepper over pretty much any kind of junk food!

Reasons You Need to Know How to Get Your Picky Eater to Eat

Child eating
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Picky eating can sometimes lead to a lack of needed vitamins and minerals which can be a concern for many parents.  It is important to learn how to get picky eaters to eat healthy foods to optimize their health and development.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over a third of children in the United States take dietary supplements to help meet their nutritional needs.  

The National Institutes of Health reports that a child’s diet can have a significant impact on their cognitive development and behavior.  So maybe that latest tantrum was just a lack of sufficient leafy greens in your child’s diet? Obviously, there is more to it than that, but improving a child’s diet can indeed have an impact on their behaviors.  

7 Tips to Get Your Picky Eater to Eat!

1. Create a Positive Mealtime Environment

family eating dinner together

Make mealtimes pleasant and stress-free. Avoid power struggles or negative associations with food. Stay patient and positive, and avoid distractions like TV or gadgets. Consistency and a calm atmosphere can help your toddler become more comfortable with food.

Set a regular schedule for meals and snacks to establish a routine.  If you can cut back on the amount and frequency of snacks, your kids will be more hungry during meal time. Also, incorporating healthy snacks can foster better eating at mealtime.

Eat together as a family whenever possible to model healthy eating behaviors and social interaction.  Mealtime can play a significant role in creating positive relationships as the whole family eats together! We use family mealtime as an opportunity to talk with each other about our day. This helps our kids feel confident, valued, and loved which will only help them be more likely to participate in eating their food!

2. Offer a Variety of Foods

Present a range of nutritious foods, including fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.  Sometimes it may seem like our kid’s food pyramid is standing on its head or you may feel that it looks like this: 

parenting meme from
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We have found great success in introducing healthy foods early in our child’s development.  When our kids begin eating solid food as babies we only start with fresh vegetables that Jessica purees.  All of our kids have grown to really enjoy most vegetables which has been a game-changer! 

Be patient if your child rejects a particular food. It may take multiple exposures before they develop a taste for it. We often sing Daniel Tiger songs in our house and during meal time you can hear “You got to try new foods ‘cause it might taste good!” echoing at the dinner table. 

Make meals colorful and visually appealing to pique their interest. Toddlers are obsessed with colors so take advantage of that by getting them to try foods of all sorts of colors!  

It can often help significantly to keep your child’s different food groups separate on the plate.  When we say separate we mean they MUST not be touching the other foods!  We like to use plates with divided sections which allows our kids to keep their food organized the way they want. These have definitely become a toddler essential in our home!

Use fun shapes!  We still remember to this day having our sandwiches cut into triangles or teepees as we called them.  We have dinosaur chicken nuggets that our kids love.  Incorporating shapes and images, especially animals, into your kid’s food helps them be much more excited to eat! 

3. Avoid Pressure and Bribes

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Don’t force your child to eat or use food as a reward or punishment.  This one may be extremely hard, we get it.  Using pressure or bribes may work in the moment but it will not last and you will wind up regretting it in the long run.  When a child has an internal motivation to eat rather than an external motivation from the bribe, they will be more likely to develop long-term healthy eating habits. 

Encourage them to try new foods, but respect their choices and appetites.  Give kids control where you can.  If they feel like they are in control it will help keep their emotions in check. 

Offer small portions to reduce food waste and overwhelm. If they eat it all, you can always give them more!  Starting with small portions is especially true with new foods. 

4. Be a Role Model

Family making food

How do you expect your kids to eat healthy if you are not?  Set a positive example by enjoying a variety of healthy foods yourself. If you want to grow big and strong like dad you have to eat like dad, right?

Avoid making negative comments about foods you dislike, as children tend to mimic their parents’ attitudes toward food.  Focus on expressing the things you do enjoy about certain foods.  

5. Involve Your Child

Mom and daughter shopping

Let your toddler participate in meal preparation or grocery shopping, which can make them more interested in trying new foods. Yes, having the contents of your mixing bowl splattered on the ground from letting your child stir can be frustrating.  BUT it will be worth it when you don’t have to battle them to eat at dinnertime. 

Allow them to choose between healthy options to give them a sense of control.  Allowing them to feel empowered and significant can truly change the entire dynamic of meal times in your home.  The more choices you give them the better. 

You can even involve your kids in planning a calendar for family meals so they have foods they are excited about and can look forward to.  Not to mention, meal planning can help you feel less stressed trying to figure out what to cook every night!  Grocery shopping is so much easier in our home when we have meals planned out for the month.  Then our kids can even feel more involved at the store when they know we are getting specific foods for the meals we planned together as a family. 

6. Stay Patient and Persistent

Elderly man eating with child

Keep in mind that picky eating is usually a temporary phase, and children’s tastes can change over time and often do!  Be patient and supplement their diets when needed. 

Continue offering a balanced diet and exposing your child to different foods without undue pressure. Regularly offer 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. Be consistent!  Kids will begin to trust you with consistency and routines.  

7. Consult a Professional

family at doctors office

If you’re concerned about your child’s growth or nutritional intake, consult with a pediatrician or a registered pediatric dietitian for guidance and advice.  They can often help you with personalized advice for your situation.  They can also help you determine if there are any nutritional deficiencies and how to remedy them. 

Many great parenting programs out there offer practical tools for how to deal with picky eaters.  We love to learn from other’s experience and expertise and are always on the lookout for new tips and tricks for raising kids. 

