Why your kid is a picky eater – and 6 tips to help

Courtesy of MultiCare Health System

Your child refuses to eat anything except chicken nuggets. Or your child readily eats snacks, but once dinnertime arrives, won’t touch the main meal. What to do?

It turns out that having countless food options is both a blessing and a curse, according to Dr. Bruce Oriel, a pediatrician at Mary Bridge Pediatrics. If we only had two choices of what to eat every day, we wouldn’t be picky.

“Picky eating is a consequence of too much choice,” Dr. Oriel said.

When we introduce junk food to children, we’ve opened the door for that preference, he adds. So when it’s time to eat solid foods, set your child up for success by providing only healthy foods. Avoid treats as much as possible.

It’s important to start early when you have the most control over the kinds of foods your child eats.

If you avoid introducing junk food, but your child is still picky, don’t fret. It’s a normal behavior. There are simple ways to make sure your child gets the nutrients he or she needs — and adopts healthy habits and attitudes toward food.

Here are tips on what you can do if you’re concerned your child isn’t eating enough healthy foods or eating enough, period:

1. Avoid serving food or drinks one to two hours before meals. If your child isn’t hungry at mealtime, then think about the one to two hours before a meal. Is your child eating a lot of snacks or drinking juice or milk? If this is the case, these nibbles may be the culprit. Avoid all snacks and beverages except water when you’re less than two hours away from a meal to help increase your child’s appetite at mealtime. On the flipside, some children — especially toddlers — are just not big eaters at mealtimes. If you think that’s the case, healthy snacks packed with protein and healthy fats may be your best option when timed appropriately with meals.

2. Focus on quality over quantity. A common thought is that getting your child to eat something is better than nothing, even if that something is junk food. Dr. Oriel says your job as parents is to make sure their food choices are healthy. Chelsey Lindahl, wellness dietitian with the MultiCare Center for Healthy Living and Health Equity, said that children are often in tune with their own metabolism, and their appetites change frequently in response to growth and development. If one day your child is eating as much as an adult, but barely anything the next, don’t fret. It’s normal. As a last resort, you can try a children’s multivitamin, but don’t view it as a replacement for healthy food.

3. Pick snacks that are fun for kids to eat. A simple way to encourage eating is to make it more fun for children. But you don’t have to spend hours whipping up a fancy Pinterest creation to make this happen. Start with a fruit or vegetable plus protein. Some ideas: celery with peanut butter and raisins (“ants on a log”), string cheese and berries, or crackers with tuna made with celery and carrots. Most kids are very tactile and love to dissect things and eat with their hands, Lindahl says.

4. Model the behavior you want your child to adopt. Teaching healthy eating by example works better than by lecture or force. Sometimes when a parent is a picky eater too, it can serve to reinforce pickiness. But that doesn’t mean you and your child are a lost cause. Plan to try a new food once a week together. It helps engage a child to see a parent trying something new, and promotes the idea that it’s better to try something first before forming an opinion about it.

5. Give your child the option to not eat. This may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes children resist mealtime simply because they don’t want to stop playing or interrupt what they’re doing. If your child insists she’s not hungry, provide a plate, but give your child the option to not eat. Let your child know that even if he or she decides not to eat, they still need to be present for family mealtime. Coming up with a mealtime routine and sticking with it can be helpful. Plus, forcing children to eat, or not allowing them to leave the table until their plates are empty, only creates anxiety, which can worsen the situation.

6. Be realistic about introducing new foods. Just as you wouldn’t teach someone to swim by pushing him into the deep end of the pool on day one, don’t expect your child to try every new food the first time it’s served. It can take several times trying a new food to decide whether your child likes it. Be persistent and continue to serve the new food, but don’t force it. The more kids are exposed to new foods, the more likely they will be to try new things. Try serving a small portion and encouraging children to just take one bite or taste. Alternatively, don’t serve them an entire portion, but instead offer a little from your own plate. Ask what they think of how it tastes. Be patient and persistent — and view every new food your child tries as a success.

MultiCare Health System is a not-for-profit health care organization with more than 18,000 employees, providers and volunteers. Visit multicare.org.