Picky Eaters

Children can become picky eaters for a number of reasons. Some children are naturally more sensitive to taste, smell and texture. Other children develop picky eating habits by modeling their parents' fussy eating habits. Picky eating habits are more likely to develop when parents punish, bribe or reward their children's eating behaviors. The goal for feeding a picky eater should be to try new foods and to keep food from starting a battle.

Share Responsibility

As a parent, you have responsibilities for feeding your child. Your child also has responsibilities.

  • You control what, where and when food is provided.
  • Your child decides whether or not to eat the food, and how much to eat.

Offer a Variety of Age-Appropriate Foods

Your child should select from a variety of foods at mealtime like a vegetable, fruit, protein and starch. The family menu should not be limited to the child's favorite foods. Children can be offered a food up to 15 times before they will try it. If all else fails, children will usually eat bread or pasta.

Limit High Calorie Drinks

Your child may not eat the foods you provide if he or she is drinking too many calories from juice, soda or milk. If your child drinks too much, he or she can become full and eat poorly at mealtimes. Limit your child to 4 ounces of juice and 24 ounces of milk a day. Soda is not recommended for children because it has no nutritional benefit.

Set a Meal Schedule

Both snacks and meals are important for growing children to meet their nutrition needs. Having a set schedule of breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner and bedtime snack helps children know that there is a meal coming every two to three hours and that they will not go hungry. Avoid giving your child food between the scheduled times.

If your child chooses to skip a meal or a snack, he or she can wait until the next scheduled time in a couple of hours. If your child refuses to eat, have him or her sit at the table until the majority of the family is finished eating, within reason.

Make Meals Pleasant

The mealtime environment should always be considered when feeding a child. Conversation should be pleasant, the eating space should be clean and bright and distractions should be limited. Mealtime is not a time for watching television or arguing.

Respect Eating Quirks

Everyone has his or her own quirks about eating. Children may eat a sandwich cut into triangles without crusts, but would not eat the same sandwich cut into squares with the crusts. A child may eat small pieces of broccoli, but avoid the stems. Foods that your child eats today may not be eaten tomorrow. It is important to realize that your child may react differently to the same foods on different days. It is not necessary to offer a substitute food.

Avoid Being a Short Order Cook

If your child doesn't like or doesn't seem to be eating the foods that you have prepared for a meal or snack, it's okay. Avoid the temptation to return to the stove and cook foods that you know your child will eat. If your child refuses a meal or snack, there will be another one in a few hours and he or she should be able to wait until then. When children are hungry because they chose not to eat, they'll be more likely to eat what is offered next time.

Don't Always Offer Dessert

Dessert does not need to be offered with every meal or even every day. When dessert is available, consider the following ideas:

  • If a child is forced to eat an entire meal before dessert, he or she may be full, but will likely eat the dessert anyway.
  • If your child refuses to eat, withholding dessert is not the answer. The child will learn to value dessert above more nutritious foods, which can alter eating patterns for life.
  • If your child rushes through the meal to get to dessert, try offering dessert with the meal.

When children are picky eaters, sometimes it is a response to controlling or pushy parents, or to bribery. The battle over food can then lead to resistance and defiance from the child. Ultimately, it is the child's decision as to what to eat and whether or not to eat the foods you have provided. Sometimes, the child may eat very little or nothing at all, but he or she will make up the nutrition later that day or later in the week.

 

Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or health care provider. We encourage you to discuss with your doctor any questions or concerns you may have.