While you may think you’re alone in the struggle to get your child to try new foods, many parents have the same issue.
In fact, studies have found that as many as 50% of parents consider their preschool-age children to be picky eaters (1).
Dealing with children who are picky eaters can be frustrating, especially when you’re unsure of effective and safe ways to expand your child’s food preferences.
Plus, children who are limited to only a few foods are at risk of not getting the proper amount and variety of nutrients that their growing bodies need to thrive.
The good news is that there are many evidence-based ways to persuade your child to try, accept and even enjoy new foods.
Here are 16 helpful tips to try with your picky eater.
Some kids may be put off by the texture or appearance of certain foods.
This is why making foods look appealing to your child is important when getting them to try new dishes.
Chopped vegetables like peppers, carrots, onions and mushrooms can be easily added to child-friendly recipes like pasta sauces, pizza and soup.
Another way to make foods look more appetizing to children is to present them in a way that is fun and creative, for example by using star cookie cutters to make fresh fruits and vegetables into fun shapes.
Though you may not realize it, your children are impacted by your food choices.
Children learn about foods and food preferences by watching the eating behaviors of others.
In fact, research shows that young children are more likely to accept new foods when others around them are eating the food as well (2).
A study in 160 families found that children who observed parents consuming vegetables for a snack and a green salad with dinner were significantly more likely to meet daily fruit and vegetable recommendations than children who did not (3).
Try increasing your consumption of healthy foods like vegetables and enjoying them at meals and as snacks in front of your child.
Making healthy eating the norm in your household and letting your children observe you eating nutritious foods can help them gain the confidence to try them as well.
It’s normal for parents to want to feed their children hearty portions to ensure they get the calories they need.
However, when trying new foods, smaller may be better.
Giving children large portions may overwhelm them and cause them to refuse the food simply because the serving is too big.
When trying out new foods, start with a small amount and present it before other more favored items.
For example, dish out a few peas for your child to try before his or her favorite dinner of lasagna.
If they do well with the smaller portion, slowly increase the amount of the new food at subsequent meals until a normal serving size is reached.
Often, parents tempt children to try a new food by promising a reward of dessert or treats later.
However, this may not be the best way to increase food acceptance.
Using unhealthy foods like ice cream, chips or soda as a reward may lead children to consume an excessive amount of calories and eat when they're not necessarily hungry.
Experts suggest that using non-food rewards to encourage food acceptance is best.
Simply using verbal praise to let children know that you’re proud of them is one method.
Stickers, pencils, extra play time or allowing your child to choose a favorite game to play after dinner are examples of non-food related rewards that you can use to promote food acceptance.
While allergies have clear symptoms such as rashes, itching and swelling of the face or throat, intolerances can be harder to identify (4).
Pay attention to what your child is refusing to eat by jotting it down in a journal.
Ask your child if there are any foods that make them feel nauseated, bloated or sick in any way and take their answer seriously.
If you think your child may have a food allergy or intolerance, speak with your child’s pediatrician to discuss the best course of action.
Kids can be very persuasive, which is why it’s important for parents to remember that they should be in control.
Picky eaters often ask for specific meals, even if the rest of the family is eating something else.
It’s recommended that parents offer the same meal to the entire family and don’t cater to picky children by making them a different dish.
Have children sit through the entire meal and speak with them about the different flavors, textures and tastes on the plate.
Serving a meal that contains both new foods and foods that your child already enjoys is the best way to promote acceptance without caving into their demands entirely.
One of the most important things that you can do with children to expand their interest in food is to get them involved in cooking, shopping and choosing meals.
Bringing children along to the grocery store and allowing them to pick out a few healthy items that they would like to try can make mealtime fun and exciting while also giving them confidence.
Let children help you put together meals and snacks by having them complete safe tasks appropriate for their age, such as washing or peeling produce or arranging food onto plates.
Plus, you will be helping them develop a skill that they can use for the rest of their life — preparing healthy meals.
Kids require patience in all walks of life, especially when it comes to food preferences.
Parents should take comfort knowing that most children who are considered picky eaters outgrow this quality within a few years.
A study in over 4,000 children found that the prevalence of picky eating was 27.6% at age 3 but only 13.2% at age 6 (6).
Research also suggests that pressuring your child to consume food can increase pickiness and cause your child to eat less (7).
