Winning Over Picky Eaters

Words and nutrition advice from dietitian Abby Langer.

How do you make sure your soccer player is eating nutritious food, especially if they tend to be a picky eater? Mom, dietitian, and nutrition expert Abby Langer has great advice about how to help selective kids learn to like new foods.

The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. The contents of this article are not intended to make health or nutrition claims about our products. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health and nutrition related activity.

Feeding our kids is one of our most basic instincts, so when a parent feels as though their child isn’t getting the nutrition they need, it can be really distressing. I totally understand—as a parent myself, I’ve experienced it firsthand.

I have plenty of friends and clients who are the parents of picky (or, as I’d rather call them, “selective”) eaters, and they’re always looking for new strategies to use with their kids.

Here are my top tips on how to handle selective kids!

Don’t play games or hide food

Hiding things like vegetables in other dishes can create trust issues between you and your child, and doesn’t really teach kids how to enjoy a variety of foods and the taste of whatever you’re hiding (usually, it’s vegetables).

Instead, model healthy eating behavior for your kids by sitting at the table when you eat, and by choosing and eating a wide variety of foods. Kids do as we do, so the best thing we can do is set a good example for them with our own eating.

Also: please don’t force your kid to eat any food they don’t want to, or to sit at the table until they finish their meal. This can create a negative association with food and eating that can follow them long into adulthood.

Relax.

I always tell parents: if you make it a big deal, it’s going to become a big deal.

Kids pick up on your cues, so hovering over them while they’re eating and making remarks about what they did or didn’t consume is probably going to backfire on you.

Instead, try not to comment on what your kid has or hasn’t eaten. If they didn’t eat something on their plate, just take the plate away without reacting, and try again at the next meal. Once the pressure is off, you may find that your child is more open to trying different foods.

Don’t label them

I personally prefer the term “selective eater” instead of “picky eater,” but labeling someone can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can take up to twenty tries for a selective child to accept a new food, so give them a chance to make up their mind about which foods they really like and don’t like. Every child is different in terms of tolerance and speed at which they accept new things, and that’s okay.

Include one favorite food with one new food, and try different cooking methods

If you know your kid will eat carrots but hasn’t tried broccoli, serve them side-by-side. If they reject the broccoli, at least you know that they’re likely to eat the carrots. Plus, they’re being exposed to the broccoli, which means they might try it in the future as it becomes more familiar to them.

To get kids used to new foods, try preparing them in different ways. For example, if your kids love fried french fries, try making fries in the oven. If they accept oven fries, then try roasted baby potatoes. If they accept roasted baby potatoes, then try baked potatoes.

“Chaining” foods through different cooking methods is a way to help kids open themselves to new foods.

Don’t let kids graze all day long

If kids aren’t ever hungry, they’ll be less likely to try new things. Giving kids snacks constantly can really affect hunger levels. In addition to this, beverages such as juice and milk in excessive amounts (more than 1/2 cup a day for juice, more than 2 cups a day for milk, depending on the child’s age) can also fill little tummies and make them less ready to accept new foods. Try to feed your kids on a schedule so they can feel hungry before meals.

Give kids healthy snacks that contain protein, fiber, or both—snacks like roasted chickpeas, CLIF Kid Zbars, cheese and crackers, fruit with nut butter, and hummus with vegetables. These will satisfy them without resorting to nutritionally-void junk food.

Try to avoid giving kids junk food out of desperation

I see a lot of parents resorting to giving junk food because otherwise, “he just wouldn’t eat anything.” What’s happening though is that by doing this, you’re teaching your child that holding out long enough eventually gets them what they really want: cookies and other junk, instead of a meal.

Young kids generally don’t starve themselves; they’ll eat when they’re hungry. If kids aren’t hungry, they’re not going to eat. If your child doesn’t want to eat what you prepared for the meal, don’t force them. Some parents will pour their child a bowl of cereal or make them a peanut butter sandwich, but giving junk food or cooking another entire meal for them is not the best approach.

Get kids to help you choose and cook the food

Getting kids invested in what they’re eating isn’t too hard in most situations. Bring your child to the grocery store and let them choose a new food to try—a fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, or legume. Then let your child (depending on age) find a recipe that uses the food they chose, and help them prepare it. Chances are, they’ll be more open to eating something they put the effort into making.

If you still have issues, please consult your pediatrician and a registered dietitian for individualized help.