“Yuck! I don’t like that!”
For many parents, those words are a hallmark of family mealtimes. When you have a so-called picky eater in the house, the dinner table can be a challenge and it might feel like you are losing the fight.
What’s a parent to do when you lovingly plan, shop for, and prepare healthy, delicious food—only to be met with resistance? We chatted with Maya Vadiveloo, PhD, RD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, to help parents and caregivers view their child’s eating behaviors in a more positive light.
Read on to learn why choosy eating happens, when to be concerned, and what you can do to make mealtimes more successful and fun.
Q: How common is picky eating?
Many kids go through stages of being picky or fussy about food. According to research published in the journal Eating Behaviors, between 13 and 22% of children ages 3-11 are reported as picky eaters, with 40% lasting for more than 2 years.
Having an opinion about food is part of typical childhood development. Around age 2, children begin expressing their independence, a phase that continues well into the preschool years. This independent streak can take shape as very strong feelings about everything under the sun (as anyone who has ever dressed a toddler knows firsthand!)
Food is no exception. Children at this age have graduated from baby food to table food, Dr. Vadiveloo points out, so they may prefer to choose what they eat and to feed themselves. They may also be wary of trying new foods or refuse foods that no longer appeal to them. Plus, once children begin preschool, they are influenced by what their friends eat (or don’t eat). Taken together, these behaviors have come to be known as “picky eating.” It explains why last week, all your kid wanted was strawberries—but this week they won’t touch them.
Some children may be more or less likely to have strong opinions on food. Harvard Health states that children who have trouble controlling their emotions or temperament may struggle as they seek to exercise their newly discovered free will.
Q: Is my child eating enough?
If your child’s appetite decreases or seems inconsistent, you may worry they aren’t getting enough nutrition. This is an understandable concern. You want them to grow up big and strong.
At the same time children start craving their independence (see above), their growth rate begins to slow down compared with infancy. Bodies that aren’t growing as quickly don’t need quite as much food for energy, hence the natural decrease in appetite.
That’s why you want to emphasize quality over quantity. “Kids will eat when they are hungry. Focus on offering highly nutritious foods, and encourage them to eat one or two bites of a new food before they refuse it,” Dr. Vadiveloo advises. “Don’t make them clean their plates.”
Healthy eating for children resembles that for adults, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean protein without too much added fat, salt, or sugar.
Q: When should I worry?
Dr. Vadiveloo recommends keeping an eye out for any rapid weight loss, weight gain, or a prolonged period where your child is eating a limited variety of foods—to name just a few potential flags.
As always, please consult your pediatrician if there are any concerns. They will be able to track your child’s height and weight compared to typical development, determine any underlying cause, and recommend resources for support. “For example, some kids have a sensory issue with food that will need to be addressed,” she explains.
Q: How can I make mealtimes easier?
Even if your child is the picture of health, you’d probably rather not fight over food three times a day. What’s more, Dr. Vadiveloo says, “it’s critical to establish a healthy relationship with food at a young age. By introducing new foods early on, you can help your child develop a taste for variety of flavors.”
She offers the following dos and don’ts to accomplish this—while keeping the peace.
- Know your roles. Think of it this way: As the parent, you are responsible for determining where, when, and what your family eats. Your child can take it from there. “Let your child decide how much they want to eat,” Dr. Vadiveloo advises.
- Create consistent mealtimes. Children thrive on structure and routine. Make a schedule and see if that helps things go more smoothly.
- Set the stage. Provide a calm environment free of distractions such as toys, television, or phone calls. Focus on friendly conversation without pressuring them to eat. Meals are time to enjoy each other as a family!
- Seek their input. Involve your child in meal planning, shopping, and cooking. You can even assign simple tasks such as stirring, scooping, or counting ingredients. Children are more likely to be excited about food they chose and prepared themselves. The older they are, the more control you can give them to expand their culinary horizons.
- Appeal to their senses. Offer a variety of food that is visually appealing, with bright colors and fun shapes. (Peanut Butter and Banana Sushi, anyone?)
- Introduce new foods gradually. Foods with similar colors, flavors, or textures can act as “food bridges.” For example, if your kid loves sweet potato, see if they’ll try butternut squash.
- Let hunger be their guide. Encourage your child to listen to their internal hunger and fullness cues.
- Show them how it’s done. Kids eat what they are familiar with, so the food available at home will drive their taste preferences. Model healthy eating behavior and try new foods together. “Kids are not going to do things that you’re not doing yourself,” Dr. Vadiveloo says.
- Try, try again. This requires both time and patience. “You may need to introduce a new food 10 to 20 times before your child takes to it,” she adds.
- Don’t become a short-order cook. Avoid the temptation to prepare separate meals for your child. Instead, with each meal serve at least one food you know your picky eater will enjoy (like adding a little new zucchini next to their favorite pasta with marinara). This will increase the entire meal’s acceptability.
- Don’t let them fill up on snacks. When kids have too many unplanned snacks, they’re less likely to eat a full meal. Let them work up an appetite.
- Don’t force it. Making kids eat will reinforce their negative association with that food. Remember it can take several tries before a child learns to accept a new food.
- Don’t shame them. Again, a negative approach will only backfire. If your child samples a food and doesn’t like it, celebrate the fact that they even tried it.
Q: What if they don’t outgrow it?
Strong food preferences are most commonly associated with early childhood, peaking around age 6. But for some children these eating behaviors can persist into adolescence. Studies show that the stronger a child’s food likes and dislikes, and the less open they are to new foods, the longer these behaviors could last. In the end, your son or daughter might not be an adventurous eater—it’s part of who they are.
The parenting advice remains the same: Keep modeling healthy eating at home, and keep an eye on their development. As long as your child is eating enough and growing normally, that’s what really matters.
Pick Your Battles
Don’t be discouraged the next time your child pushes their plate away. Know this is a normal part of growing up—and your family won’t have to survive on buttered pasta and PB&J forever.
Like many other things in child development, this is likely just a stage and chances are very high your child will grow out of it on their own.
“Something that’s happening one week may go away the next!” assures Dr. Vadiveloo. “If you sense there’s a real problem, don’t hesitate to check with your pediatrician.”
You want what’s best for your kids, so continue making healthy habits part of your family lifestyle. Their tastes will evolve—and before you know it, they’ll be teenagers eating you out of house and home!
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.