Picky Eaters

Help, hope, and hard lines for kids who say "yuck!" to almost any food.



Related reading on PSP:

Hiding Vegetables

Debating the D word: Dessert


Original poster:


I have a five-year-old who loves to eat cereal, milk, and brownies. She could live on the stuff if I let her. She won't eat fruit unless it's apple. She won't drink juice unless it's Juicy Juice apple juice or Sunny D/Tangy. She won't eat veggies unless it's carrots. She won't eat meat unless it's chicken nuggets or vienna sausages (and it depends on the brand as well).  She won't eat beans unless it's refried beans from a can. She won't eat pasta unless it's macaroni and cheese. She won't eat bread unless it's white sandwich bread with no crust. She doesn't like sweets (except brownies), jelly, or honey. She does like kiddie yogurt, peanut butter, saltine crackers, chips, and eggs. She loves cheese, and she likes the white rice from the Chinese food restaurant (no other). I'm concerned that she might not be getting enough nutrients, and she refuses to take vitamins. She doesn't like Pediasure or anything like that either. Every day she eats waffles or pancakes for breakfast, and I serve her whatever we have for dinner. If the food I make is not on her list of favorites, she will take more than two hours to eat. It has become extremely frustrating. I want her to develop healthy eating habits and to enjoy eating instead of thinking that dinner is a chore or a punishment. And forget about lunch at school:  most days she only licks the peanut butter off the PB&J sandwich. Any ideas? Cute stories about broccoli trees and making her choose dinner or helping me cook it doesn't work either. I also don't want to have to cook something especially for her at dinner or have to send her a special lunch every day at school. I want her to learn to eat normally.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated


Answers, including advice from newer and similar threads:


It's normal, and you're doing just fine:

"I have no advice--and a son, only 19 months. who has a very short list as well--but my mother reminds me frequently that I ate only cottage cheese and applesauce in separate bowls with separate spoons for many, many years. I didn't actually really enjoy food until I was in college. Today I eat normally. I'm still kind of picky but I can find something on nearly every restaurant menu and still like new recipes. This doesn't take away the frustration you must be experiencing, but hopefully it will make you feel better about the lack of normalcy."


"You all are doing great whether your toddler is eating salad already or whether they only eat neutral tones. It changes, and what they are eating at 20 months isn't going to set them up for only eating pasta and butter when they are married adults."


Wait until they get older:

"My husband thought I was crazy to put up with this, and I myself was starting to despair as the years went by and he was as picky as ever. Finally, finally, at the age of 12, he is now trying new things. The list of things he will eat has probably doubled over the last six months. He is still 'picky' by any reasonable standard, but things have improved a lot. I'm not sure this was the right approach, and I don't know if he'll ever eat like a 'normal' person (not sure I really do, either), but I think it was the right way to go, for him."


"I have been blessed with two kids who never went through the extremely picky eater stage, but my husband has told me that he was the kind of kid who would only eat a very limited list of foods and took the same lunch to school every single day in elementary school. When he went to college is when he really started trying new foods, and now he's a much more adventurous eater than I am, or most people I know.  (At one point, he was looking for a Peruvian restaurant that served guinea pig because he wanted to try it. Didn't find one, though.) He figures if some people eat it and like it, he's willing to give it a try. And he likes almost everything. He says his mom didn't try to make him eat what he didn't want to eat. She gave him what he liked, and eventually his tastes evolved. I think that's generally the best way to handle a picky eater.  Once they get past the toddler stage, it's hard to 'fool' them by sneaking stuff they don't like into foods they do like, though I suppose it's worth a try. It seems like your kid has a fairly long list of acceptable foods. (I've known kids who used to only eat about five things who are now healthy teenagers.)  So give them what they like, offer other stuff but don't make a big issue out of it if they refuse. This too shall pass."


Don't force food:

"My son was even pickier than this, if you can believe it. I was also a picky eater as a kid, and I thought my parents' approach of 'You'll sit at this table until that plate is clean, young lady!' was the wrong way to go. So with my son, I never forced him to eat anything. The only real rule was that he had to have some form of vegetable or fruit with his dinner, and, luckily, he would eat salad or cut-up raw veggies. I made him his own separate dinner on nights when I knew he wouldn't eat what everyone else was eating."


