Coping and Compromising with Kids Who Are Picky Eaters

Thursday, July 12, 2007 - 4:03pm

By Cynthia York-Camden MS, RD, LDN

Four-year-old John looks oh-so-cute with that little lower lip stuck out. But then he embarrasses the whole family as he throws a tantrum on the floor over his green beans touching his potatoes. Does this sound familiar? Parents often have trouble coping with picky eaters and worry that their children are not getting enough food or the right foods to stay healthy. There are many reasons for picky eaters and ways to cope that can help.

Reasons for picky eaters

1.  Picky eater: age-related

As growth slows down, it is normal for appetite to decrease. This can happen at various ages but is common between the ages of 1 to 5 years.

2.   Activity-related reasons for being a picky eater

Appetites are improved or decreased by activity, growth, and health status. Kids who are less active may have a decreased appetite.

3.   Picky eater that is developmental related

Many children just need time to develop an acceptance of new things, including food. Taking time to warm up to food is part of the learning process. Toddlers especially are infamous for "food jags" where they eat the same food repeatedly. They also may dislike a food they loved the day before.

4.   Being a picky eater to use food as a control issue

Some children use food as a way to test their independence and boundaries with their parents. Refusing to eat usually has nothing to do with food but is a way to exercise control over the situation. An example of this is the child who throws a temper tantrum over what to have for dinner, followed by a refusal to eat the food that she had just demanded.

5.   Food preferences causing your child to be a picky eater

Your child may not like the taste of a food. This can be an individual food preference that is short-lived or continues throughout his/her life.

How to cope with picky eaters

Acceptance is key

A picky child is a normal child. This, too, will pass. Try not to worry about the serving sizes as research shows that "food jags" do not usually last long enough to cause any harm.

Don't take it personally

This is a hard one. We all want our children to have the best. Sometimes when we work so hard it is difficult not to be disappointed that are children do not react as we had hoped. Remember your role, as the caregiver, is to provide nutritious meals and snacks. The child's role is to choose what and how much to eat.

Provide a relaxed neutral environment for eating

Avoid distractions at mealtime such as television, books, or games. Family meals should be a relaxed enjoyable time to bond with your children. Spending meal times together regularly as a family has been shown to have a positive impact on future behavior and success in school.

Avoid conflict, compromising, or negotiations about food with a picky eater

Don't talk about food at all: Mum's the word. There should be no questions about food or amounts; no bribing, forbidding, or power struggles. Research shows that these tactics will not help improve eating and may even have a negative effect in the long run. Let your child control his eating. Change the subject when possible.

Provide your picky eater with a routine

You can help your child to be hungry at mealtime by offering planned meals and snacks. Limit "grazing" on foods that are less nutrient-dense such as candy, chips, cookies, etc... Make sure they are not filling up on milk, cheese, crackers, or juice between meals. A routine with eating can help your child learn to trust their own satiety cues and improve their appetite at mealtime.

Being a good role model is essential for encouraging your child to eat healthily

Enjoy a variety of foods and show your children that you are willing to try new foods. Set a good example by avoiding comments about foods you may or may not enjoy.

Let children plan meals

When possible, let children help with planning and preparing meals, see "Cooking with your kids". Younger children can help choose foods in the grocery store. Older children can take a more active role and start preparing easy recipes with your supervision. Start by letting your child pick out a new cookbook at the library or bookstore. Kids often forget about being picky when fixing fun recipes like the following:

  • English muffin pizza (he/she chooses the toppings)
  • Banana-split cereal (made with yogurt, banana, cereal, and fruit)
  • Ants on a log (peanut butter and raisins on celery sticks).

For more information on dealing with the challenges of kids eating habits, see the following other articles from TheDietChannel: "Getting your child to eat vegetables".

1. Satter, Ellyn. Secrets of feeding a healthy family. Kelsy Press, Madison, Wisconsin. 1999.

2. Downshen, Steven A. Kidshealth guide for parents. Nemours Foundation. Mcgraw Hill, New York, NY. 2002.

3. James, Sanna. Tiny Tummies Newsletter. Volume III issue 11. 2000.

4. Iowa State University Extension. Food for "me too" the preschooler. June 1995 Accessed online April 2005,

5. - Recipes for kids. Accessed June 17, 2007

6. Food and nutrition fun resource list at USDA website. Accessed June 17, 2007

7. Cookbooks for children. TEAM nutrition Reader's Corner. USDA website. Accessed June 17, 2007.

8. - Children's Dietitians - Accessed June 17, 2007

9. - Children's Books by Dietitians -