11 clever ways parents can deal with picky eaters
Expert advice on how to end the mealtime struggles.
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It happens to the best of us: We think we are raising adventurous eaters and then, sometime around age 2 or 3, all bets are off, and the kid who would eat whatever you spooned into their mouths is suddenly subsisting on chicken nuggets and pizza; and you're making two dinners every night.
You might not know how it happened, but there are ways to change course to make mealtimes a bit more manageable. If you suspect your child may have sensory issues or may be turning up their nose due to an allergy, consult your pediatrician. If it’s more of a battle of wills, here are 11 pieces of expert advice to help tame the mealtime torture.
1. Share responsibility
The first tip is the hardest, but it’s also the most liberating. Registered dietitian and family therapist Ellyn Satter is a recognized expert on feeding children. Satter coined the term that you'll hear from almost any dietician, cook, or feeding expert: “division of responsibility". That philosophy means that you, as a parent, are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding, but children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating.
It can feel like a scary a tip to follow, but Natalie Digate Muth, a dual board-certified pediatrician, registered dietitian, and the author of five books on the subject of feeding children, including "The Picky Eater Project: 6 Weeks to Happier, Healthier Family Mealtimes," says it is the most important. “If they don’t eat we get worried about nourishment and cave. They feel like they can hold out until they get what they want,” she says, and that’s when kids gain control over the power dynamic.
If you want to take the struggle out of mealtimes, every expert we spoke to said the same thing: You make the dinner but let kids choose the portions and what part of dinner will be on their plate. That might mean that your child is eating mounds of sweet potatoes and bread and butter for a few days straight, but we are playing the long game here. Eventually, they will come around.
2. Don’t be a short-order cook
Make one meal and stick to that. Sally Sampson. founder and president of ChopChop: The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families and a James Beard Award-nominated cookbook author says that doesn't mean you should put out a try of sushi and call it a night. "Part of the responsibility is also making supportive choices. Find a few meals the whole family will eat.”
Sampson recommends starting with choices like tacos, pastas, and pizzas, but elevate and individualize them. Maybe make it a fish taco night but be okay with it if your child refuses the fish and just eats the beans and cheese. Or make a meal with a couple of reliable side dishes. Exposure is the key.
3. Allow for choice
Muth says taking the "mid-zone" authoritative approach is the best approach when it comes to getting a kid to try new foods—or anything new for that matter. "Let them know that you aren't going to cave, but don't force them either. Parents set up the structure but the kids should feel like they have a choice,” she says. “Their choice though, is only to say 'no' to a dish—not to have you make a whole other dinner."
Time and time again studies show that kids prefer foods that they aren’t forced to eat. That doesn’t mean you don’t ever make challenging foods, but Muth says that it's important to give a little encouragement without forcing. "Offer something they may think they don't like, and do it often.” She says you can simply say, "Try it. It’s pretty good," but if they say no, leave it at that and move on. It takes the drama out of mealtime.
“Parents have a lot of concern and tend to micromanage certain things. We are very invested in what our kids eat. If they refuse to, then we want them to eat and we give in.” She says to be clear that their choice lies in being able to eat or not eat what is served, but there won’t be an option for something else.
4. Stop the constant snacking
Chips with lunch at school, crackers in the car, yogurt after school. According to a study by Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, snacking in children has increased dramatically from one snack a day in the late '80s to three snacks a day today. Kids are snacking around the clock and it's hurting their eating habits. A few slices of apple after school are fine, but our kids are snacking more than ever before, so it's little wonder they aren't in the mood to try new foods. "A full stomach isn't an adventurous stomach," says Sampson. If you want a kid to try new foods, Sampson recommends letting them come to the table hungry. From a kid's perspective, broccoli tots to a full stomach is mom trying to coax more veggies into them—but on an empty stomach they can be a delicious cheese-filled side dish.
5. Clean the pantry
On the subject of snacks, if you have a picky eater, it's probably time to overhaul your pantry. If your kids have processed go-tos to fill their stomach, that’s all they are ever going to eat. Once those Goldfish crackers are gone, don't replace them. Keep your snack shelf minimal. Only fill it with snacks you'd be okay with your kids replacing dinner with: nuts, apple sauce, fruit pouches, and dried fruits are a good start.
James Beard Award semi-finalist and "Top Chef" alum Carl Dooley, executive chef at The Table at Season to Taste in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says this rule also applies to alternative dinner options. “We intentionally never have a lot of food in our house, so when we say ‘this is dinner,’ it’s understood there’s no secret pizza in the freezer,” he says. What that means is he has a 3-year-old that will eat almost anything that gets put in front of her, and a 1-year-old that is learning to follow suit.