"If your child pushes his or her plate away without touching it, do not lose heart. It is my experience that picky eaters are not born, they are created. If you are quite sure that what you are offering them is delicious (would you eat it?), then simply smile and tell them that dinner is in front of them, and if they do not wish to eat, they do not have to. Then walk away.  Do not beg, cajole, bribe, or offer alternatives. Every parent I know who has played out the struggle of wills has regretted it; don’t engage."


"Like most others have said I think the 'no pressure' approach seems to work best. Offer a few choices, one or two they already like and one or two new or “learning to like” foods. Then (as many have said) eat together and let them see you enjoying all the foods! I think that can be hugely powerful because in general they want what we have and want to imitate us, especially if we seem to be enjoying something and aren’t trying to coax them into doing or eating it."


Similarly, never bribe:

"Our approach was to repeatedly offer and suggest food options but never to insist, bribe or coerce. For example:
Me: Have some of that yummy chicken.
Her: I don't like chicken.
Me: Are you sure? Yesterday you liked it. Remember, you used the blue plate.
Her: I don't want it. I don't like chicken.
Me (looking at my own plate and keeping a nonchalant tone): Ok. What about the tomatoes?
For our kid it was pretty clearly about her exercising some control and letting her do that made us more creative in constantly offering new foods alongside some that she'd still eat (carbs and dairy) without starting a fight over food.
She will still refuse a favorite food on occasion and we employ pretty much the same technique although now we will not be quite as constantly willing to provide an alternative. (E.g., No more tortilla. What else would you like?).
Overall I could see that she wasn't losing weight, becoming dehydrated or any other serious health impact. She ate a lot of avocado, rice, yogurt and milk for a while. It passed."


Be firm:

"I recall reading in Bringing Up Bebe pretty reasonable sounding advice about feeding a baby/toddler - it's about being firm and exposure. The being firm part refers to not relenting and defaulting to the foods that the baby already likes, but instead feeding the whole family the same meal. And exposure refers to trying some foods over and over until baby gets used to it and begins to like it. I remember the book chapter suggested that all food is an acquired taste! So basically you're just getting baby into the habit of eating anything and everything."


"An Ellyn Satter [concept] Division of Responsibility is a staple among nutritionists and it really says, offer healthy foods, no pressure, no bribing, and then let them eat what they want. She also focuses less on veggies specifically and talks about why young kids like high carb and high fat foods. You offer a healthy selection, include something you know they will eat and then they go from there."


"My daughter was a picky eater. Here's what I did that might have helped make her less picky. I made her and her 3-year-old brother eat dinner in order from most disliked to most liked foods (so veggies came first, then protein, then starch).  For months, I made her try a bite of a new food almost daily, though I'd wait a couple of weeks before reintroducing bites.  If she wouldn't try the food, dinner ended (though I did negotiate down to the most miniscule bites.) I provided few snacks between meals, though I have found that disliked foods will sometimes be better appreciated as a snack than as part of a meal. That's how I got carrot sticks into my children's lives, a vegetable that they hate to eat at dinner, for some reason. I also resigned myself to the fact that on occasion she wouldn't have a meal because she didn't want to eat the food I offered and we were both just going to have to live with that because I wouldn't make a safety food like mac n' cheese. Finally, several big food breakthroughs happened because an older child came over and ate with my daughter at the table. See if you can borrow an older, highly-looked-up-to child to come over and eat with gusto foods that your child doesn't like."


Or consider being less firm:

"Can I interject with some 'old mom' wisdom? I know we all want our kids to eat really well, and a wide variety of things, but toddlerhood is a time when kids want to exert control over their lives. Is it worth the fight to get them to eat those two pieces of broccoli?

I maybe should have been more strict with my kids about eating things, but my good friend gloated that she forced her kid to eat everything and shamed me for feeding my kids mac and cheese and chicken nuggets too often when they were little. It’s only a data point of one, but her child ended up rejecting all of the control the mom exerted about everything (school, sleep, dating, etc.). There were lots other control issues in that family, but I think it started with food."


Kids will eat, eventually:

"Children are self-regulating; they will eat anything if they are hungry. Try to limit the snacking between meals to insure that your children gets used to eating full lunches and dinners. If your kids are hungry between meals, keep snacks small, healthy, and not too heavy."

