How To Manage Challenging And Picky Eaters

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Whether your child has been a picky eater from the start, or has just flipped from a lover of kale and salmon to a refuser of anything but white pasta, know that you are not alone. It is one of the most common mommy complaints heard.

Here is a feeding manifesto that every parent, especially parents of difficult eaters, should know.

There is a division of responsibility in feeding – it the parent’s duty to decide when, what and how much to put on the plate and it is child’s job to decide if and how much they will eat. Memorize this and remind yourself of this when times are bumpy. Constant badgering, reminding, bargaining, convincing, and even forcing your child to eat can lead to a sequela of altered appetite regulation, aversive eating and negative attitudes towards food.

Children do not need as many calories as adults require.

Unlike adults whose nutritional needs and intake are stable, toddlers have fluctuating calorie requirements, and can vary by up to 500 calories on a given day depending on their growth and activity. Before panic mode hits, know that it is normal for a child to eat 3 large meals one day and skip dinner the next.

Determine if your child is actually a problematic eater by consulting with a pediatric nutrition or a pediatrician to educate yourself on what the age appropriate nutritional needs and portions are.

Food neophobia, or fear of new food, surfaces in toddlerhood.

But, don’t be so quick to label your child as picky! Children are allowed to have preferences – don’t confuse preference with pickiness, especially if the children haven’t had the opportunity for repeat exposure to new foods in positive eating environments. I consider picky eating when a child eats less than 20 individual foods.

Here are 20 ways to reset the eating environment and to lay the foundation for good eating:

Ditch the clean-your-plate approach –

as the manifesto above states, it is up to children to decide how much they will eat on a given night. They will eat what they need for growth and sustenance.

Excite their palates –

Don’t offer bland foods. Explore citrus, vinegars, fresh and dried herbs and spices.

Repeat exposure –

Some foods children accept immediately, others take time and practice. Before crossing off a food from their repertoire, try at least 15 times. That sounds like a lot, but think about offering it different ways. If steamed broccoli is a no-go try sautéed with garlic and parmesan cheese.

Be creative & fun –

Present food in a fun, colorful way. Kids like foods that are easy to pick up, so use food cutters to make fun shapes, make turkey and lettuce roll ups, prepare fish as kebabs, and form mini rice & veggie balls using sticky brown rice. Make fun designs out of food, like creating a sun using hummus and red bell peppers (hummus as center, peppers as rays).

For inspiration, there are tons of Instagram and other social media accounts that are dedicated to showcasing kid friendly food.

Stop congratulating and bribing –

When children eat well, don’t over do the “good job.” They should learn to eat to sustain their bodies, not to please you. Alternatively, if they don’t eat, avoid bribing, especially with dessert as the reward.

Stress free meals –

Children can feel your anxiety about their eating. Take deep breaths and turn on your favorite song, it helps!

Family meals –

Children should watch and mimic others eat. This fosters a positive association with eating as a social, enjoyable experience. If busy schedules make this impossible, at least eat a snack during children’s mealtime. Avoid waiting until they are asleep to eat.

Involve kids in food preparation –

Children who touch, smell, cook food are more likely to eat what is prepared and be engaged with eating.

Manageable portions –

It is better to provide small, easy to finish portions. Large, adult size portions can be overwhelming for young children.

Moderate variety –

While variety is good, too much variety is overwhelming and distracting. Offer no more than 3-4 items per meal.

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Don’t only prepare “safe foods” –

If children are only offered guaranteed-to-eat foods, they will never try new foods. It is a tempting guarantee that they will consume their nutrition, but it will not create healthy eating behaviors.

When making something new, have 1 “safe” side dish on the table available as an alternative. But, once the food is on the table and they express dislike, don’t start to cook an alternative that they like. They may not eat as much that particular meal, but will learn to eat what is offered at later meals.

Don’t ask children what they want for dinner –

It is the parent’s job to decide what is offered.

Limit grazing, non-nutritious snacks and juice –

Toddlers require 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day. Offering frequent snacks (yes, handfuls count), non-nutritious snacks, and juice can spoil appetites for meals and give children less reason to explore new foods.

Watch your attitudes towards food –

If parents or siblings are on limited diets and make faces about their food, toddlers will see and mimic. Set a house rule of no “yuck,” “uch,” or “ew” about food. Use the alternative, “This is not my taste.”

Limit distractions at table –

It’s tempting to throw kids in front of the TV or IPad so that they can be fed more food, but it does not establish good feeding behaviors or appetite regulation.

Make what they eat count –

For children who don’t eat that much, provide nutritionally dense foods. Add extra eggs and yogurt to pancakes, switch to full fat dairy, prepare rice with coconut milk, whip avocado in smoothies, and add unsweetened peanut butter to oatmeal.

Incorporate new foods into well received dishes –

Blending some veggies into foods like eggs, pasta sauce, soups, and muffins can be a magic weapon to get kids to consume the nutrients and fiber. But, always place a portion of the actual whole vegetable on the children’s plate for exposure.

For those who refuse cauliflower, steam a head of cauliflower, puree into sauce consistency and pour into their favorite mac n cheese blend.

Don’t make a big deal out of new food –

Research shows that kids are more inclined to try new food when it’s marketed as tasty rather than as healthy. And, don’t focus much on the new food, lest suspicion builds.

Have you ruled out any underlying reason?

Constipation, food allergies, iron deficiency, chewing delays, and other GI troubles can impact children’s eating and willingness to try new foods.

Start a multivitamin and mineral supplement –

without added sugar and artificial food dyes until children are eating all of the food groups.

While a controlling, overly stressful attitude can have negative consequences, the same can be said of a hands off, laissez-faire approach. Strike the balance. You are the guide at meals, not the enforcer or disciplinarian.


Nicole Silber, RD, CSP, CDN is a recognized expert in family nutrition. Nicole is both a Registered Dietitian and board certified specialist in pediatric nutrition. She has worked with hundreds of children and adults offering individual consultations, teaching educational classes, delivering lectures, and participating in school based programs and consulting. She is the Director of Pediatrics at Middleberg Nutrition, a nutrition and wellness practice in New York City. Nicole has a background in clinical nutrition, and worked in 2 of New York’s top-rated hospitals, where she supported critically ill children on pediatric intensive care units, pregnant and breastfeeding women, as well as those with complex medical conditions, gastrointestinal disease, cardiovascular disease, food allergies and sensitivities, diabetes, and weight management issues. For more information visit Middleberg Nutrition, and for kid friendly nutrition tips follow Nicole on instagramtwitterand pinterest

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