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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Girl with broccoli

Top Tips for Feeding Picky Eaters

Have a picky eater around your house? Yup, most of us do. Recently on Twitter I learned that the actress Jennifer Garner makes a game of it by adopting an exciting sportscaster voice as her child tries a new food:

“The bean is on the fork, the fork is going to his mouth! It is in! He is chewing – he’s chewing! He is swallowing! Annnnnd…what is he thinking? The verdict isssss….. He likes it!”

I think her tack is brilliant. Why? Because family mealtimes should be full of connection and fun!

Picky eating is common in young kids. Why? Your child is:

  • Growing more slowly now than they did as a baby and may not be hungry sometimes. Some days they grow more, need more energy, and will eat. Some days they grow less and aren’t as hungry.
  • Becoming independent and may say no to many things, including food. If we push them to eat – they’ll likely dig their heels in and resist even more.

Here are my top tips for feeding the otherwise healthy and normally developing child.

Parents choose the foods and children choose to eat. You’re responsible for choosing healthy foods to offer and when to serve them. Your child is responsible for whether and how much of these foods they eat. This division of labor can be hard for a worried parent to follow – but it works well!

Children will eat when they’re hungry. Parents shouldn’t force children to eat or “clean their plates.” Doing so overrides the child’s natural signals of hunger and fullness, and we want to encourage children to eat as much as, and not more than, their body needs.

Picky eating is common and usually a phase. Have faith that this will improve over time. In the meantime, think about your kid’s nutrition averaged over a week to get a picture of their nutritional intake. Maybe they just eat whole wheat bread today, peaches tomorrow, and carrots the next day. That’s not so bad!

A child’s eating habits are influenced by their individual temperament. Some children are naturally more resistant to new foods or less interested in eating in general. Others may pass through challenging periods at different stages of their development. Try not to blame yourself, and know that as children grow, their tastes and appetites will grow too.

Have set mealtimes and avoid constant snacking. All-day grazing can diminish hunger at mealtimes. Having set meals at regular times, plus one healthy snack in between, helps ensure children are hungry enough at meals to eat all the healthy foods you offer.

Serve kids the same foods as adults, not special “kid foods.” Young children can be offered the same food as the rest of the family – with the exception of choking-hazard foods. This allows children the chance to develop a taste for a wider variety of flavors and textures.

Make mealtime family time. Meals should be eaten at the table with other family members whenever possible. Meals in front of screens or on the go make it harder for children to truly focus on eating and feel their body’s signals of hunger and fullness.

Don’t let them fill up on milk! Too much milk makes them less hungry for other foods and can cause anemia. Stick to no more than 16 ounces of milk a day and offer plain water the rest of the time.

It may take many times trying a new food for a child to begin to like it. New foods, flavors, and textures may need to be introduced 15 to 20 times before a child learns to enjoy it. Kids can learn to like new foods when they see, smell, and taste them over and over again.

Tips for introducing new foods include:

  • Have your child help choose new foods to try or help grow vegetables.
  • Offer foods in different formats (e.g., some kids prefer vegetables raw).
  • Try offering new foods with a companion food they like (dips, mixed into pasta or an egg scramble).
  • Let kids touch, smell, and feel new foods as part of learning to eat them.
  • Try and try again. Praise their efforts to try even if they don’t like the food.

And while you’re at it, why not try out your own sportscaster’s voice? Have fun!

Disclaimer: If you have an emergency medical condition, call 911 or go to the nearest hospital. An emergency medical condition is any of the following: (1) a medical condition that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity (including severe pain) such that you could reasonably expect the absence of immediate medical attention to result in serious jeopardy to your health or body functions or organs; (2) active labor when there isn't enough time for safe transfer to a Plan hospital (or designated hospital) before delivery, or if transfer poses a threat to your (or your unborn child's) health and safety, or (3) a mental disorder that manifests itself by acute symptoms of sufficient severity such that either you are an immediate danger to yourself or others, or you are not immediately able to provide for, or use, food, shelter, or clothing, due to the mental disorder. This information is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of specific medical advice or care you receive from your physician or other health care professional. If you have persistent health problems, or if you have additional questions, please consult with your doctor. If you have questions or need more information about your medication, please speak to your pharmacist. Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.