"So, one of the most freeing toddler eating mantras I ever encountered was: You decide when, what, and where. They decide whether and how much. And just leave it at that. If you put broccoli on the dinner table at 6:30pm and they decide not to eat it, just let it go. Eat dinner with them and show the example of eating a healthy variety of foods, but if they don't eat anything, then that's their choice. They won't starve themselves and eventually, they'll figure it out. What I repeatedly told my daughter was, 'You don't have to eat it but that's what is for dinner.' And, if later she decided she was hungry again, I'd pull out the same dish again and offer it to her. (Of course, that being said, I did always put SOMETHING on the plate I knew she liked - a piece of fruit or a couple spoonfuls of cottage cheese - so there was some familiarity and dinner wasn't entirely unpleasant).  Every kid is different and it takes a TON of buy in from the parents - consistency is key. But, it really worked for us."


Try experimenting with other meals:

"Maybe lunches are a good place to experiment, since you don't actually have to view your child not eating the food. So try not to always pack safe lunches, but also ones containing a disliked food that you would love your child to expand into."


Keep meal time neutral:

"Many articles said that's it's crucial to make mealtime a neutral event. E.g. Don't say to the kid 'good job or bad job’ if they eat or don't eat food because then the kid will learn to use food to control the situation. I noticed this was really good advice and at every mealtime even though it bothered me so much when my son chose fried chicken over broccoli I would not say anything and just offered a variety of foods with little pressure to eat them. What I would say was a casual 'just try it - if you don't like it you don't have to eat it ' And if he said ' I don't want to try it ' I wouldn't push it and just say 'ok maybe next time then' With this attitude I noticed my son would try the food at his own pace and 50 percent of the time he ended up liking it. This may be a very slow method but so far it's worked great for us. E.g. It took my son 3 years before he would try rice noodles and now he loves it. If you are concerned about your daughters vegetable intake I highly recommend fruit and veggie smoothies / juices. Spinach doesn't have much of a flavor and when paired with apples, touch of lemon tastes delicious. Another great way is fruit/veggie popsicles. They sell them in the ice cream compartment at union market Lasagna and bolognese are great dishes to throw in lots of veggies too. And lastly I believe it's a phase. When I was young I didn't eat 1/100th of the foods I eat today. Many of the bitter vegetables I eat today required a more mature palate which I acquired with time."


Take time to manage your own stress over their pickiness:

"I found this resource very helpful for understanding the normal development and for advice for fostering good eating. My biggest lesson has been for myself to manage the stress of feeding and the kid not eating. At home I offer one full meal to them. If they eat fine and if not fine too. Next meal will come later and when they are hungry they eat. But you have to decide what gives you more stress: an empty belly or a belly full of junk. And empty belly does no harm (of course I am not talking about not eating for days!)  And I can say that a big part about taste and appetite is genetic. One twin is a great eater and the other is super picky despite the fact that they  are both offered the exact same food since birth."


"My hubby had the 'if they get enough nutrients over the course of the week it’s fine.' That helped me relax that they didn’t have to have every food group covered at every meal."


"For a while I was very focused on the fact that my daughter loved fruit the most during her meals/snacks and maybe had a bite or two of something else. This really stressed me but then I was reminded that fruit has a ton of the same nutrients as veggies. It helped me go back to the no pressure approach, and not pushing one food type over another, which helped mealtime (along with her desire to eat different things) improve. She’ll still eat two bites one day and like a bottomless pit the next, but as we are learning, that’s kids!"


Sometimes it takes time for kiddos to get used to seeing veg:

"I really wanted my children to eat salmon (which I roast with a glaze of ketchup and teriyaki, yum). On week one, they pushed it away and ate only the vegetables. On week two, they each took two bites.  By week three, there was no issue, and they were eating the salmon. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting them used to seeing it. Here’s a link to an interesting article about introducing new foods at a young age."


