Picking Your Battles with Picky Eaters

Picky eating is a common cause of concern for parents of young children. Generally speaking, we can think of food selectivity as an avoidance of or aversion to certain foods by children who are still meeting their caloric needs with other foods. Some children tend to refuse a certain category of foods, such as vegetables or meats, or a certain texture, such as chunky or chewy foods. Other children may eat one brand of macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets, but turn their nose up at other brands. Some children may also be picky about the way their foods look, avoiding foods that have unfamiliar seasonings or blemishes, or foods that are presented on different dishes.

Many parents worry that their child’s lack of dietary variety may be impacting their growth, learning, or overall health. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that children with very narrow or selective diets are less likely to consume the recommended daily values of certain key nutrients.  According to Liz Enagonio, a dietitian from the Kennedy Krieger Nutrition department, these nutritional deficits may correspond to children eating too much or too little of certain foods groups. “For children who avoid fruits and vegetables, our biggest concern is often that they aren’t getting enough fiber and fluid. Over time, this can lead to constipation. For those who don’t eat enough dairy, we worry about deficits in calcium or vitamin D, which may eventually affect bone growth.” A daily multivitamin and an increase in fluids can be a temporary solution, but ultimately, the selectivity must be addressed. 

As mentioned above, children may avoid foods of a certain type, texture, or appearance. The good news is that our advice for addressing these issues at home is often same for all three: start with “easy wins” and make changes gradually. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your child’s new eating habits won’t be, either. Good or bad, it takes some time to establish a pattern of behavior, and the longer that pattern has been established, the harder it becomes to change.

If your child tends to really dig in their heels at the thought of change, begin by establishing compliance with demands that he or she already feels somewhat comfortable with. For example, if your child will sometimes eat green beans, but eats around them at other times, consider making that post-dinner cookie or tablet time contingent upon eating at least a few bites of this food every time it is presented. Once your child is regularly complying with this demand, increase the expectation by two to three bites. These gradual changes often make the goal feel more achievable to your child, but allow you to set the rules for what happens at meals. 

Instead of...

Try to...

  • Presenting a whole serving and telling your child to take one bite…
  • Present no more than five bites of a new food when it is first introduced.
  • Choosing which new foods to present to your child…
  • Offer two to three new items and ask your child which they would like to start with. 
  • Offering your child’s most preferred foods/items during meal…
  • Present both more preferred and less preferred items at meals, without the expectation of immediate success.
  • Expecting your child to like new foods or mealtime changes right away…
  • Anticipate a negative reaction initially and be prepared to ignore it.
  • Presenting many new foods a single time and moving on if your child won’t try it…
  • Present the same food many times so your child acclimates to its appearance and smell.
  • Starting with strong flavors or unique textures…
  • Begin by targeting foods that have similar tastes and textures to foods your child already eats.
  • Reprimanding your child if they won’t try something new…
  • Provide enthusiastic praise when your child steps outside of their comfort zone.


Suggested Reading:

Midge, K., & Danner, E. (2009). Nutritional deficiencies in children with restricted diets. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 56(5), 1085-1103.

Williams, K. E., & Foxx, R. M. (2007). Treating eating problems of children with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities. Pro-Ed, 1st Edition.



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