14 Ways to Support Picky Eaters

Don't try to force a fussy eater to eat.
PeopleImages.com / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Picky eating can be a stressful food-related issue for caregivers to address. Fluctuations in a child's appetite and preferences are normal (just like they are for adults). It's important to strike a balance between encouraging children to listen to their own body cues and explore their preferences, and ensuring that they are being exposed to a variety of foods and set up to have a healthful relationship with food as they get older.

Kids need time and space to practice trying new foods (and for little ones, most foods are new to them!). The goal is to encourage exploration of food without fear, and to avoid power struggles and ongoing arguments around meals and food.

If your child is a picky eater, it's never too late to start to integrate the tips below. Get started as soon as you can. Go slowly and incorporate them in a way that works for you and your child.

Offer New Foods

When working on getting your kids to expand their palate, it's important to consistently introduce new foods. But doing too much too soon is a recipe for overwhelming your child. As a result, serve one new food at a time, and serve it alongside a food that’s a familiar favorite.

So if your child loves macaroni and cheese, try adding broccoli to their plate as well. Or, if you’re introducing asparagus, pair it with spaghetti and meatballs or grilled chicken—whatever their favorite dish is.

Exposure is important. A child may not try a food the first time you offer it, but seeing it on the table or on their plate puts them one step closer to tasting it. Thinking of accepting a food as a multi-step process can make introducing new foods less frustrating for everyone. Every child is different, but the steps might be:

  1. Having a new food near their plate
  2. Having a small amount of the food on their plate
  3. Touching the food
  4. Tasting the food

Consider offering three meals and two or three snacks a day on a fairly regular schedule. This can help kids learn what it feels like to get hungry before a meal or snack. They might be more likely to try a new food if they're starting to feel hungry. Try offering one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon snack, plus an after-dinner snack if needed.

Involve Your Child

A little one is often much more willing to try a food if they've been involved in growing it, choosing it, or preparing it. As a result, think of ways to involve your child in the selection of new foods. For instance, your child might particularly enjoy going to a farmer's market, where the colorful, fresh fruits and vegetables look interesting.

Even a trip to the grocery store's produce section can help expand the foods your child eats.

You also can involve your child in meals. Depending on their age, allow them to set the table or tear lettuce up for the salad. Kids love whisking eggs for omelets, mixing muffin batter, and pouring their own cereal and milk. You could even allow them to help plan a fun menu and then encourage them to invite their favorite toys to the table. The goal is to get kids excited about food and interested in exploring it.

Make Food Fun

Playing with food doesn't have to be a bad thing. A child is more likely to eat foods that are colorful, cut into fun shapes, or paired with a dip. Of course, this often means more work for mom or dad, but if you’re desperate to get some variety into your little one, it might be worth it.

Invest in cookie cutters that can create fun shapes out of sandwiches, or create ants on a log with celery, peanut butter, and raisins. Or try creating a rainbow out of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Another option is to use colorful plates and silverware at home or bento-style boxes for lunches at school or on the go.

Try (a Lot) More Than Once

Even if your kiddos don't accept the roasted rutabaga the first time you serve it for dinner, they might the next time. And just the fact that it was on the table and they saw you eat it is helpful. It might be that they would prefer it steamed, or it might just be that they're not so sure about it yet. The next time you serve it, your kids might be more willing to take a bite or two or have some on their plates.

Keep in mind that it can take 15 or more exposures to a food before a child tries it. Just having the food on the table or on their plate counts as an exposure!

Add Condiments

Sometimes, all your kid needs to eat broccoli is a little bit of ranch dressing or a melted cheese sauce. Likewise, sweet potato fries might need some ketchup, mayo, or a dipping sauce. So try adding a tasty condiment when introducing new foods. Sometimes, just the idea of dipping a food makes it more fun for kids.

Try not to limit your child's use of condiments, especially if they suggest putting something on the new food might make it taste better.

Serve Small Portions

Giving your kids small portions serves a dual purpose. First, your kids might be overwhelmed by large portions of foods that are unfamiliar or not their favorite. Second, you’ll waste less food.

It is much easier for your child to try one broccoli floret than it is to stare down an entire cup of broccoli. Plus, this allows your child to decide how much they want and ask for more if they choose.

Serve Dessert With the Meal

While serving cookies on a plate with dinner might sound very strange if you grew up with the "dessert after dinner" rule, it can do wonders for a child's relationship with food and eating habits. Putting certain foods on a pedestal—"cookies are special and we only get them if we eat our veggies"—sends the message that certain foods hold more moral value than others.

Putting dessert foods alongside the rest of dinner allows kids to decide what to eat and in what order. They can listen to their bodies and also see that they're not a better person for eating one food versus another. There are no rewards with food. It's all just ... food.