 "We were told by a feeding therapist to put out 3 foods at each meal, 1 that is a 'safety' which you can usually rely on your kid to eat. It can take 20 or so times for a kid to see a food before they are even willing to try it. Keep at it :) Just put it out there; your job is to provide the healthy food at regular times and it's your kid's job to make sure she eats. Don't look at the intake at each meal. See it as an over-the-week sort of intake. Let your kid play with food. Touch is sometimes the best and first entry point. Poke it, feel it, paint with it? There may be very little consistency!  And from our own experience, rewards like a sticker or stamp help us get our son to try something new. Even if it's just putting the food on his tongue or in his mouth and then spitting it out if he doesn't like it. Or his dad'll use reverse psychology, 'This is MY zucchini. This is the way I like it. You won't like it at all. It's definitely not for you.'"


And it can help if other kids role model for them:

"Watching kids eat a variety of stuff was really motivating to my kids—mostly at birthday parties. My daughter wanted to eat hummus because she saw other kids eating it. Then it’s a situation without parents pushing food. Also-- my daughter at 16 went on a school trip to Spain—she came home from that trip open to trying a lot more things because she didn’t want to be so picky."


Engage your child in meal prep:

"This sounds like my older child, who at 6.5 now eats most foods. It was about 1-2 years when she was really picky. For lunch she ate basically the same thing every day (PBJ/carrot or apple/yogurt or cheese) and then dinner was more variety. One thing that helped was having her help prepare the foods - cutting, mixing, etc. went a long way toward trying."


"I’ve always had my daughter in the kitchen with me while cooking and believe it makes food and eating more celebratory."


"Also involving them with food as others have mentioned. Sometimes I pick him up while I’m making a meal (mostly cause he wants attention or is hangry) and he’ll grab a handful of whatever I’m prepping. Last time he saw shredded carrots on top of a salad and said 'cheese!' And I was like, that’s carrots! And he grabbed a fistful anyway and ate it up. Letting them have some control is so helpful! Also he likes to 'help' unpack the groceries when I get home so I often set the bag or box on the floor and just let him pull stuff out. Helps to get him engaged/excited/interested in veggies and other food especially if I tell him what it is and/or ask him to put it in the refrigerator. Sometimes he’ll just start munching on a pepper or cucumber or blueberries."


Hide veggies:

"Smoothies, sauces, muffins, and dips are your friend. Put whatever you want her to get in those. Keep offering good choices and then... Let go. I know it's hard (I have a 20 month old) but your job is to make and offer good foods and her job is to decide how much goes in her body. It doesn't matter what she eats in a day at this age, it's more about what she eats over the course of a week. It's hard for me to relax when my toddler pushes her  plate away and insists on a box of berries for dinner but I tell myself there must be a reason her body wants this berries... They only thing I resist is making 'kid meals.' It's just not a path I want to go down."


"I'm also happy to share that I had a small breakthrough today where my kiddo actually ATE SOMETHING GREEN(!)-- I made some broccoli-cheddar nuggets that she ate when she was much younger, but I hadn't gotten around to making them in some time. I was shocked that she didn't mind the green chunks-- maybe because they were cooked down enough, or maybe because of the nugget shape (I'll admit that I called it a 'cheese cookie'...) Here's the recipe (I seasoned the breadcrumbs with garlic powder, dried oregano, and dried parsley). (It's a site for baby foods, hence why it's been a while since I've used it, but I may circle back to some of the other recipes again now...!)"


"I have a picky 18month old on the lean side. So I just started to make her 'ice cream' that she gets as a treat! And I really play up the treat part and that she only gets it AFTER she eats some lunch or dinner. I blend coconut milk (or regular is fine) with coconut oil and avocado for fat. And I have another one that is coconut milk, coconut oil, a little sugar and banana and blueberries, or strawberries, or really any fruit.  I plan to also try one where I will sneak in some kale. I think as long as I blend it and freeze it and she eats it like that I can sneak in the undesirables."

Read all the PSP tips about how to hide vegetables >


Check out Ellyn Satter:

"I found the philosophy of Ellyn Satter VERY freeing. Here's her website, but tl;dr version is: make what you want, with some nod to their preferences (like a side dish they enjoy or something), let everyone serve themselves (if kids are old enough), and then do not interfere at all.  As long as kids are gaining weight well or growing appropriately, their palette will develop over time.  If you allow food to become a power struggle, it will make mealtimes battlegrounds, which is no fun for anyone and also gives the impression that food/meals are the places to assert will, play out family dynamics, etc."


