We all know one—the picky eater. They eat the same, few foods day after day. They only like unhealthy choices, such as chips, sweets, and soda. They refuse to try anything new. It becomes a battle for parents at home and at school. Eventually, the battle wears you down. For a young child (preschool age), this is normal. Most children outgrow their picky eating habits. However, children who have a developmental disability, such as autism, may be picky eaters for a much longer time. It might even be a lifetime.
Your own mealtime habits can affect your child’s. As a parent, it’s your job to provide healthy meals. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. Parents should set regular times for meals and snacks. The schedule can be adjusted for the family’s needs and activities. However, you should aim to keep it as regular as possible.
Path to improved health
If your picky eater is growing normally, is active, and healthy, they are probably getting what they need. Continue to offer a mealtime mix of protein (meat, eggs, beans, or cheese), vegetables (frozen or canned is fine), and a small portion of a healthy carbohydrate (whole wheat pasta or bread, sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, or pure oats). If you are dealing with a super-picky eater, these things can help:
- Be a good example. Fill your plate with healthy items. Watch your portion sizes.
- Invite your child to plan the meal and prepare it. Young children can cut soft things, like bananas. They can tear lettuce, pour ingredients, and stir.
- Eat meals together as a family and at the family table. It’s a good time to talk to one another. It takes the focus off picky eating.
- Avoid mealtime distractions. This means no TV, cell phones, or other electronic devices.
- Add color to your menu. Try to choose foods that have color to make it look interesting. Broccoli, beets, sweet potatoes, yellow squash, red apples, and oranges are all good choices.
- Offer choices. Don’t ask your child if he or she wants cauliflower. Ask if they would rather have cauliflower or broccoli. Don’t forget to ask them how they’d like it prepared. With cauliflower, for example, the choices are endless: steamed, roasted, mashed, or cut into small sizes for dipping.
- Be creative. Serve your food in shapes or on fun plates. Add a fun table decoration to show that mealtimes are fun, family times.
- Dip it. Children love to dip their food. Cut green, red, or yellow peppers, celery, or apples into strips for dipping.
- Work with your child to invent new snacks.
- Name your recipes or foods to make it fun. For example, try serving “dad’s perfect peas,” “sissy’s super squash,” or “mom’s excellent eggs.”
- Get active/get hungry. The more active your child is, the hungrier he or she will be. Have your child play outside or get active inside 30 minutes before sitting down to a meal.
Remember, be patient. Trying new foods takes time. Don’t be surprised if you have to serve something 12 different times before your child makes the tiniest bit of progress.
Things to consider
Don’t think of picky eating as a battle. If you do, your child will sense your anger and frustration. That will make the problem worse. Be calm and patient. Look at how you’re handling the situation. See if you can improve. For example:
- Don’t overwhelm your child with large portions. If your child doesn’t like vegetables, then a huge helping isn’t going to help. Consider serving small portions on a big plate to make it look as if there’s hardly anything on the plate.
- If you’re not successful at mealtimes, consider ways to improve snack time. Consider healthy ways to serve peanut butter or vegetable shapes. And don’t let your child “graze” outside of scheduled snack and meal times.
- Juice is not a replacement for fruits. In fact, there is so much sugar in juice that it’s best not to serve it at all.
- Don’t force your child to eat. This makes it a battle. Your child has the energy to wait out the battle.
- Don’t bribe your child. Bribing becomes a habit and your child will never try new foods without a reward.
- Don’t cater to individual meal requests each night. Your job is to serve one healthy meal, not special items for each family member.
- Don’t stress if your child isn’t eating enough of a healthy food. Your child will decide how much he can handle.
- If mealtimes are difficult, try introducing your child to new foods in the grocery store. It can be fun to look at all the different selections and colors. Talk about how you could prepare it.
- Don’t forbid certain foods. It just makes the battle worse. Instead, limit them.
- Don’t use dessert as a reward or punishment. If you choose to serve dessert, make it part of the meal.
- Don’t forget to teach mealtime behavior. If your child doesn’t like something, teach him or her to politely decline and not make a scene. Honor their opinion after one or two reasonable attempts to introduce new foods.
Most private and public schools in the U.S. offer a range of healthy items to meet different likes and dislikes. Some schools provide lunchtime suggestions on which items go together. This helps students avoid picking all carbohydrates or all fruits.
The Orenschools (AAFP) suggests that sound nutrition is a cornerstone of health and should be reflected in all dietary offerings/options in schools, (e.g. food service, meals, vending, outside contractors, etc.). Items of little or no nutritional value should be replaced with healthy alternatives.
If you are making your child’s school lunch, pack healthy foods. Make it fun with cookie cutter sandwiches, vegetable shapes, and more. Try introducing a “sample size” new food. Add a loving note to encourage your child to try it. If your child is buying his or her lunch at school, talk with your school’s teachers or cafeteria staff to find out what is offered. Set rules with your child on buying “extras,” such as sweets and chips (usually only an option at the high school level). Find out if your school can put a “block” on your student’s lunch account to keep them from buying unhealthy items or seconds.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Does having food allergies make a child more likely to be a picky eater?
- What other developmental disabilities are related to picky eaters?
- If I’ve made mealtime a battle, how can I “undo” the damage?
- What if I’m a picky eater and can’t model appropriate choices?
- Will younger siblings learn picky eating habits from older siblings?