How to Parent a Picky Eater Without Losing Your Mind
Most people don’t realize I’m a picky eater because, well, I’m a grown-up. The truth is that I have been highly selective (ahem) since I was a little girl; I’m just better at hiding it now. I’m also the mother of one consistently and highly selective eater and one intermittently and moderately selective eater.
Not to brag or anything, but I’ve got forty years of rejecting suspicious foods under my belt, and almost a decade of experience trying to feed my own little food-rejectors. I’ve read all the books, talked to lots of experts, sighed all the sighs, and driven myself bat-shit crazy trying to figure out how to get my girls to eat more foods.
I’ve finally found some peace with it all, and if I can help just one parent avoid a power struggle over a single grain of quinoa (not that I would know anything about that, ahem), then it will have all been worth it. Well, mostly worth it.
First, we’re going to start with the Golden Rules. Forget these at your own peril.
GR #1: If your child is healthy and growing, then don’t stress about it. You can work on this issue, but please don’t let it make you crazy. I know it seems like everyone else’s kids are snacking on sushi and garlic scapes (I’m not even sure what those are), but a) they’re really not and b) let it go anyway. The ability to eat a wide range of foods is nice, but really not necessary, for a healthy and happy life. (On the other hand, if your child isn’t healthy or growing, then you shouldn’t be handling this alone. Get yourself a medical team you trust, and let them help you.)
GR #2: You can’t make a child eat. Say it again: You can’t make a child eat. I have heard of parents who physically force food into their children; please, please don’t do this. Do the best you can, but your influence stops at their mouths.
GR #3: This isn’t your fault. Really, it’s not. Shit happens, in life and in parenting, and for whatever reason, your kid wants to subsist entirely on noodles and nuggets. Maybe there’s something you can do about it, or maybe there isn’t. Try some of these tips, do your best, and when you find yourself freaking out again, go back to GR #1.
GR #4: This too shall pass. No, really, it will. Even the pickiest eater will get a little less picky, and on the off chance they don’t, well, eventually they’ll be surviving on ramen and peanut butter in their dorm room or apartment or anywhere other than your house. One way or another, IT WILL PASS.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about a few reasons why your kiddo might be rejecting everything you put in front of them:
- They’re too tired to eat.
- They’re not hungry.
- They’re too hungry.
- They’re distracted.
- The food you’re offering doesn’t taste good to them.
- They’re going through a normal phase of picky eating.
- They’re overwhelmed by something else and/or going through a developmental phase that has the unfortunate side effect of ruining your life.
- They’re scared of unpleasant tastes or smells.
- They want to exert control over their bodies. (HOW DARE THEY?!?)
- The stars just didn’t align for you tonight. Or last night. Or the night before that.
Depending on your child and your spidey-sense, it may be either fairly challenging or ridiculously easy to figure out what’s going on. The first five issues can be addressed with some relatively minor changes:
- Too tired? Feed them dinner earlier. (Related: Dinnertime sucks. Everyone is wiped out, and that’s when kids are least likely to need more calories. Generally not the best time to try new foods.)
- Not hungry? Limit snacking between meals. Offer three meals and two snacks per day, and no grazing between those options.
- Too hungry? Don’t skip over the two snacks per day, or start the meal sooner. If you think your kiddo is going to fall off the hangry cliff before you can get the food on the table, set out a plate of fruit or veggies for them to snack on. That way at least they’re filling up on healthy food. (Related: the old adage of “if they’re hungry enough, they’ll eat,” is BS. The truth is that if they get too hungry, they’ll get super cranky and lose the very coping mechanisms that might have helped them eat in the first place.)
- Too distracted? Turn off the TV. No toys at the table. Talk to your kids. If you don’t want to talk to them, or they’re being too damn annoying, read them a book. On the flip side, if you’re in an inherently distracting environment (birthday party, outdoor BBQ, busy restaurant with screens all over the place), don’t stress about what your kids eat. It’s just not the time.