6. Let them play with their food
As a kid, I was an expert at picking out any and all onions from every meal and pushing my food around on my plate until it looked like I had eaten just enough to be able to leave the table. Didn't we all do that?
As it turns out, both skills are pretty good ones to have. Muth says a kid who picks through their food may eventually eat the offending object and learn to like it. “As foods are more familiar and offered multiple times, taste buds change,” she says. It can take up to 15 times for a kid to like a previously rejected food. Picking around an offending vegetable taught us that we could dislike one part of a meal but eat the rest. Keep those onions, or mushrooms, or whatever food your child is turning up their nose at in the dish. They may be picking onions out until they are 16 (sorry, Mom)—or they may never come around—but if they never want an onion in their food again that's something they can decide when they have their own kitchen.
7. Get them involved
You're going to hear it time and time again: If you want a kid to eat, get them involved. Let them pick out vegetables at the grocery store. If your kid doesn't like any vegetables, then just tell them to help you find the best-looking ones. Eventually they may wonder why bell peppers come in so many colors and opt to try an orange one.
Get them in the kitchen, too. The kitchen is actually a pretty amazing chemistry lab and workshop—treat it like one! Our son's interest in cooking increased when we gave him cool tools to do it with. While any child would probably rather play with Star Wars figures than help their mother in the kitchen, tempting them with “toys” that may otherwise be contraband is a great way to entice them and get them interested in cooking. And if they are interested in cooking they may start to be more interested in tasting.
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8. Get them talking about food
Of course, we all try to keep screen time at minimum, but if you make food part of your family’s entertainment culture, it can help shift perspective. Watch cooking shows with your kids, or show them cool pictures in cookbooks. MasterChef Junior can be a revelation when it comes to getting kids excited about food. It’s funny and entertaining and they are seeing kids just like them show enthusiasm for food and excitement about being in the kitchen. Watching cooking shows with your kids not only makes them understand what goes into cooking (so when you say, “Mommy isn’t a short-order cook,” they understand) it gets them understanding that food can be more than just an annoying inconvenience that takes them away from play time.
9. Start small
It’s not your fault your kid is a picky eater. Picky eating is an evolutionary phenomenon. We are hard-wired to be picky eaters from about age 2 to age 6. While it’s tempting to want to go from having the most persistently picky eater in the neighborhood to a food connoisseur, that's unlikely to happen for most children (or adults, for that matter)—at least not right away. Remember: one bite at a time.
Set mini-goals for your family. You won’t reform your picky eater overnight; instead look for small changes and enjoy the tiniest of victories. Maybe get your child to be more accustomed to sauces by starting them in a small receptacle on a plate and let the sauces slowly find their way mixed into a meal over time. Maybe get them to try one new vegetable a week. Start with tiny goals and celebrate accomplishing them. This is a long-distance run, not a sprint.
10. Sit down as a family
Whether we like it or not, our children are learning to either love food or hate it from us, so we're not sending a great message when we throw a dish of hot dogs on the table and get back on our laptops for work. Easier said than done, since many working parents—myself included—are prone to tossing processed foods on the table for the kids and then having dinner as a couple at 8 or 9 p.m.
A family sit-down dinner during the week can feel impossible but, our experts say, it doesn't have to be. A tip would be to prepare a salad for dinner every night and, on the nights you really can't have dinner with your children, just have that salad and offer that to your child with whatever else they are eating that night. A salad can be quick and it can vary: One night it can have chickpeas and boiled eggs on it, another night it can have pomegranate seeds and goat cheese. The point is, a salad can offer new tastes and textures, even if the main course is a processed or packaged standby.
Sampson says that sharing mealtimes doesn't require cloth napkins and four courses. It's OK to throw some quick quesadillas on the table just to get everyone fed before bedtime: Just maybe fill the quesadilla with spinach and black beans one night and red beans and cactus another night. You can model choice by only taking one slice and loading up on salad, while letting your child choose whichever portion size of each works for them. “It’s OK for your child to have more of what they like and only a few bites of what they don’t,” says Sampson.
11. Don't let dessert be a reward
All of the experts we spoke to said to never use dessert as a way to get a child to eat their dinner. By doing that, they say, you are essentially saying that the food on their plate is as "yucky" as they claim it to be, and that the only food worth eating is dessert. Let dessert be something simple, like fruit with whipped cream on it, and never make it a form or bribery or currency. "The goal is not to get kids to eat more foods but to get them to like them. If they need a reward to eat a wonderful meal you've prepared they're not learning a life skill to make them healthy eaters," says Sampson.
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