Picky Eaters


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Can you relate? I know I can. My two and a half year old is definitely a picky eater.  I did all that you are supposed to do when introducing foods, but yet here we are.  I honestly think if it were up to my son he would eat only bananas, pizza, yogurt, cheese and crackers. He does eat more than this list, but as far as picky eaters are concerned, he is at the top of the list. However, I have found that there are several little nuggets of advice that I’ve learned from my experience working with families and their children.  

The Division of Responsibility

Most of what I’ve seen that seems to help make progress with picky eaters has a lot to do with following the concepts of the “Division of Responsibility” by a feeding expert named Ellyn Satter. This theory, which I feel is not only a more gentle approach to picky eating but also one that lets the child learn to listen to their own bodies when it comes to food, states that children have the natural ability to self-regulate if and what they eat. It can help to empower kids to become good eaters when given an appropriate eating environment.

Recommendations for Parents of Picky Children

Here are the 4 main points that I recommend for families to follow when dealing with picky eating. I have found that this not only helps with what the child eats, but also with creating a more peaceful meal time environment overall.

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1. As parents, we decide WHERE the child eats

Simply put, it’s important that we are the ones choosing that the child preferably eats at the table for each meal. This is the only place the child is eating his or her meal. This sets a boundary for children when they so badly want their own independence (which is great, and we will get to that part later on). However, when it comes to picky eating, children thrive on set boundaries such as “we eat at the kitchen table and when you leave the table, you will no longer be able to eat your meal until you return.” It helps them to focus on their food, which in turn will help to encourage your picky eater to try and experiment with their food. Then, the more that they experiment, the more chances a child will accept a new food without force (which is something dietitians never recommend).  

20 Times of Exposure

Studies have shown that children will sometimes need at least 20 times of exposure to a new food before even deciding to put it in their mouth let alone swallowing it. Deciding where the child will eat when it’s meal time will help them to understand this, “If I am hungry, this is where I need to be”. In turn, children will keep their focus on the food and not on a toy or T.V.

So what does this look like in my house? We eat at the kitchen table only (for snacks and meals). Unless it’s a special occasion or if we are on the go. I simply put the food down and tell my son, “breakfast is ready at the kitchen table.” We have been doing this since I started introducing solids. This is where food time happens in our house, so he’s very used to it. If I see him starting to get distracted while sitting at the kitchen table, usually being tempted by our dog, I remind him, “if you get down, we do not take our food with us. If you continue to want to eat you need to stay at the table”. This will usually prompt him to either re-focus his attention to the food or tell me he is all done.

The Setting

Honestly, I find that this has been one of the most helpful ways to encourage him to continue eating and trying new foods…even if he doesn’t like them. When he decides to leave the table, I usually give him about 5 minutes to be distracted and then remind him again that if he would like more food he can come to table and finish his meal. If he doesn’t want to come, we are usually all done, but most of the time it gently reminds him that, “oh yes…I’m still a little hungry” and he will sit down and finish what he wants at the table. At times he will tell me “no,” which means he really is done with his dinner.  

I’m not going to sit here and pretend we don’t have full-on melt downs where my toddler wants to eat on the couch. Also, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t let him on the days I’m overly exhausted. However, for the most part, above is what we follow in our house and I have found that although my toddler still may not actually eat the foods I want him to, he is at least in a setting where he is able to:

  • Focus on the food
  • Play with it
  • Put it in his mouth
  • Want to know about the food

Each of these behaviors will lead to healthy eating behaviors, habits, and more willingness to accept new foods in the future.

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2. As parents, we decide WHEN the child eats

This is especially important for picky eaters. When we are able to lead the child to eat when we want, usually 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day, they are generally hungrier and more willing to eat or try new foods at this time. When we allow a child to constantly lead us as parents to when they want to eat, the child generally eats less during meal times and with that, does not want to explore or try new foods he or she has seen on the plate before.

Remember, the more exposed they are to new foods, the more likely they will eat them at some point in the future. However, if they have been snacking all day long simply because they decided when they wanted to eat, the interest is lessened. They further understand that they do not have to eat when dinner or any other meal is served because they know that they will eventually receive food when they want it.

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3. As parents, we decide WHAT the child eats

We do not have to be short order cooks and make a separate dinner for everyone simply because we think that’s what they want or they are demanding it. That is A LOT of work for us as parents. It’s hard enough making sure our kids have 3 good meals per day plus a snack, so why complicate it even more.

Plus, kids don’t usually understand the importance of eating healthy. They want what tastes and feels good in their mouth. If it was up to my son, he would have Mac-n-cheese every day for lunch and dinner and chocolate cake everyday for breakfast. Can you imagine if I gave them to him every day simply because I knew he would at least eat?

Instead, try to remember, we know what’s best for our children as parents. We know we need to try and provide a variety of foods during meal time to expose our children to as many types of food as possible. Remember, exposure over and over and over again is key to getting your kid to be more accepting of new foods and to lessen picky eating. If we only give them what they want, they will likely stick to the 5-6 items that they love. As a parent, we may want to make those 5-6 food items part of the main meal, knowing our child will eat. However,  what it’s really doing is lessening our children’s ability to make decision about new foods through exploration and gentle guidance.

