Coping With Your Picky Eater: How To Help Your Child Try New Foods

Sometimes it seems like children wake up one morning and decide they will never try another vegetable again, much to their parents’ consternation and chagrin. Adults then become concerned that their child is not getting enough vitamins and nutrients, the building blocks of strong bones and teeth, and a healthy immune system.

But as frustrating as it might be for your child to refuse everything on the dinner table but a hot dog, there are ways to get around this fussy stage that many children go through, some for a brief period, others for several years. If you keep it in perspective, try not to overreact, and employ these few simple strategies, your picky eater may start trying new foods sooner than you think.

1. Make mealtimes enjoyable for all.

Lots of parents today have to rush just to get a hot meal on the dinner table three or four nights a week, because of work demands and other external pressures. But if you can make mealtimes relaxed and slow, even just a few times a week, you will find them more willing to try something new. When a child is not stressed or unhappy, they are more willing to try the vegetable stir fry you made.

2. Model healthy eating habits and eat food together.

 If you consume a broad range of foods in front of your child – without pressuring them to try everything – you may be surprised at how often they will ask to taste something. Children tend to do what they see, more so than what they are asked to do, so if you enjoy an array of foods, they are more likely to enjoy them too.

3. Resist the urge to make it about pleasing you.

Unfortunately, sometimes when parents are concerned about their child’s well-being, it manifests itself in an unhealthy power struggle. Saying “you have to try this!” usually produces tears and resentment, and makes both you and your child miserable. Conversely, implying that your child will please you by trying a particular food is not a wise strategy either. Simply offer the food, show how much you enjoy it, and if the child turns it down, try again another time. Studies show that it can take as many as 15 tries for a child to begin liking certain foods, so be patient.

4. Offer lots of variety at mealtimes!

Perhaps your child won’t take to carrots or broccoli when you first offer them, but if sliced tomatoes with a dash of olive oil are on the table too, they may take to that with gusto. (Remember: most children love pizza, and tomatoes are a big part of that!) Don’t expect your child to eat everything on offer, but if they have more choices, chances are they will discover something they enjoy.

5. Turn down the spices and heat!

Some children gobble up spicy foods with excitement, but others shy away from too much heat. Try to figure out if it’s the spiciness, rather than the flavor itself, that your child is resisting. If so, make them a portion with less zing than the grownups eat.

6. Be patient, because pickiness often passes.

Many children go through phases during which they say no to almost everything on offer, asking instead for a favorite food, like chicken tenders and grilled cheese, so often you start worrying. Of course it’s vital that picky eaters get their vitamins and nutrients, but sometimes a substitute, like a cold glass of milk, does the trick in the moment. If your child begins losing weight or seems unwell in any way, naturally a trip to the pediatrician is in order immediately. But usually saying no is about asserting their independence from you, their parent, and not about a health problem. If you’re sure that’s all it is, you can relax.

7. Don’t praise – or criticize – their food choices.

Parents seldom realize the emotional weight that goes along with comments praising or condemning a child’s eating habits. It’s vital that you communicate to them that food is fuel, nothing more, and that their choices simply help (or hinder) their growth. Labeling one food as “bad” while another is “good” sends them the wrong message. And resist the urge to use food as a reward for good or bad behavior in other areas, because that, too, imbues food with more power than it should have. For example, promising that: “You don’t have to eat all your vegetables if you clean your room,” is, quite frankly, a kind of emotional blackmail, and foregoing food is the prize.

Picky eating is a phase of development that experts say almost all children go through, some for longer periods than others. As parents, your function is to provide a large variety of healthy options from the moment your child starts consuming solid foods. After that, deal with pickiness unemotionally, honestly and without anger, and chances are your child will move through this phase without too many hurdles. And one day, when they are a little older and they see others eating fresh salads or a variety of vegetables, you’ll notice they are more willing to try new things. And in all likelihood, they will love those things as much as you do.