Even though dealing with a picky eater can be frustrating, patience is key when attempting to increase your child’s intake and expand food preferences.
Creating a fun and pressure-free environment when eating meals is key when dealing with a picky eater.
Children can sense when there is tension in the air, which can cause them to shut down and refuse new foods.
Let children, especially younger children, explore foods by touching and tasting without getting frustrated with them.
It may take children longer than you expect to finish their food or taste a new ingredient and being supportive will help them feel more comfortable.
However, experts recommend that meals should take no longer than 30 minutes and that it’s okay to remove food after that time (8).
Presenting food in a fun way is another method to get your child interested in eating.
Arranging meals into shapes or silly figures is sure to bring smiles to mealtime.
Parents should create a distraction-free environment for their children during meals and snacks.
Although it can be tempting to let your child watch TV or play a game during mealtime, it’s not a good habit for picky eaters to develop.
Always seat children at a dining table when serving meals or snacks. This provides consistency and lets them know that this is a place for eating, not playing.
To ensure that your child is comfortably seated, make sure the dining table is at stomach level, using a booster seat if necessary.
Turn off the television and put away toys, books and electronics so that your child can focus on the task at hand.
While you may not think your child will ever accept new foods, it’s important to keep trying.
Research suggests that children may need as many as 15 exposures to a new food before accepting it (9).
This is why parents should not throw in the towel even after their child has repeatedly refused a certain food.
Repeatedly expose your child to the new food by offering a small amount of it along with a serving of a food they already like.
Offer a small taste of the new food, but don’t force it if your child refuses to take a taste.
Repeated exposure to new foods in a non-coercive manner has been shown to be the best method for promoting food acceptance (10).
Getting your child to be mindful and pay attention to feelings of hunger and fullness may lead to positive changes in your picky eater.
Instead of begging a child to eat a few more bites, ask them about how they’re feeling.
Questions like “Does your tummy have room for another bite?” or “Does this taste yummy to you?” give the child’s perspective on how hungry they are and how they’re experiencing the meal.
It also allows children to become more in tune with feelings of hunger and satiety.
Respect that your child has a point of fullness and don’t encourage them to eat past that point.
Just like adults, children have preferences for certain tastes and textures.
Understanding what types of foods your kids like can help you offer them new foods they are more likely to accept.
For example, if a child likes crunchy foods like pretzels and apples, they may prefer raw vegetables that resemble the texture of their favorite snacks rather than softer, cooked vegetables.
To make vegetables more appetizing for a picky eater with a sweet tooth, toss foods like carrots and butternut squash with a bit of maple syrup or honey before cooking.
If your child snacks on unhealthy foods like chips, candy and soda, it could negatively impact intake at meals.
Allowing children to fill up throughout the day on snack foods will only make them less inclined to eat when mealtime comes around.
Offer healthy meals and snacks at consistent times every 2–3 hours throughout the day.
This allows kids to develop an appetite before their next meal.
Serve filling beverages or foods like milk or soup at the end, rather than at the start of a meal, to prevent the child from getting overly full before beginning to eat.
Just like parents, peers can influence a child’s food intake.
Having kids consume meals with children their own age who are more adventurous eaters may help them be more motivated to try new foods.
Research shows that children are more likely to eat more calories and try more foods when eating with other children (11).
If cooking for your child and their friends, try to add in a few new foods along with foods that your child enjoys.
By watching the other children try the new foods, it may encourage your picky eater to taste them as well.
While picky eating in children is common, there are some warning signs that may signal a more serious problem.
If you notice any of these red flags when your child is eating, contact your doctor for help (12):
- Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
- Abnormally slow growth and development
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Crying when eating, indicating pain
- Difficulty chewing
- Anxiety, aggression, sensory reactivity or repetitive behaviors, which can indicate autism
Additionally, if you feel that you need a professional’s input on your child’s picky eating behavior, contact a pediatrician or a registered dietitian that specializes in pediatrics.
Healthcare professionals can offer guidance and support to both parents and children.
If you’re the parent of a picky eater, know that you’re not alone.
Many parents struggle to get their child to accept new foods, and the process can be difficult.
When dealing with a picky eater, remember to keep calm and try some of the evidence-based tips listed above.
With the right approach, your child will grow to accept and appreciate many different types of food over time.