5 Tips for Picky Eaters

Today, I’m featuring a fellow OT and blogger, Meg Proctor. She can be found at www.learnplaythrive.com

5 Tips for Helping Picky Eaters

For parents of picky eaters, mealtimes can be exhausting. You may find yourself wondering why on earth your child won’t eat, and what you should be doing to help them. You may beg, reward, demand, and short-order-cook, but for all of your energy and efforts you don’t see any real changes.

Eating is complicated. It requires our kids to use all of their sensory systems, coordinate all of their muscles, and experience the sensations of all of their organ systems working together. There is a lot that can go wrong!

The good news for parents is that making your child eat is not your job. You’ve probably realized long ago that you can’t, in fact, make your child eat. Instead, think of your job as giving your child the opportunity and the skills they need to choose to eat new foods. If you give your child the right foods in a good atmosphere and you do what you can to teach them how to bravely explore new foods, you are doing everything you should as the parent of a picky eater.

Here are five strategies that you can start using today to reduce the mealtime battles and help your picky eater try new foods.

  1. Serve preferred and non-preferred foods. At every meal, serve at least one preferred food and at least one non-preferred food to your child. The preferred food ensures that they will have something to eat, while the non-preferred food gives them important exposure to new foods.

Research shows that kids often need to be exposed to a food up to 15 times before accepting it [1]. As a parent, it can be really hard to go through the effort of serving your child a food you know they won’t eat. But not serving it to them will all but guarantee they won’t learn to like it.

It’s best to pass the foods around the table and encourage your child to put a little bit of each food on their plate, even if they don’t want to eat it. If they aren’t ready to have the food in their sight, they can put it on a “learning plate” nearby or cover it with a napkin. Over time, you may notice that your child becomes comfortable having the food close by.

  1. Model eating. Whenever possible, bring your child to the same table surface as you or another caregiver so that everyone is at eye level. Let your child see you eating the foods you are serving them. Young kids look to those they trust to see what they should and should not eat. Even if your child is older, modeling eating the foods you serve them can be a powerful tool. [2]

You don’t need to try and convince your child to eat the foods. Just talk about the properties of the food. “This bread is really soft! It melts in my mouth. And the butter is salty.”

  1. Throw out the rules. If you have rules about what your child must eat such as a “one bite rule,” “first eat this, then get that,” or “clear your plate before you leave the table,” consider letting these rules go. Here are a few reasons why:
  • These types of demands can make kids feel stressed. And when our bodies get stressed, they release cortisol. Cortisol suppresses appetite and makes your child even less likely to eat.
  • The research shows that these types of demands don’t help kids eat new foods in the long run. They are likely to backfire and make picky eating even worse. [2]
  • Telling kids to clear their plates or to eat foods they don’t want is liked to obesity later in life, as kids are learning to ignore their bodies own cues about how much to eat. [2]
  1. Use books, videos, and play. Just like our kids need instruction to learn math, picky eaters need lots of modeling and practice to learn to eat new foods. Here are some creative ways you can help them learn to explore non-preferred foods:
  • Read books or watch videos about eating. I once had a client learn to eat bread because of Paddington Bear!
  • Try involving your child in exploring food outside of eating time, when there is less pressure. They can do crafts with spaghetti, paint with pudding, or do experiments with bread, water, and food coloring. Having more positive experience with the foods will help them learn that the foods aren’t going to hurt them.
  • Let your child help you cook! Even young kids can peel, stir, and be a part of the action.
  1. Know when to get help. Trying the above tips can help many kids start to eat new foods. But some kids need more intensive help to address their picky eating. Here are some signs that you may want to look for a trained feeding therapist.
  • Your child eats fewer than 20 foods and has begun eliminating foods from this list as without also adding new foods
  • Mealtimes are a battle and your child or family is stressed
  • Your child has dropped on the growth curve or there are developmental or nutritional concerns related to their eating
  • You suspect your child has trouble chewing, or have observed the following:
    • They frequently gag or choke due to poor chewing
    • Their eyes water when they swallow as if the food is not well-chewed
    • They only eat soft foods
  • Your child does not eat any food from a food group (e.g. no fruits, no protein, no vegetables), or only eats one texture of foods (e.g. only crunchy foods)

If you do need a feeding therapist, it’s worth asking questions until you find a therapist who is a good fit for your child and your family. You may want to look for a therapist who will:

  • Evaluate your child’s chewing skills and teach you what to do to help them learn new skills if needed
  • Teach your family positive routines to help your child eat
  • Use play or age-appropriate exploration to help your child become comfortable with and interested in exploring non-preferred foods
  • Work slowly for long-term improvements, rather than using rules or rewards for quick (but short-lived) results

Your child is lucky to have you reading this and learning how to help them eat! You don’t have to make lots of changes at once. Pick one that feels easy and try it for a few weeks. You may be surprised at what your child learns


[1] Carruth, B R, et al. (2004) Prevalence of Picky Eaters among Infants and Toddlers and Their Caregivers’ Decisions about Offering a New Food. J Am Diet Assoc. Retrieved from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14702019.

[2] Savage, Jennifer S., et al. (2008) Parental Influence on Eating Behavior. J Law Med Ethics. Retrieved from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/

Meg Proctor is an occupational therapist, trained feeding therapist, and the founder of Learn Play Thrive, L.L.C. Using online occupational therapy, Meg helps families of kids with autism learn practical strategies to help their kids succeed during their daily activities. Meg can be found at www.learnplaythrive.com

Thanks to Meg for her AWESOME tips and sharing her advice with us. Want to be a guest blogger? Contact me!

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