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How to work with the pickiest of picky eaters!

Recently, we were in the grocery and came to the frozen vegetables- “Patrick, choose 6 frozen vegetables.”  He grabbed brussel sprouts.  I asked, “Do you really want those?”  He said, “I think we need to try these.”  You see, the boys know I don’t like brussel sprouts and I had promised them someday I would try them, again.

In our home, the rule is: You can’t say “I don’t like ___ food” until you try it at least once at that meal. It can take up to 8-10 exposures of a new food for a person to accept a new taste. This past summer, Matthew tried the grilled peppers (again) and he surprised us all with “I like the orange peppers!”  When other kids come over and share dinner at our house, we sometimes hear the boys tell them that they have to at least try the food once.

Picky eating can be one of the hardest hurdles to jump with kids.  Either they are truly picky or on a food jag, eating the same food over and over with little or nothing else.  Eating is one of the few things humans can control – when a child refuses a food, s/he is expressing independence.  The child will always win the power struggle over food.

How are we supposed to get good nutrition into our picky eaters?

  • Remove distractions: Is the TV turned off?  Are games/toys off the table?  Are phones and electronics off the table?  For many kids – playing, not eating is the priority.
  • Structure & Consistency: Kids thrive on routine and learn by watching you. Is the child expected to sit at the table to eat? Do you dine with your child?  Are meals and snacks scheduled (for the most part)?  Kids will model you in eating plus trying new foods.  Give them the structure they crave and they eat better.
  • Kids will not go hungry: Does your child mindlessly eat?  Does your child fill up on drinks and snack all day long? Kids know when they are hungry – our job is to provide them with healthy meals and snacks at scheduled times.
  • Keep trying: Remember- expect 8-10 exposures before a child accepts a new food!  (Children may take longer)  Offer 2 vegetables: one that may be well-accepted and one that is new.  If they touch the new one – a success!  If they pick it up and throw it – another success!  Eventually, they may try it – the ultimate success!
  • Use the kitchen timer: Make it a game and set a timer where the child has to beat the timer and finish their meal before it rings.  Otherwise, their meal goes into the refrigerator for their snack (warmed up leftovers are not a fun snack!).  In the beginning of playing this game, we would tell our boys “You better hurry!  The timer is going to go off!”  When they are not watching, we do turn the timer back…hoping they eventually eat.  But, there have been times the timer goes off…we are done and ready to move on with the day.
  • Keep it fun: Allow your child to help with meal preparation, choosing the vegetable or fruit, make child friendly sandwiches, use fun plates/cups and utensils.  Take the stress out of meal time. Divert the child’s attention to how fun the meal can really be.

I did try the brussel sprouts and you know what, they weren’t too bad.  Patrick and Matthew tried them- not really caring for them.  Edward threw his (a success, right?). We will have to try and cook some fresh brussel sprouts.  The boys had fun making Mom try a food she didn’t care for from her past – a good lesson for all in keep trying new foods!

Do you have any helpful tips to get picky eaters eating?


  1. Reply
    Jennifer February 12, 2014

    This is all great information, but… what do you do if nothing works? Cooking together doesn’t work, letting him choose at the grocery store doesn’t work, restricting snacks doesn’t work, offering new foods over and over doesn’t work. My son is 3.5 and is extremely picky and stubborn (he’s a very sweet funny child otherwise). Mealtimes often end in tears or a stand-off in which he goes to bed hungry and then wakes up starving around 3 a.m. (resulting in me waking up at 3 a.m. with him). I hate to admit it, but I often give him what he wants just so that he has something in his tummy and we get some sleep! I know people judge us and think we did something wrong to get to this point, but truly, we followed all of the advice for new parents on teaching a child to eat real food and it worked at first, but he suddenly changed course on us and now survives on pasta, cheese, carrots, lunch meat, toast and scrambled eggs. I’ve considered taking him to a pediatric nutritionist but I don’t know if it will help. I would love any advice you can give. Thank you!

  2. Reply
    Becky February 19, 2014

    Hi, Jennifer –
    I can relate to your challenge.  Right now, we have a 4 year old and he, too, has changed course on his eating!  We are working even more at “practicing what I preach.”  I am actually one of the dietitians that works in our outpatient nutrition counseling clinic – Nutrition Clinic – on Monday mornings.  If you ask your provider to submit a referral to this clinic, I can meet with you (both) one on one and we can discuss more ideas on how to help your child (and you) through this challenging time.
    I look forward to meeting with you, Jennifer!

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