"I like the division of responsibility (DOR) approach by Ellyn Satter, who is behind a lot of the current feeding recommendations (including Feeding Littles approach!). A lot of info is available on her website, but she also has several books (both Child of Mine & Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family are aimed at families). Basically - its our job to offer a mix of foods, and up to our kids to decide what (and if) they eat from the offering, and when.

I frequently have to remind myself that at around 2, our kids are done with the super high growth of the first 1.5-2 years, and so their food intake generally will slow down a bit as well. I generally keep a sense of how E has been eating over the past 5-7 days, but typically its 1 "good" meal a day, and some nibbles at other meals/snacks."


Avoid offering too many options:

"I’m sure the responses you’ll get are all over the place. I have one incredibly picky eater (her teacher at daycare at age 1 said that she’d never seen a fussier child) And one slightly picky eater.

I tried to be sure that my kids ate and liked whole grains. Then I made sure that I made one dinner but I had additional options of fruit etc on the table. I didn’t let them go back for just any food if they were hungry I only allowed plain bread. I tried to not be too emotional about food for them.

My kids are now 11 and 14 and eat really well. They cannot believe that there was a time when they wouldn’t eat sushi or other healthy staples we have now (and it wasn’t so long ago that this was the case)."


"Do you eat the same food as your kid? Is there consistency in eating like place etc. My son was a super picky eater too, he's 5 now, but much much better. Definitely not adventurous and he likes his food a certain way. In any case, I kept offering what we ate. I don't make different meals. It's one thing, eat it or there's no other food. Many times I would have him watch TV and although it's not great, it was the only way for him to try new foods. Now he doesn't need tv as a crutch to eat foods he wouldn't have eaten. It's a work in progress, but tv has really helped."


Make mealtime fun:

"I am a retired occupational therapist and during the last 5 years of my work, I often helped families with picky eaters under 5 years old. At the age of 7, the approach differs a bit but I can suggest a few things.

Try to find an approach where meal time is not a battle!! This is really, really important.
Pushing children to try food they have decided they don't want to eat doesn't work. There are studies that show this.
Start your child with offering something she likes, this is always best
If you child will accept food they don't like on the plate, put a small portion on the plate, but don't say anything about needing to eat it. If the child gets curious, they may touch it with a fork or intentionally smell it, or even touch it to the lip or tongue. This is great. Even if they don't do these things, just having to food on the plate or table gives them a chance to see it and smell it.
If the child won't accept it on the plate, give them a learning plate which can be placed on the table as near to them as they will accept.

Try creating a 'Playing with food' time.
Offer finger foods. Pair something they like with a food a similar color or texture. Touching the food with the hands, gives a child more info about the food and helps them develop a feeling of safety. Model touching the foods to the arm or the face, make a mustache with a string bean, for example. Touch is a big part of eating and allowing the food to touch other parts of the body, and not just the very sensitive mouth, helps develop more familiarity and safety. Let the child make up things to do with the food. Play time with food can be mostly limited to these 'Play Times.' Depending on the family rules, you may be able to allow some touching during the meal . . .or not. It is up to you."


"Also sometimes getting silly/ hamming it up helps— like last night he ate just a couple bites of broccoli and the rest was still on his tray, so I snapped up a piece and gobbled it like a dog with a treat and said 'MMmm!' kinda hamming it up. Like he knows it’s kind of a game/ being silly. Then he tried to feed me some more broccoli (which I ate again, going kinda like 'Omm!' and kinda snapping it up like an animal haha. Which he thinks is funny. Then I offered him a bite and he ate it. So having fun and being silly can help."


Talk openly about food and nutrition:

"I'm a former food-writer that also covered nutrition and food and kids at a daily newspaper, so I'm semi-obsessed with this topic :) Here's my multi-part answer that is somewhat contradictory, but I think it will make sense.

First off, pickiness in children is developmentally appropriate. While we all know a small handful of kids who will eat anything, they are far and away the exception. There are sound evolutionary explanations for why children become pickier just as they become mobile - basically it was to keep them from poisoning themselves. By seven, many kids start to come out of peak pickiness, but that doesn't mean your kid will start to like everything overnight.

