What do I do if my child is a “picky eater?”

I’m writing this article because I’ve come across this question on numerous parenting forums. I empathize with it. You want your child to eat healthy. At the minimum, you just want them to eat what you cook so you don’t have to make separate meals.

Before we launch into solutions, let’s get a couple important things out of the way. First, your child is not “picky.” Not in a unique sense. Truthfully, the vast majority of human beings are “picky eaters.” There should be no special distinction for children.

Do you eat everything? Or, do you eat what you prefer? Surely you don’t enjoy ALL meats or ALL veggies or ALL nuts and seeds. Even if you do tend to eat pretty much everything, what about bugs? In some areas of the world, scorpions are a delicacy. When is the last time you had scorpion? Would you eat it if offered? How about crickets?

Why so picky?

In most cases, the question isn’t, “what do I do if my child is a picky eater?” it’s, “what do I do if my child doesn’t eat what I eat?” Labeling them as “picky” or treating them as such will only ensure that they become a truly finicky eater (one who isn’t willing to try new things, even as an adult).

There’s a second component here that may explain why children are more selective than adults, and thus seem “pickier.” It’s a reason not rooted in choice, but evolution.

Children are programmed to be neophobic starting around the age of two. As an infant, babies are willing to put almost anything in their mouth. Their parents are on guard to keep them safe. Their parents also feed them during this period, inadvertently “teaching” them what foods are safe.

Both plants and animals contain potential toxins or bacteria that are harmful to a toddler’s survival. Neophobia kicks in right when a baby becomes a walking, exploring toddler. Their programming leads them to choose only what is familiar and reject what’s not. It’s a survival mechanism.

In modern society, this state is compounded by the fact that most babies have been fed grains and sugars before the age of two. These foods light up the reward center of their brain, making them even more likely to prefer or seek out these foods when the neophobia kicks in. These foods also alter the taste buds, making healthier food more bland or bitter in comparison.

Kids’ flavor profiles are also developed based on what mom ate when they were in the womb, which is why eating real food during pregnancy is critical.

All this adds up to “pickiness” not being their fault. Unfortunately, most adults see pickiness as complete choice, demand for preference, and even “limit-pushing.” This misinterpretation can lead to many destructive tangents such as shame, blame, and coercion. What kids really need is your empathy and your patience.

With that said, here’s some suggestions for how to proceed:

  • Ditch the guilt. Your own, I mean. At times, you may feel like your child’s selectiveness is your fault. Maybe it partially is, maybe it completely isn’t. Who knows? Either way, guilt is unproductive. It can also lead to you trying to be prescriptive or corrective. That’s not what your child needs, they just need authentic leadership from this point forward.
  • Offer new foods without animation, expectations, or pressure. Don’t turn broccoli into a plane and try and land it in their mouth. Don’t make a stick man out of the asparagus. Don’t make new foods a big deal in ANY way. Put a small portion of the new food on their plate and say nothing. Don’t expect them to eat it and don’t expect them to push it away. Just “serve it and observe it.” Remove all pressure. And remember that new foods sometimes need to be introduced in this way dozens of times before they accept it. Play the long game.
  • Eat everything you serve them. Without “pointing it out,” take a few bites of what you gave them so they can see it’s edible and safe. Don’t say, “Yummy!” afterward, either. Your vocalized judgement of the food is underhanded manipulation. If children sense ANY form of manipulation around food they will immediately put up their defense.
  • Never punish or shame your child for not trying a new food. If your children feel any shame around new foods, you’ll drive them further away. You might even plant the seeds for a future eating complex.
  • Let them help you prepare new foods. When kids see new foods being prepared and see exactly what went into the preparation process, they might feel more comfortable with tasting. If it just shows up on a plate, it’s even more foreign to them. The more foreign a food is, the more it triggers their neophobia.
  • Always include one thing you know they like in all meals. Adopting the position, “you’ll eat what I make” is not compassion or empathy. Creating a false choice between compliance and starvation is manipulation. You have the ability to provide something they like and they know it. Be on their team, don’t force adaptation.
  • Don’t feed your child. Humans are already disconnected from food. This is something I talked about in Conscious Eating Part I at Rebooted Body. Don’t disconnect your child any further by doing 90% of the process of eating for them. Kids need to feel their food, mash it up, play with it, and explore it. Let them feed themselves from the time they’re able to start on solids (baby-led weaning).

If your child is currently in a period of enhanced selectiveness, it can be frustrating and stressful for both of you. But with your authentic leadership and trust, your child will shed the neophobia as they get older and begin to embrace a much wider variety of foods.

Be on their team and great things will happen. Good luck!

  • Adam

    Why haven’t I thought about this myself?
    I am going to try cooking my sons meals with his help. I think he will really enjoy, it even though he is 3years old. I guess also so much more can be learned from the cooking process too! Hopefully it will encourage him to try new foods as well.

  • Melissa

    I love that you start out by addressing the guilt that parents often struggle with. This is always at the heart of the food struggles at our dinner table. I feel like I am failing my child if she does not consume nutritious foods. And that guilt fuels power struggles which only end with my child feeling resentful and me feeling less confident in my parenting abilities. When I don’t make a big deal out of what or how much my child eats, we all have a much more pleasant dinner experience!

  • Heather

    Whoa, I wish I had read this yesterday. I just commented on another post relating to this. So, if they request something else other than what you offered, other than the new and familiar food already offered, do you give it to them? Wouldn’t that set a precedent as well?

  • Jim Chang

    I hate it when parents use the word “yum” with their kids because it is such a childish word, and the children will soon learn that. If they were around 8+ and said “yum” at a party or whatever, they’d be laughed at. Also they will think that you treat them like a baby.

  • Zane

    I just wondered, my daughter does tell me that she wants to choose dinner because she thinks mine is yucky lol so when I ask her, what she would like for us to make she chooses processed food (macn cheese, fish sticks from the freezer etc) that she sometimes eats at her play dates at her friends house.
    What would you recommend answering? Or would you have her make it for us? She’s 7!!

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What do I do if my child is a “picky eater?”

by Kevin Geary time to read: 4 min