Why some children are picky eaters and what to do about it.
By Lisa Fields
Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD
Many preschoolers are picky eaters. They usually outgrow it by age 4 or 5. So, what are the best ways to get them to eat until then?
"Let them choose the clothes they wear, not the foods they eat," says Atlanta-based pediatrician Jennifer Shu, MD, co-author of Food Fights. "Kids get so used to mac and cheese, they forget that asparagus isn't so bad."
It helps to know some of the top reasons why they're so picky.
End the Power Struggle
"Picky habits start when children test their limits, around age 2," Shu says. "Parents don't like rejection. They hear 'no' once or twice, they don't go back to that food."
But many preschoolers need to be offered new foods several times before they taste them. Serving a new food among five or six familiar choices can take the pressure off, says Boston pediatric nutritionist Linda Piette, RD, author of Just Two More Bites!
Some kids may still be mastering how to chew and swallow. Some may be inexperienced chewers.
"Many prefer meltable, crunchy carbohydrates because they're easy to eat and have a single texture," says pediatricpsychologist Kay Toomey, PhD, of Greenwood Village, Colo.
Show your child what to do. "Banging a carrot on the table and talking about how hard it is teaches that the teeth will need to use pressure to break it apart," Toomey says, "versus yogurt, which is wet and smooth and can be just sucked down."
Your child might be full from eating too many beverages or snacks.
"Kids carry around portable snack containers and boxes of juice, then they're nothungry for anything later," Shu says.
Her advice: Serve fewer, healthier snacks. "If the child didn't finish lunch, give those leftover peas or carrots for a snack instead of pretzels or cookies."
An Emotional Reaction
If people are arguing at the table, your child may just want to get out of there.
"Kids may try to make mealtime shorter," Shu says. "Alternately, they may try to get more attention by not eating, if they think enough attention isn't coming their way."
Rethink Your Meal Strategies
Between meals, analyze clues that may cause your child's pickiness.
Is the TV on? Adults tend to overeat when they're watching TV, but that's not true for picky children. Research shows that kids who watch television during meals can become overstimulated, making it harder for them to try new foods.
Is the whole family eating together? Children may be more likely to relax and try new flavors if everyone else is enjoying the same meal. "It makes a world of difference for our family," says Elizabeth Johnson Willard of St. Johnsbury, Vt., whose children shunned most meats, fruits, and vegetables when they were very young. "Seeing us try new foods helps encourage our children to do the same."
A child who eats alone may also sense your anxiety about their pickiness. "The parent hovers over every bite the child takes, which doesn't help," Piette says.
Are you setting a good example? Taste at least a little bit of everything that's served, and show a good attitude about it. "Kids are smart," Piette says. "They can tell by the look on your face."
When you introduce new foods, an offbeat tactic may help:
Let them eat cake. Don't offer dessert as a reward for eating vegetables. That sends the wrong message. If dessert is on the menu, consider serving it with the meal, instead of at the end.
Emphasize style. Entice a picky eater to try a fruit salad by arranging it into a smiley face. Christen Cooper of Pleasantville, N.Y., realized that her then-3-year-old daughter would try almost anything served on her princess tea set.
Show interest in their interests. Did your son's favorite character eat carrots and string beans? Offer the same foods. This trick worked for Leigh Steere of Boulder, Colo., whose son tried new foods when the recipes came from a Star Warscookbook.
Encourage food play. Little fingers poking at dinner can help kids get used to food textures, which are sometimes bigger stumbling blocks than flavors for picky eaters. "Parents should be tolerant of the messiness," Piette says. "It does help. It's a sensory thing."
Pair new foods with old favorites. Having the new food among favorite foods helps to make the experience positive and encouraging.