A seven-year-old is old enough to start learning about nutrition and food culture in more explicit ways. Personally I subscribe to the message that your body needs a lot of things to thrive, and it's important to eat a variety of nutritious food to get those things. I never say food is bad for you, or junk food or anything like that but we talk a lot about processed and unprocessed food as well as food being nutrient dense or not. The most extreme thing I say is that if you eat to much food that doesn't have a lot of nutrients, than you won't be hungry for the food your body needs. We also talk a lot about listening to your body and eating because you're hungry not bored. Oh and I also talk about sugar being amazing and delicious but also addictive, so it's important to "be the boss of sugar, and not let sugar be the boss of you" (my kids think this is hilarious). My 7-year-old is also quite picky, but she has a very healthy diet (she basically loves broccoli and cookies equally, so it works out), but we talk about how if she wants to be able to travel around the world, she needs to learn to eat more foods.

And now here's my big caveat where I basically contradict everything I just said. This year has been so incredibly difficult and while my older two kids have generally rolled so well with the punches, I have noticed they both reverted to more picky eating than pre-pandemic. I think that they have very little control or freedom right now, and that feeling makes it much harder to be open to new experiences including food. I have generally backed way off on this and am going to wait until the pandemic is over and they have gotten a lot more of their normal life back before I push them on this at all. Given the lack of playdates/birthday parties/dinners out I feel like it's actually incredibly easy to control the health of their diet (it's not like anyone else is feeding them!) so if they want the same five-ish dinners on repeat for a year, who cares?! We've also become an almost nightly dessert family, but again, they aren't getting a lot of the extra treats they would normally have, and if a small cookie, a piece of chocolate or Culture frozen yogurt on Mondays (new tradition instituted by the 7-year-old) helps them end their day on a sweet note (haha), I am just not going to worry about this right now. We can eat fruit for dessert when we can also hug our friends.

Hope that was somewhat helpful! If you'd like to read a fun book about feeding kids/picky eating some of my favorites are French Kids Eat Everything, Hungry Monkey (more about feeding babies, but really fun and written by a dad for a change!), and Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate."


Books, webinars, and online resources:

"I just enrolled in a self-paced webinar about helping kids with picky eating called Better Bites. I only just started but it’s been quite helpful already. The same nutritionist runs the Instagram account @kids.eat.in.color where you can get a sense for her approach to food and some of the techniques she recommends."

"I love Kids Eat in Color. She’s a mom who’s also an RD. Super-helpful recs on how to take pressure off and eliminate battles."


"I wanted to give another shout out to @kidfriendly.meals on Instagram, website mjandhungryman. Lots of great recipes for kid-friendly veggie-filled muffins, pastas, lentils, hummus, pancakes, etc. I like the idea of offering something like that (say a pasta with lentils or beet hummus on crackers) that is maybe a little more kid-pleasing, alongside some more recognizable veggies or proteins that you’re working on introducing/ learning to like :)"


"I really love Solid Starts.

The founder has a picky eater in her firstborn son and deals with how to avoid / overcome it a lot on her IG page. There are reasonably priced guides available (but also offered for free if you are experiencing financial hardships). You just have to send her an email if you can’t afford them."


"I have been following the Solid Starts program for the past year and it has been a lifesaver. The founder definitely started because of extreme picky eating, not just the chicken nuggets and mac and cheese a few times a week kind of eater. Her son refused to eat anything that wasn't spoon fed.

Yes, toddlers 100% present preferences and are pushy, but I've found the Solid Starts program to really help with the balance. Serving one thing that is a "safe" food (maybe that's mac and cheese) with a teeny exposure to something that is more of a challenge has helped my son to learn to appreciate things I'd never think he would (dill pickle hummus? beets and goat cheese?). Sure he still refuses broccoli and any kind of meat, but I still put a small piece on his place at least a few times a week and if he tries it, great, if not, he'll eat the blackberries and spinach pancakes I made which I know he loves. I never force any clean plate type methodology and neither does Solid Starts which is what I like the most about them. No fighting to eat during mealtimes at all. Toddlers can choose to not eat if they don't want to, but they usually listen to their bodies and eat at least the safe food. Reduces so much stress!"


"Get the book How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? and have fun. Don’t let the doctor stress you out. Just keep enjoying the same foods you’re offering with audible excitement. The child will not starve and the floor can be cleaned by the dog. This should be fun."