This Is How to Reverse Picky Eating Habits

picky eater boy

Nobody plans to have a picky eater. In fact, I don’t know any parents who want to feed their children the pizza-pasta-nuggets-hot dog diet. But sometimes, as the saying goes, s#@t happens.

When my daughter was a baby, I couldn’t wait to introduce solid foods. I thought the moment would be magical. And it was. My daughter lapped up whatever I put in front of her. Feeding was fun! But then, one day, my daughter learned to say, “No.”
“I don’t like it.” And “I don’t want that.”

With words came will. Suddenly, the simple mission of feeding my daughter had become a lot more complicated.

If you find yourself feeding your little lovely a menu of unmentionables, you’re not alone. Research shows that on any given day, 25% of 2-3 year olds don’t eat a single serving of fruit and 30% don’t eat a single serving of vegetables. You don’t have to settle for this situation.

You can reverse picky eating habits in 5 simple steps.

Step #1: Redirect your attention from nutrition to habits.

This is radical advice, and I know it goes against everything you’ve ever heard, but consider this: Boning up on nutrition will only teach you more about food. Most parents already know enough about what to feed their kids. It’s getting kids to eat what’s served that’s problematic.

Shifting from nutrition to habits fixes everything because it directs your attention to the right thing: How your kids behave in relation to you, to meals and to the food.

Step #2: Evaluate what you’re really teaching your tots.

The gap between the lesson you think you are teaching, and the lesson your kids are actually learning is where most problem-eating patterns are born and nurtured.

Parents think “two more bites” teaches kids the value of vegetables. In reality, kids learn some (or all) the following:

  • I have to eat veggies even if I don’t want them. This makes me dislike them even more.
  • Mommy knows better than I do how much I should eat. I should look to others for clues about portion size.
  • Dessert is usually eaten on a full stomach. Feeling full isn’t a sign to stop eating; it’s when the good times roll!

Your lessons are missing the mark if your kids’ eating “issues” don’t improve. If you know the dinner dance, your kids do too: They dawdle; you pressure; they ask how many more bites; you say three; they say two…

You’ve got to change how you interact with your children if you want to change how they eat.

Step 3: Implement the Rotation Rule: Don’t serve the same food two days in a row.

This may seem like an insurmountable problem if you parent a pack of picky eaters but take heart. In this case, variety does NOT mean new. Variety simply means different.

Implement the Rotation Rule by varying the foods your children already eat. Why? You can’t feed your kids a monotonous diet—basically the same breakfasts, lunches and snacks—and then expect your children to welcome something different at dinner.

The Rotation Rule teaches kids to expect variety, the habit that lays the foundation for new food acceptance.

Step 4: Serve a fruit and/or a vegetable at every meal and every snack—every darn day.

By now you’re probably sick of hearing about the importance of fruits and vegetables but I’m pretty sure you haven’t thought about them this way.

Eating is a matter of math: The more frequently you serve something, the more your kids will like it. Most parents make the mistake of serving fruits and vegetables too infrequently relative to everything else in their kids’ diets, inadvertently teaching kids to prefer these other foods. Then, when fruits and vegetables do show up on the menu, parents pressure their children to eat them, thereby pushing their kids’ food preferences even further afield.

Increase your children’s exposure to fruits and vegetables—and decrease the portion size (to reduce the challenge). Trust me. It’s not just your children’s diets that will improve. Your life will improve too; mealtimes will become less stressful.

(Note: If you have a very picky eater you may have to violate the Rotation Rule to get enough fruits and vegetables into your child’s day. Don’t worry. Repeat the fruits and vegetables as necessary, and rotate through all other foods. You’ll achieve the same success.)

Step 5: Eliminate all the pressure points.

Let’s get real: A few more bites in the belly won’t teach your kids to like whatever you’re forcing them to eat; it won’t make a difference between health and sickness; it won’t save your kids from starvation, or help them to sleep more peacefully through the night; and, a few more bites in the belly certainly won’t teach your kids to try new foods. More importantly, pressure (even if you think of it as friendly persuasion) makes kids more resistant.

Pressure can’t teach a picky eater to eat right. Want your kids to try a new food? Ask them to taste it, but never ask them to eat it.

Remember, it’s not what you feed, but what you teach, that matters.

* Fox, M. K., E. Condon, R. R. Briefel, K. Reidy, and D. M. Deming. 2010. “Food Consumption Patterns of Young Preschoolers: Are They Starting Off on the Right Path?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 110: S52-S59.

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Dina R. Rose, PhD, is the author of the popular blog It’s Not About Nutrition. For parents who want to feed their kids right, Dina leverages a unique combination of expertise as a sociologist and mother to help parents solve their kids’ eating problems by focusing on the root of the problem—eating habits, not nutrition. Dina has a PhD in sociology from Duke University and more than fifteen years’ experience in teaching and research. After her mother’s premature death from obesity-related illnesses at the age of 65, Dina knew she wanted to give her daughter a better—and happier— food-life. Now she makes helping parents solve their kids’ eating problems her life work. Most parents know what their children should eat, but have trouble putting this knowledge into practice. Dina offers parents the relief they need: practical, research-based strategies so they can stop struggling and start succeeding.

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