Parenting a Picky Eater: 10 Tips to Improve Meal Time

parenting picky eater

From the moment of birth, a child’s eating behavior can lead to great joy or tremendous frustration for parents and children alike. For parents of a picky eater, it can seem like an impossible task to get a child eat a single bite of broccoli, let alone a well-balanced and nutritious meal! There have been many research studies showing a relationship between certain childhood conditions and picky eating:

  • Children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are more likely to engage in picky eating. Those with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine activity which creates a predisposition to sugar cravings because sugar delivers a surge of dopamine to the brain.
  • Children with sensory sensitivities also have higher prevalence rates of picky eating. Tastes, smells, and even the way a food looks can be experienced as painful to some children. It can be so distressing that children become panicked or sickened by exposure to the offending food.
  • Children who are prone to ear infections of the middle ear experience cruciferous vegetables, such as cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage, as more bitter. This type of infection causes nerve damage to the nerve that carries taste information from the brain to the tongue.

While picky eating is common in younger children, many children naturally develop interest in more foods with age. However, some children remain extremely limited in their food preferences and this can be quite worrisome for parents. Research shows that many children who are picky eaters have a parent who is, or was, a picky eater, suggesting both a genetic and environmental influence. Lack of exposure early on to a variety of foods with different tastes, smells, and textures can increase the likelihood of picky eating that is maintained throughout life.

10 tips for making meals more pleasurable while increasing food preferences:

  1. Believe your child about personal taste without arguing. When a child states that something doesn’t taste “good” or “right,” this is likely their actual experience. Individuals are all wired differently in regards to what is appealing in terms of smell or taste.  Telling a child that a particular food is delicious when this contradicts his/her experience is not helpful.  Your child can still try a food that is not preferred.
  2. Involve your child in food preparation.  Children who assist in meal-making experience greater interest and pride in the meal, leading to a sense of ownership and greater likelihood of sampling foods. This can include having a child join for grocery shopping where he or she is involved in picking out new foods to taste.
  3. Only keep foods in the house that you want your child to eat. Buy the foods that you prefer your child to be eating. If you do not want your child to only eat chicken nuggets or macaroni-and-cheese, but you keep these foods are readily available, you are creating a situation that will increase conflict and decrease interest in eating other foods.
  4. Eat according to a schedule. When children are developing good eating habits, it is best to have a predictable routine that increases comfort and predictability. This includes the family members sitting together at a table, good conversation, and no screens (leave phones on another counter and turn the television off during meals).
  5. Serve water as the only beverage during meals. Children with limited food preferences have a tendency to fill up on fluids, often fruit juice, milk/chocolate milk, and/or soda. This decreases hunger and the likelihood of getting in the nutritious calories.
  6. Pick and choose your battles. If your child will eat apples, but insists that they are cut up with skin peeled off, go ahead and prepare the apple in their preferred way.
  7. Add non-preferred foods to preferred ones. For example, agree that it is important to get a mix of fruits of vegetables each day, and come up with fun ways to experiment with how to get these into meals. Perhaps, your child wants to hide shredded carrots in his or her spaghetti sauce, or hide vegetable puree in a brownie mix.  You might even choose to make smoothies with a mixture of yogurt, fruit, and veggies.
  8. Avoid bribes and rewards for eating new foods, especially avoid using dessert as reward. This sends the message that dinner includes the “bad” food and that dessert is the “good” food to be enjoyed. The goal is to teach children that they can tolerate those foods that taste wonderfully to them, as well as those that are not as yummy but are still edible and nutritious.
  9. Praise kids for sampling new foods.  Anytime your child tries something new, even if just a smell, lick, taste, or single bite, make sure to provide verbal praise and encouragement.  Cheer on the healthy eaters at your dinner table, including the adults who try something new.
  10. Be creative with what works for your child.  For example, if you know your child likes rules, create a rule about eating half of each portion of the meal served or a rule to try a new food each week.  If your child is artistic, incorporate a rainbow of colors into meals.  If your child is athletic, talk about foods that build strong muscles.

Keep in mind that children need to be exposed to a new food an average of 10-15 times before they are willing to eat it! Model good habits by eating a variety of foods, staying calm and supportive, and taking it one mouthful at a time. Stop battling. Keep experimenting and before you know it your child will discover that he or she is able to eat more and more foods!

Written by Victoria L. Norton, Psy.D. for the Linden Blog. If you are interested in receiving Linden Blog updates with original articles about parenting, families, mental health, and wellness, subscribe using the field below.  If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Norton or requesting an appointment at Linden BP, call 440-250-9880.