Big Little Feelings, a new and upcoming parenting program, is tailored toward toddlers and has a module that includes strategies for picky eating!

Our favorite parenting program, Positive Parenting Solutions, also has a specific guide on winning the mealtime battles!  

Key Considerations in Being Successful

boy eating

Sensory sensitivity can play a significant role in picky eating. Sensory sensitivity refers to heightened awareness or sensitivity to sensory stimuli, such as taste, texture, smell, and even the appearance of food.

When a child or individual has sensory sensitivities, certain sensory experiences related to food can be overwhelming or unpleasant, leading to picky eating behaviors. Here’s how sensory sensitivity can impact picky eating:

  • Texture Aversion: Some picky eaters may have strong aversions to certain food textures. For example, they might dislike foods that are slimy, mushy, gritty, or overly crunchy. This aversion can make them hesitant to try foods with textures they find unpleasant.
  • Taste Sensitivity: Individuals with heightened taste sensitivity may be more sensitive to the flavors in foods. Foods that are bitter, sour, or spicy can be particularly challenging for them to tolerate.
  • Smell Sensitivity: Smell is a significant factor in taste perception. People with sensory sensitivities may find certain food odors overwhelming or off-putting, which can make them reluctant to try those foods.
  • Visual Sensitivity: The appearance and presentation of food can also affect picky eaters. Some individuals may be sensitive to the way food looks, and they might avoid foods based on their appearance.
  • Sensory Overload: In some cases, sensory sensitivities can lead to sensory overload, where the combination of sensory stimuli (e.g., taste, texture, smell) becomes too overwhelming, making it difficult for the individual to eat certain foods.
  • Limited Food Repertoire: Sensory sensitivities can lead to a limited food repertoire, as individuals stick to the few foods that are sensory-friendly to them, avoiding new or unfamiliar foods.

To support picky eaters with sensory sensitivities, it’s important to:

  • Respect Their Sensory Preferences: Understand that their sensitivities are real, and don’t pressure them to eat foods that cause discomfort.
  • Offer Sensory-Friendly Options: Introduce foods with similar sensory characteristics to those they already enjoy. Gradually expand their palate with small, manageable steps.
  • Create a Comfortable Eating Environment: Minimize sensory distractions during meals, such as loud noises or strong odors.

Conclusion 

Managing picky eating in toddlers and young children requires a balanced approach that emphasizes patience, variety, and a positive mealtime atmosphere. Remember that every child is unique, and it’s essential to respect their individual preferences and pace of development. By fostering a healthy relationship with food and providing a diverse range of nutritious options, parents can navigate this phase while ensuring their child and the whole family’s overall well-being.

Mealtime is supposed to be an experience!  We have found these 7 tips to be very helpful in making it a good experience!

Frequently Asked Questions


Picky eating in children can have various causes, and it often involves a combination of factors. Understanding these potential causes can help parents and caregivers address picky eating behavior more effectively. Here are some common causes:

  1. Developmental Stage: Picky eating is often a normal part of a child’s development, particularly in toddlers and preschoolers. During this stage, children are asserting their independence and testing boundaries, including with their food choices.
  2. Sensitivity to Taste and Texture: Some children have heightened sensitivity to taste, texture, or sensory experiences related to food. Certain textures, smells, or flavors may be overwhelming or unappealing to them.
  3. Food Neophobia: Food neophobia is a fear or avoidance of new or unfamiliar foods. Children may be hesitant to try foods they haven’t encountered before, as they might view them as potential threats.
  4. Parental Feeding Practices: Parental feeding practices can influence a child’s eating habits. For example, excessive pressure to eat certain foods or finish meals can lead to resistance and picky eating. On the other hand, overly permissive feeding practices may result in a limited diet.
  5. Environmental Factors: A child’s eating habits can be influenced by their environment. Exposure to a variety of foods at home and in social settings can encourage adventurous eating, while limited exposure to diverse foods may lead to picky eating.
  6. Food Allergies or Sensitivities: Some children may have undiagnosed food allergies or sensitivities that cause discomfort or adverse reactions when they consume certain foods. This can contribute to a limited diet.
  7. Emotional Factors: Emotional factors, such as stress, anxiety, or changes in routine, can affect a child’s appetite and willingness to try new foods. Stressful events, like moving to a new home or starting school, may temporarily increase picky eating behavior.
  8. Modeling Behavior: Children often imitate the eating behaviors of their parents and caregivers. If parents have their own food preferences or aversions, children may mimic these choices.
  9. Medical Issues: In some cases, medical conditions or sensory processing disorders can contribute to picky eating. It’s important to rule out any underlying medical issues that may be affecting a child’s eating habits.
  10. Nutritional Needs: As children grow and their nutritional needs change, their food preferences may shift. They may develop specific preferences for certain nutrients or food groups.

The age at which picky eating ends can vary widely from one child to another. For many children, picky eating behaviors tend to improve and eventually resolve as they grow and develop. However, there is no specific age at which picky eating universally ends, as it depends on various factors, including the child’s individual temperament, experiences, and family dynamics.

The “one-bite rule” is a strategy used by some parents and caregivers to encourage picky eaters to try new or unfamiliar foods. It involves asking the child to take just one bite of a new food, even if they initially express reluctance or resistance. The idea behind this rule is to introduce the child to different flavors and textures gradually and without overwhelming them.

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