How to Prevent Picky Eating

We’ve all been there – you work so hard making a delicious, healthy dinner for your family and half of it ends up either on the floor or abandoned on a child’s plate. Why is this such a widespread issue, especially in the toddler and preschool sector? How can parents help their children avoid becoming picky eaters? What steps can be taken to widen a child’s food preferences? Read on to find out.

Where Does Picky Eating Begin?

Parents of teens will attest that picky eating can become a long-term struggle, going far beyond the early years. Let’s dive in and explore where this behavior stems from and what you can do about it.

Inside a Toddler’s Brain

Dina Rose, PhD, a sociologist and author of It’s Not About the Broccoli shares many insights in an interview by NBC News.

“The battle may start because of the green beans, but most of the time for the picky eaters, it’s not the green beans, the peas or even the elusive dessert, that’s upsetting them,” she explains. A lot of the time it’s a control struggle,” she says. “As toddlers, it becomes a kid’s job to learn control — how to move and control their body and all of its functions. Choosing what foods to put on their plate and choosing whether or not to swallow that food is another ripe area they can control,” Rose says.

“Put too much pressure on a kid to like the food right away and if there’s any reason a kid doesn’t want to eat that food, it gets put into the “don’t like it box” — and it becomes tougher for the next exposure to go well,” Rose says.

Tips on Raising Kids Who Aren’t Picky Eaters

Picky eating tendencies are directly tied to your child’s need for control and power. Remembering that will help you reframe mealtime expectations. See below for expert tips from Kids Eat in Color®, an organization committed to providing parents with the support and guidance they need to help their kids eat better and thrive at mealtime.

Always Include a Familiar Favorite on Their Plate

To get the eating process going and help ensure your child consumes at least a little bit, be sure to include at least one familiar favorite on their plate at each meal. Opt for something with protein in case it’s all they eat. But don’t stop there. Include whatever else the rest of the family is eating, unless of course dietary restrictions come into play.

Create a Pleasant, “No Pressure” Environment at the Table

Many of us grew up hearing bargaining pleas such as, “if you eat three more bites, you can have dessert”. While this may work in the short run, present day guidance advises against that strategy. The team at Kids Eat in Color says, “When you have a meal ready for your child, let them decide how much or whether they want to eat. Believe it or not, giving them the choice helps them to learn to like more foods over time!”

The following phrases are examples of what parental pressure can look like at the dinner table. Avoid phrases like these:

  • “Just try one more bite.”
  • “You have to eat it, or you can’t go out to play.”
  • “You will make mom very happy if you try a bite.”
  • “You can have dessert as soon as you try this food.”

Phrases like the ones above create a battle ground pinning “healthy” food against dessert or other activities. This makes new foods the enemy, rather than something new and exciting to try. Furthermore, it creates tension between you and your child, ensuring a battle next time, too.

Say, “You Can Eat it When You’re Ready”.

In the inevitable scenario where your child doesn’t eat what you’ve prepared for them, Kids Eat in Color suggests having your child stay at the table for an age-appropriate amount of time before getting down. Sometimes kids aren’t hungry, and that’s ok.

However, let them know you’re not going to make an alternate meal just for them, and the eating window will close at a certain time.

Kids Eat in Color suggests, “It’s easy to let your child graze on food all day, but letting them eat freely like this can backfire for a child who is already considered picky, as they are less likely to feel hunger and therefore much less willing to try new foods. Instead of letting them decide to eat whenever they want, open the kitchen at certain times. Then close the kitchen when snack time or mealtime is over. Having a toddler eating schedule or a schedule for older kids can make a huge difference.” Check out Kiddi Kollege’s blog for more tips on toddler schedules.

Sit Down as a Family

In the newborn stage, you’re in survival mode. However, at some point, your little bundle of joy starts eating on their own and noticing routines (and craving routine, too). If you’ve slipped into the habit of chasing your toddler around with a spoon while Peppa Pig plays in the background, rest assured, you can still switch gears and adjust your routine.

Kids Eat in Color says, “Approaches like these can sometimes work in the short term, but it doesn’t help picky eating in the long term. Instead, have designated eating places and have kids sit down to eat. It helps prevent choking, and it also can help kids slow down and listen to their bodies, which allows them to eat better.”

Eating at the dinner table also helps ensure that your child is getting adequate practice feeding themselves with utensils, rather than just opening their mouth like a baby bird.

Remember: Grown-ups Set the Menu

It all comes down to nutrition – that’s why we care so much, right? Rest assured, your role as the parent is to provide healthy food in appropriate portions, and your child’s role is to decide how much to eat. You are not required to create an alternate menu option for your picky child. If they’re hungry, they’ll eat., in collaboration with the American Academy of Pediatrics, state the following guidelines:

  • Offer all food groups at every meal. Make sure no food groups are completely left out. If this happens for a few days, don’t worry. However, missing out on a food group for a long time could keep your child from getting enough nutrients.
  • Encourage your child to eat a variety of foods within the food groups by modeling good eating yourself. Even within a food group, different foods provide different nutrients.
  • A child who is growing well is getting enough to eat.

Involve Your Child in Meal Prep and Make it Fun!

Whenever possible, involve your child in household tasks, especially in the kitchen. This creates infinite teachable moments and also helps ignite curiosity about how new foods will taste (thus making them more likely to try new foods).

Try serving food in new ways, such as on a kebab or coupled with a dip. If time allows, kids love seeing smiley faces on their plate, or fruit cut into star shapes! The sky is the limit. Smoothies are a great way to slip in veggies, too.

Using fun, creative nicknames can be useful as well – it takes away some of the fear of the unknown. Consider rebranding “broccoli” as “baby trees”, or call a quiche an “egg pizza”. Try connecting to your child’s interests. Do they love dinosaurs? Guess what, dinos love plants and meat! Boom – spinach and chicken are now “t-rex treats”.

As your child gets older, educate them on the cool things each nutrient does for our bodies. For example, “red foods make your heart strong!” or “carrots help you see better in the dark!”

Above all else, be patient – not pushy. For daily, bite-sized chunks of helpful information, follow Kids Eat in Color on Instagram.

How Long Will it Take to Reverse or Prevent Picky Eating?

Nutrition science research from the National Library of Medicine suggests that it can take as many as 12 exposures to any given food before kids might decide they like it. Keep in mind, this includes times where they simply see it on their plate and don’t even touch it. So, keep trying, Mom/Dad! Eventually they’ll get curious. Just follow the tips above and hope for the best. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve got this!

Schedule a Tour at Kiddi Kollege

At Kiddi Kollege, we understand good nutrition is important not only for feeding our bodies, but also for fueling a healthy mind. Our mealtimes always occur as “family-style” in the classrooms. This encourages communication, good nutrition choices, independence, and is one of the many ways we foster our family and community-focused ideals.

Our meals are prepared on-site by Kiddi Kollege chefs who have a passion for nourishing young minds, and our menus follow the Kansas Department of Health as well as the Health and Environment’s guidelines for nutrition.

We offer child care and early childhood education classes for children aged six weeks through pre-K, as well as after-school care and transportation for kids up to age 12. Schedule a tour today at any of our eight locations in Johnson County, Kansas.