What the Plate Looks Like

What does a plate of food look like while I try to curb these picky eating behaviors? First off, I don’t ever cook two separate types of meals. However, I will deconstruct our food to help my son get used to the different types of foods on a plate before mixing them together. For instance, if we are having chicken and broccoli stir-fry with rice, my son’s plate will have a section for rice, a section for chicken, a section for broccoli, and a small section where it looks like mommy and daddy’s food. I will add one more section with a food item I know he enjoys (such as yogurt or cottage cheese). Most often, giving them one option on their plate that is comfortable and recognizable can help encourage our kids to continue to eat the rest of the food or at least try it.

When serving your child their meals and snacks, try to remember about proper portions for a child. I have found that many times, parents will unknowingly give their children a portion size that is more equal to a healthy adult’s portion and then feel that their child isn’t eating enough when he or she hasn’t eaten everything on their plate. As a general guideline, I usually recommend that for each food item, the portion is no larger than the size of the child’s palm. Sometimes when we give our kids too big of portions, it can lead to a child feeling overwhelmed by meal time. In my house, this means throwing food across the kitchen instead of experimenting or trying it. Keeping portions sizes at a size that is more reasonable for a kiddo will likely help keep meal times more peaceful and more engaging.

How to Handle a Melt-Down

So, what do you do when you put down a plate of food that you’ve so carefully thought out and prepared for your kiddo and your child starts screaming and crying for their pizza or chicken nuggets.  In my house, we have a conversation that looks a bit like this:

Parent: “Hey Honey…dinner is ready, it’s time to eat, please come to the kitchen table”

Child: “Yucky, Mac and Cheese!”

Parent: “I know you love Mac and Cheese and so do I, but tonight we are having meatballs, spaghetti, blueberries, cottage cheese, and some veggies. I would love if you could try these for Mommy and Daddy. Perhaps another day this week we will have Mac and Cheese, but not tonight. We do have cottage cheese and I know you love that!”

Child: (at this time, our son will usually try some of his food. Most days he’ll put it in his mouth and spit it back out. Perhaps, he’ll eat a few bites, but he usually sticks to the one item on his plate he knows he likes – cottage cheese. The key here is that this is OKAY!)

Encouraging a New Food

We do not make extra food just for my son. Instead, we try to continue to encourage him with the food that has been placed down. We talk a lot about food during meal time. We talk about how broccoli helps make us strong like superman or how chicken gives us energy to play with the dog, etc. Don’t ever force your child to try a food before he or she wants to leave the table. Should we encourage our child to try a new food? Of course.

To get him even more comfortable with foods, I let him see me cook, as long as it’s safe. I let him help with cooking in an age-appropriate manner. Just some examples include pouring in the rice, scooping it out into the water, playing with the vegetables, or counting how many we are putting in the pot. The key here is exposure to the foods I know are best for him and letting him see how food is made and prepared. On the other hand, forcing him to eat or telling him he can’t leave the table until he tries a certain food usually only results in children that become fearful of new foods and meal times. This leads to point number four.

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4. Children decide HOW MUCH and/or IF they want to eat the food that has been chosen for them

Yes, you read that correct. Children get to decide IF they even want to eat the food even if that means they have not eaten one bite. Let your child decide on this. Does this mean you make something different even if your child ate nothing? No. Remember what I said about why we as parents decide what the child eats. Does this mean your child may go to bed without eating any dinner? Possibly.

This probably happens in my house weekly, but most of the times, it means that in the morning, my son is more than happy to eat A LOT of breakfast, which I completely take advantage of by making a healthy, protein-packed breakfast. Keep in mind that for most kids, dinner time is not their biggest meal. It is actually their smallest. It is perfectly normal for growing children to barely eat a dinner. Big dinners are mostly a western-created tradition for our culture. Anatomically speaking, children really do not have much need for big dinners.

Remember to trust your child to know if his or her body is even hungry enough for a meal. If you put their meal or snack down and they don’t want it, they simply may not be hungry, and that’s okay. Let your child learn to listen to their body’s signals during meal and snack times. In turn, this will in help them as they get older to learn to listen to their body, which can generate healthy eating behaviors.

Forcing a Child to Eat

Forcing a child to eat when they are not actually hungry has shown to cause a multitude of unhealthy eating habits later in life. Does this mean we let them dictate to us when they get to eat? No, remember point number two. Remember that children need boundaries to thrive and grow. So when they know when to expect their meals and snacks, they are more accepting of new foods. However, we as parents must trust them to make the decision of how much they want to eat and/or if they want to eat.

Worrying About Your Child’s Nutrition

Now, I have heard several parents tell me they worry about their child receiving adequate nutrition if they don’t eat a specific meal or snack. They worry that their child will cry in the middle of the night for food. If your child has gone all day without eating, this may happen. This is why I always recommend providing one food item at each meal that the child knows and recognizes. This doesn’t need to be the main food item for each meal, but it does help us as parents to know they are okay and help the kiddo to be more comfortable around new foods.

Trust yourself as their parent, you know them best. If they are staying on their growth curve and are happy, energetic and learning, your kiddo is likely getting enough nutrition. As long as we are offering plenty of variety of foods throughout the day for meals and snacks, we are doing our job. Trust your child to listen to their body. Help them learn that new foods can be fun and interesting and that meal times can actually be peaceful.

Get more assistance with your child’s eating and mealtimes by setting up an appointment with Heather. 

Written by Heather Gauthier RDN.
Heather works out of the Tempe, AZ and Virtual locations. 


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