Once a Picky Eater, Not Always a Picky Eater

Published on 
February 21, 2017


Early on when my son started trying solid foods, he would eat everything I put in front of him and like it. I remember thinking to myself, “He’s going to be such a good eater.” (My husband and I like everything and eat a wide variety of foods.) Although he still is, since he’s turned 1, I see him sometimes spitting things out that he once loved. What toddler doesn’t want to eat cooked carrots? Well, I just witnessed my son spitting out his soft cooked carrots the other day and that really got me to wonder if he will become a picky eater. I hope not, but I now have more appreciation for moms and dads dealing with picky eating. It’s hard to watch your child spit out food that you lovingly prepared, that you know is healthy and that your child should be eating. But let me tell you a little secret that some parents don’t know: This is normal behavior for toddlers. One minute they love their carrots and the next minute all they want to eat is mac and cheese. When kids get stuck on a few favorite foods for multiple weeks, they’re called food jags. This switch in favorite foods or dislike of foods can happen at any time, any place, and can definitely catch a parent off guard. I have compiled some knowledge I have gained in my years of counseling parents of picky eaters to come up with what I think may be the best tips to help improve picky eaters palates.

How do I, as a parent, promote healthy eating behaviors?

It starts with the “division of responsibility.” This is a phrase that Ellen Satter, RD, an expert in picky eating uses. You are responsible for providing nutritious foods at regular scheduled mealtimes and snack times, but your children are responsible for how much they eat and even if they eat.

  • chla-picky-eater-smart-bites.jpgLet your children make choices from a variety of healthy foods to avoid a struggle. For example, would they like chicken or fish tonight? Would they like broccoli or cauliflower? You can feel confident that either choice they make is a healthy one.
  • Allow your child to decide how much to eat. Start with small portions and allow your child to ask for more. Serving sizes for preschoolers are approximately one-fourth to one-half of that for an adult. This is something we often forget and then have power struggles with our children about “cleaning your plate.” We want children to realize when they are full, so if they don’t want any more to eat, we need to accept that and move on. They will always have the next meal to make up for calories missed.
  • Decide where your child should eat, preferably not in front of the TV. I recommend we turn off electronics and all sit down as a family at mealtime. This is time to have good food and conversation.
  • Respect a child’s need to be cautious about a new food. Encourage, but don’t force a child to try a new food. This can set up a negative feeding environment and may instill fear in your child when it’s time to sit at the table and eat. We want our children to feel welcomed at the table and comfortable and know that it’s a safe place and a fun place to learn and explore foods.
  • Children may need to be exposed to a new food as many as 12 to 20 times! Don’t give up after only a few tries. Many parents I have counseled have said to me, “I’ve tried broccoli and he/she doesn’t like it.” When I’ve asked, “How many times have they tried broccoli?” The response I get is two or three times. Keep trying. Once a week, twice a week. Eventually they may pick it up, smell it, lick it, and put it in their mouth and eat it. But more exposures make kids feel more comfortable. And I recommend you continue to include a favorite food on the plate with the new food so at least they have something they will eat if they don’t try the new one.
  • Be a good role model. Don’t expect your child to eat cauliflower and spinach if you’re not. Remember kids model a lot of their behaviors and preferences after their parents, so having them witness you eating a variety of fruits, veggies, grains and meats will more likely inspire them to try those foods.
  • Replace fluids with solid foods. Kids often will fill up on liquids before a meal, so try not to allow your children to carry around juice, milk or other calorie-containing beverage in a cup as it may affect their appetite. I recommend offering the solid foods first, when they are most hungry at mealtimes. At this point they are more likely to try new foods, too. At the end of the meal offer milk or water. And remember milk for young children should be kept to 16-24 ounces daily and juice at only 4 ounces for the whole day. I almost always recommend removing the juice from the diet and providing a fruit serving instead. You can always dilute the juice with water, too.
  • If you provide healthy foods, reasonable structured times for meals and snacks, and a nurturing atmosphere, you can trust your child to do the rest.

Below are some recommendations for getting your child involved. Research shows children involved in the kitchen:

  • Try and like more foods
  • Gain confidence, feel important and proud
  • Learn early math and science concepts
  • Learn new vocabulary
  • Develop small muscle skills
  • Learn responsibility with cleanup

Involvement in the kitchen at age 2:

  • Wipe tables
  • Hand items to adult to put away
  • Place things in trash
  • Tear lettuce or greens
  • Help “read” cookbook by turning pages
  • Rinse vegetables or fruits

Involvement in the kitchen at age 3 involves all that a 2-year-old can do plus:

  • Add ingredients
  • Talk about cooking
  • Scoop or mash potatoes
  • Squeeze citrus fruits
  • Stir pancake batter
  • Knead and shape dough
  • Name and count foods
  • Help assemble a pizza

Kitchen activities at age 4 involve all that a 3-year-old can do, plus:

  • Peel eggs and some fruits, such as oranges and bananas
  • Set the table
  • Crack eggs
  • Help measure dry ingredients
  • Help make sandwiches and tossed salads

Kitchen activities at age 5 involves all that a 4-year-old can do, plus:

  • Measure liquids
  • Cut soft fruits with a dull knife
  • Use an egg beater