Help for managing a picky eater
Does your child want plain pasta for dinner every night? Or refuse to eat anything green? Then you may have a picky eater on your hands—or at least think that you do.
The truth is, there's no standard definition for picky eating; and what's considered picky to one parent may not be to another. During the entire span of Toddler years, it's common for parents to perceive their child as being a picky eater when he exhibits challenging behavior at mealtimes. But picky eating should be handled in a positive and effective way.
Why are kids picky?
Picky eating usually shows up around age 1 or 2, when children are experiencing developmental changes and becoming more independent. By saying no to what Mom and Dad want him to eat, a child is showing that he has his own thoughts and opinions.
Additionally, as a child's cognitive development advances, he also becomes more aware of how foods look, smell, taste, feel and sound in his mouth. He might need to check it out a few times before eating it. In fact, some experts say a child needs to be offered a food about 10 times before he'll decide to eat it.
These are just some of the reasons why children 12-48 months may limit the number of foods they'll eat or avoid entire food groups. They may even demand a food be made a certain way or want the same food every day or at every meal—sometimes called "food jagging."
Tips for parents
As a parent or caregiver, your words and actions can help encourage your child's acceptance of a varied and nutritious diet. Here are some things you can do:
- Let your child explore his food even if it does get messy. Young children often need to look at, touch, smell and taste a food before eating it.
- Plan meals that include one food you know your child will eat, and then let him choose if he wants to try the other foods being served. Don't prepare a separate meal—it may encourage him to continue this type of behavior at mealtime. Keep serving your child healthy choices until he becomes familiar with the food.
- Be a good role model and eat foods even if you don't like them. If a child sees his mom, dad, or siblings eating a nutritious food, he may be more willing to try it.
- Let your child pick out a vegetable or fruit at the grocery store, and then let him help you wash it as you prepare it for mealtime. Children are more willing to try foods they help prepare.
- Don't bribe your child with candy or other desserts. This teaches him that some foods are desirable and others are not.
- Follow your child's hunger and fullness cues. Never force him to finish his meal. Remember this rule: It's your job to provide nutritious foods at regular meal and snack times, but it's his job to decide whether, and how much, to eat.
Concerns about picky eating
It's important to help your child learn to eat a varied diet now because picky eating can affect a child's diet in the future. In fact, studies show that the acceptance of new foods introduced later in childhood may be influenced by the types of foods children are exposed to during the entire span of toddler years.
Many parents worry that their child's diet doesn't provide the nutrition he needs for growth. But most children actually still meet their nutrient needs. Of course if you ever have concerns that your child isn't eating enough or is missing out on certain nutrients, talk to your health care provider or check out our Menu Planner—it generates nutritionally-balanced menus customized to your child’s stage of development. And keep in mind that most children eventually grow out of the picky eating phase.