Kids, Picky Eaters, Tips / How-Tos

Navigating Picky Eating

Although picky eating habits can emerge at any time, they most commonly become prevalent around the toddler years. Your flexible, up-for-anything baby may turn into a table-time terror as they get a bit older, refusing to try new foods and turning up their nose at once beloved fruits and vegetables. How can you make sure your picky eater is getting a well-balanced diet?

As a parent, you’re always trying your best to balance your desire for their healthy eating with their desire for independence. You also want your tot to establish a positive relationship with food. Many picky eating challenges fall into a few different scenarios that can be addressed through thoughtful, proactive tactics. Below, we lay out a few picky eater scenarios and how you can handle them to make mealtime a fun experience for you and your tot.

Three-Food Picky Eaterpeanut butter and jam on bread

Situation: Mac & cheese, PB&J and hot dogs: Is this your eater? Your child refuses to branch out from their diet, only eating their tried-and-true favorites.

Solution: Small changes can make a big impact in your child’s diet. If your child is a picky eater and loves mac and cheese, try a healthier version that blends in pureed cauliflower, carrots or butternut squash. Continue to introduce new ingredients into their favorite foods, and also introduce new meals. Be persistent and use repetition. If you’re having trouble with vegetables in particular, we have some suggestions to creatively incorporate vegetables into your child’s diet.

Short-Order Cookcute little child girl playing with utensils

Situation: Are you a short-order cook in your own kitchen? Do you find yourself preparing three different meals for three different children?

Solution: Tell your children what they’re going to be eating in advance of each meal. Rather than it being a surprise at mealtime, set expectations by discussing plans for dinner at the beginning of the day or with a posted weekly menu. Setting your kids’ expectations beforehand will improve the mealtime outcome and prevent meltdowns at the table.

Not Hungry At Mealtime

Situation: Does your child have a low appetite during mealtime, yet snack throughout the day?

Solution: Offer three meals per day and one snack at most. Also, take an assessment of the quantity of snacks available at home. Having fewer options available typically increases your chances of acceptance. Avoid offering foods in-between meals—offer water instead. After a few weeks or even a few days, appetite should match mealtime.

Distracted & Disinterested Picky EaterGirl Dressed Up As Superhero Playing Game On Stairs

Situation: Is your child always on the go, even when you want him or her to sit down for meals? Your child avoids the table and never seem to be a captive audience during mealtime.

Solution: Consistency with food is crucial. Most or all eating should take place at the table with minimal distractions so your child can learn controlled eating. This will also help focus your child’s energy on the meal in front of them. Take note of all your children’s food occasions throughout the day and where they take place. Are there more than four, including milk? Do they eat in the car, the stroller or the doctor’s office? Assess distractions at meals—including the TV, any pets or toys near the table. Confusion, distractions and multiple food occasions throughout the day can decrease interest at meals.

Providing a positive meal experience for your picky eater may be challenging, but with mealtime consistency and a positive attitude, you and your child can both eat healthy and happily.

Mealtime Meltdownboy screaming at food at table

Situation: Do mealtimes last a long time and mostly consist of constant encouragement to take another bite? Does dinner often end in your child throwing a fit?

Solution: Mealtimes should be short and sweet. For toddlers, they should last 30 minutes and no longer. Most importantly, mealtime should be stress-free for your toddler or young child. Hovering and over-encouragement to take another bite can lead to anxiety about food. Giving your child a bit more control can counteract any anxiety they have. Before dinner, prepare them for the meal by asking them what silverware, placemat and napkin they’d like to use. This involvement will help your child feel in control and will also prepare them mentally for mealtime.

If a meltdown does occur, have your child leave the table to take a break. After five minutes, try again. If your child ultimately rejects a certain meal, don’t offer an alternative. Rather, save the meal for later and offer water. Try not to compensate for meals with snacks between mealtimes!

Your little eater will soon become less picky if you set expectations before eating and gently enforce your mealtime rules. Consistency on your end is key. Transitioning your little one to a wider palate may be difficult at first, but the work you do with your child now will help create healthy eating habits for years to come.

If you have questions or would like help transitioning your picky eater to Nurture Life, we are here to help. Please contact us here.

meals for picky eaters


Lara Field

Lara has been working with Nurture Life since its inception, collaborating with the culinary team on the creation of all menus and recipes to ensure they are nutritionally appropriate and correctly proportioned for every age and stage of a child’s development and providing pediatric nutrition expertise to Nurture Life customers. Lara is the owner/founder of FEED—Forming Early Eating Decisions, a nutrition consulting practice specializing in pediatric nutrition and digestive diseases. Lara has over a decade of experience in clinical practice at two of the top ranked pediatric hospitals in the country, Lurie Children’s Hospital and University of Chicago Medical Center. Lara received her B.S. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and M.S. and dietetic internship from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. Lara truly enjoys the process of eating (and feeding!), from procuring the ingredients at various grocery stores and farmers markets, to organizing her pantry/refrigerator at home to make it easy to select healthy options, to preparing balanced meals with her children. Whether it be a decadent treat to a hearty, home-cooked meal, there is no greater satisfaction for Lara than enjoying food with her family.

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