How to Manage a Picky Eater

If you are wondering how to manage the picky eater in YOUR life, we can help. As Registered Dietitians, we’ve worked through this challenge with many kids and their frustrated parents. And guess what? Being a dietitian doesn’t make you immune to having a picky eater right in your very own home!

A quick sidenote: Studies have shown that children sometimes require 20 exposures to food before they will even put it in their mouth, let alone swallow it. When you are managing a picky eater (or ANY child), it’s important to have realistic expectations…and know that getting your child to eat different foods will take time. Read on for some great tips!

The Division of Responsibility

Some of the most helpful ideas for managing picky eaters come from the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding, created by a feeding expert named Ellyn Satter. This gentler approach encourages a child to listen to their own body when it comes to food. Satter believes that children have the natural ability to self-regulate if and what they eat. This philosophy can empower kids to become good eaters when given an appropriate eating environment.

Recommendations for Managing Picky Eaters

Here are the four main points that we recommend for families when managing meal time with a picky eater. This not only helps with what the child eats, but also creates a more peaceful mealtime environment.

1. As parents, we decide WHERE the child eats

For example, a child eats at the table for each meal, and this is the ONLY place where the child eats their meal. Children thrive on boundaries. When managing a picky eater (or any child), it’s helpful to tell them “We eat at the kitchen table. When you leave the table, you will no longer be able to eat your meal until you return.”

Establishing one place where a child will eat when it’s meal time helps them understand that “If I am hungry, this is where I need to be.” In turn, children will keep their focus on the food rather than on a toy or the TV, which leads them to try food and experiment with it. The more they experiment, the more chance they will accept a new food without force (which is something dietitians never recommend).  

By establishing a consistent setting and a clear boundary, you are providing a setting that encourages the child 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 habits, and more willingness to accept new foods in the future.

So what does this look like in real life?

Try eating at the kitchen table only for snacks and meals. Simply put the food down and say, “Breakfast is ready at the kitchen table.” If your child get distracted, remind him or her that “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 a child to either re-focus attention to the food, or say they are all done.

2. As parents, we decide WHEN the child eats

The typical child needs three meals a day, and two to three snacks. It’s important that the parent, not the child, determine WHEN the child will eat. This is especially important when you are managing a picky eater. When the timing of meals is parent-led, children are generally hungrier and more willing to try new foods when it’s time to eat. On the other hand, when we allow a child to constantly dictate when they want to eat, they generally eat less at meal times, and are less willing to try new foods.

Remember, the more exposure they have to new foods, the more likely they will eat them at some point in the future. However, if they have been snacking all day, they will have less interest. They are also learning that they do not have to eat when a meal is served, because they will eventually receive food when they want it.

3. As parents, we decide WHAT the child eats

When we are trying to manage picky eating behaviors, we should not become short order cooks and make a separate dinner for everyone. It’s hard enough making sure our kids have three healthy meals per day plus snacks, so why complicate life even more?

Kids don’t usually understand the importance of eating healthy. They want what tastes and feels good in their mouth, even if that’s mac n cheese every night for dinner and chocolate cake for breakfast.

Instead, remember that as parents, WE know what’s best for our children. This is even more important to keep in mind when we are managing a picky eater. We must 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 child to become more accepting of new foods. If we only give them what they want, they will likely stick to the same five or six items that they love.

As a parent who is managing a picky eater, it’s tempting to make those five or six items the main part of every meal, knowing your child will eat them. However, what this actually does is lessen a child’s ability to make decisions about new foods through exploration and gentle guidance.

What the plate looks like when managing a picky eater

What should a plate of food look like while you are trying to curb picky eating behaviors? First, don’t cook two separate meals. Instead, serve your child a deconstructed dinner. This gets your child used to the different types of food on a plate before mixing them together.

For instance, if you are serving the family chicken and broccoli stir-fry with rice, your child’s plate can have a section for rice, a section for chicken, a section for broccoli, and a small section that looks like Mom and Dad’s food. Add one more section with a food item you know your child will enjoy, such as yogurt or cottage cheese. Giving them one option on their plate that is comfortable and recognizable can help encourage them to eat the rest of the food, or at least try it.

Portion sizes

When serving your child their meals and snacks, keep proper portion size in mind. Many times, parents unknowingly give their child a portion size that is more equal to a healthy adult’s portion. Then they worry that their child isn’t eating enough when he or she hasn’t eaten everything on their plate. As a general guideline, a portion should be no larger than the size of the child’s palm.

Sometimes when we give our kids too big of a portion, it can lead to a child feeling overwhelmed by meal time. Keeping portions at a size that is more reasonable will help keep meal times more peaceful and more engaging, and make it easier to manage a picky eater.

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, and your child starts crying for their mac n cheese or chicken nuggets? Try having 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! I want 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. Maybe 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, your child will usually try some of his food. He might put it in his mouth and spit it back out. Perhaps, he’ll eat a few bites. But, he might just stick 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

Don’t ever force your child to try a food. Should you encourage your child to try a new food? Of course. We can’t say it enough – Do NOT make extra food just for your child, even when you are trying to manage a picky eater. Instead, encourage the child to eat the food that has been placed down.

To encourage your child to try new food, it’s a great idea to talk about food during meal time. You can share how broccoli helps make us strong like superman, how chicken gives us energy to play, etc.

Another strategy to manage a picky eater and get kids more comfortable with food is to let them help with cooking in an age-appropriate manner. Some examples include measuring out the rice, adding it to the water, playing with the vegetables, or counting how many pieces we are putting in the pot. The key here is exposure to the foods, and letting kids see how food is made and prepared.

On the other hand, forcing a child to eat or telling a child that they can’t leave the table until they try a certain food usually only results in children that are fearful of new foods and meal times. This leads to point number four.

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

Yes, you read that correctly. Children get to decide IF they even want to eat the food, even if that means they have not eaten one bite. When it comes to managing a picky eater, this can be the biggest challenge for parents. Does this mean you make something different even if your child ate nothing? No. Remember, parents (not the child) decide what the child eats. Does this mean your child may go to bed without eating any dinner? Possibly.

If your child does not eat much at dinner, the following morning they are usually more than happy to eat A LOT of breakfast. Take advantage of this by providing a healthy, protein-packed morning meal.

Also keep in mind that for most kids, dinner is not their biggest meal. It is actually their smallest meal. It is perfectly normal for growing children to barely eat dinner. Big dinners are mostly a western-created tradition for our culture. Children really do not have a biological need for big dinners.

Remember to trust your child to know if his or her body is hungry enough for a meal. If you put their meal or snack down and they don’t want it, they may simply 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 can generate life-long 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. 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

Many parents are concerned that their child is not receiving adequate nutrition, and this is especially true of parents who are managing a picky eater. Parents often tell us they worry that if they follow our advice, 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 we recommend providing one food item at each meal that your child knows and recognizes. This shouldn’t be the main food item for each meal.

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. If you are offering plenty of variety of foods throughout the day for meals and snacks, you are doing your 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 guidance from a nutrition expert!

Need assistance feeding kids? Need help managing a picky eater? Not confident about your child’s habits around food?

Book an appointment with one of our Registered Dietitians. We can share plenty of great ideas for optimizing your child’s nutrition, while navigating picky eating and other challenges. Here’s the best part: We take most major insurance, and your sessions may be covered at 100%!