- Serving tasteless food? Don’t do that. Don’t be afraid to add butter, salt, or seasonings. It won’t necessarily help, but it can make a difference for some kids.
As for numbers six and seven (developmental stages), there’s not a whole lot you can do other than be aware of them, and realize that this might not be the best time to whip out a new recipe every night. Kids tend to be at their pickiest between the ages of 2 – 6 (although as I can attest, for some kids the selective eating can continue well beyond those years). In addition, many children become even more rigid with their food choices when they’re going through a big developmental phase or life transition, such as starting preschool or going to a new camp for the summer. That’s why it’s called comfort food, folks.
That leaves us with the last two reasons your child is rejecting most foods: they’re scared of new tastes and smells, and/or they want more control over their bodies. I tend to handle these two issues with similar tactics, including:
- Stop with the “courtesy bite.” Please, just don’t. As someone who has been forced to take hundreds of those over the course of my life (and, I must confess, I have tried the same tactic on my daughters a time or two), I can tell you, it doesn’t work. Even if you’re offering a food your child is likely to enjoy, they’re unlikely to realize it or admit it because the minute you force them to take a bite, you’ve created a power struggle. And nobody likes to be on the losing end of a power struggle.
- Make sure there is something on the table your child will eat. This will go a long way towards decreasing the anxiety of kids who are worried there will be nothing they like, and the less anxious they feel, the more likely they will be to try something new.
- Put the food on the table, and let them serve themselves. If you must serve them something new, put a ridiculously small amount on their plates. Like, three peas. Three. It’s a lot easier to contemplate three peas than 836 peas.
- Make it as easy as possible to offer them new foods. The harder you work on a meal, the less likely they will be to eat it, and the more frustrated you will get. So don’t do that. I buy frozen vegetables (just as healthy as fresh!) because that way I can steam up small amounts for them to try. If they don’t like it, no stress. I can offer more at a later time (see #6), or just throw it all in a soup (which they won’t eat, but I will). Buy a rotisserie chicken, or grab something pre-made from the salad bar or deli at the grocery store. Take them to Costco and let them try all the samples. Make it easy.
- Cook with your kids—if it works for you, and makes a difference. Some parents don’t cook, some parents would love to cook more but don’t have the time each night, and in some cases, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. My daughters love cooking with me, but it is absolutely no guarantee they will eat, or even try, whatever we’ve just made.
- Keep offering the foods, over and over again. Research has found that you need to offer a food approximately 1,547 times before a picky eater will try it, and another 2,485 times before they will like it (if they ever do). Keep it up and they’ll be eating brussel sprouts by the time they’re 36 (which, for the record, is roughly when I tried my first one).
- New situations or environments may not be the best time or place to encourage new foods. You never know when kids will rise to the occasion, but it’s always helpful to review menus and make a plan before you head out for Grandma’s 90th birthday dinner. (Keeping a snack that you know your kiddo will eat in your purse or European Man Bag is always a good choice in those situations.)
- Remember, this is a slooooow process. Like, ridiculously, offensively, mind-blowingly slow. One mother of a picky eater told me that she calls it a win if her 11 year old eats one new food in a year. A YEAR. So, if it feels interminable, you’re not alone.
- Don’t shame or embarrass your kid about their eating. It will just make them feel even more stuck and scared, which will make it even harder for them to be brave about new foods.
- Accept that some kids will never grow up to be adventurous eaters. I certainly never did. It’s ok. It really is. You can be selective and healthy at the same time.
If you have another tip for feeding picky eater, please share it below. Your fellow readers will be grateful for it, as will I!
Also, if you’re looking to read more about feeding kids, my favorite book is Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter. If you want all the juicy details about my struggles to feed my girls, check out my essay in The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality, edited by Avital Norman Nathman.
Naumburg, C. (2018). How to Parent a Picky Eater Without Losing Your Mind. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 26, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindful-parenting/2017/09/how-to-parent-a-picky-eater-without-losing-your-mind/