 If you've been limiting dessert or dividing foods into categories (labeling certain foods “treats” that are allowed one day a week, etc.), expect your kids to eat more of the treat foods once they're introduced with the meal. This is typically because any food that is deemed to be scarce will be top of mind. It takes time to trust that it will be around regularly.

Give It Time

It’s relatively common for kids to be finicky eaters. A 2016 study found that over 25% of children between 1.5 and 5 years old are picky eaters. Children tend to be the pickiest between ages 2 and 4.

If your child doesn’t outgrow pickiness, talk to your pediatrician. Sometimes children who are picky eaters are suffering from a sensory disorder that truly limits the number of foods they can tolerate.

Offer Variety

Set a goal to introduce one or two new foods a week. As you do this along with repeating previously exposed foods, there won't be as many new foods, because kids will have seen them on the table before. You might plan to serve their favorite lunch along with a new vegetable a few times a week. The key is to be consistent and creative as you work to expand the foods they feel comfortable with without adding pressure.

Refrain From Forcing Them to Eat

Encourage your child to eat, but don’t require them to sit at the dinner table all night before they've been excused from the table. Instead, recognize that your job is to prepare healthy options and their job is to determine how much they will eat.

Offer One Meal Option

While you should include a food that you know your child will eat at each meal, don’t create an entirely separate meal just for them. To make things easier on yourself, try out meals that can be assembled according to each person's preferences. Family-style meals work especially well for this, allowing each person at the table to create what sounds best to them.

For example, a taco bar allows your picky eater to skip the tomatoes and sour cream and just eat ground beef, cheese, and beans. But the child still sees all of the foods on the table and sees other people eating them. Likewise, you could separate out a portion of spaghetti for your child before adding the sauce (serve a small portion of sauce in a cup on the side if they want to try it).

Or, dish out some chili before the beans are included if your child doesn't care for beans. Offer one or two beans in a small bowl on the side if your child wants to try them, or poke them, or just look at them.

Be a Role Model

Every person has certain food preferences. But as an adult at a meal or snack, it's important to watch the language you use around food. For instance, avoid talking about dieting of any sort around kids. If you don't personally care for a food, it's important not to vilify that food. Children take cues from the adults at the table.

As a result, you need to model the behavior you want to see from your child: Being willing to explore new tastes and textures.

Avoid Saying Vegetables Are Healthy

Referring to cookies as "yummy" or "treats" and carrots as "healthy" sends the message that vegetables don’t taste as good and are something we "have to" eat. When you stop telling kids vegetables are healthy, they tend to show more interest in eating them. Similarly, when you stop labeling certain foods as treats, you open the doors for kids to decide what sounds good to them at the time without feeling any type of morality assigned to specific choices.

Likewise, labeling foods as "good" and "bad" can create unhealthy relationships with food as your kids age.

Keep It Low-Key

Constantly saying, “Eat your vegetables” or “You’re such a finicky eater” may only reinforce your child’s choices and also draw them away from listening to their bodies. Giving too much attention, even if it's negative, can motivate a behavior. So, as you're introducing new foods, be low-key about it.

Your child's eating is going to vary. Your role isn't to micromanage their choices. It's to provide a variety of foods and then let them decide which ones, and how much of them, to eat.

Ask them to try it, and then leave it at that. Chances are, if your child sees you enjoying it, they might like to try it as well. In fact, who hasn't seen a baby just beginning to eat solids reach for what you're eating? If you don't make too big of a deal out of trying new foods, your child's curiosity may prompt them to take a bite before you even ask. 

A Word From Verywell

As you're working with your picky eater, try not to worry if your efforts aren't 100% successful at first. Even if your little one refuses to eat anything but grapes, they most certainly won’t live on grapes for the rest of their life. Kids tend to eat one type of food for period of time and then switch to something else. Look at their intake over the course of the week (or even the month) rather than what they eat on one day or at one meal.

But if you’re still concerned, trust your gut and talk to your child's doctor or a registered dietitian. This is particularly advisable if your child has extreme reactions to foods they don’t like or suddenly has an aversion to a food that they used to enjoy. Your pediatrician is there to help you figure out these difficult issues and can refer to you to a professional that specializes in eating issues, if necessary.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Machado BC, Dias P, Lima VS, Campos J, Gonçalves S. Prevalence and correlates of picky eating in preschool-aged children: A population-based study. Eat Behav. 2016;22:16-21. doi:10.1016/j.eatbeh.2016.03.035

  2. Steinsbekk S, Bonneville-Roussy A, Fildes A, Llewellyn CH, Wichstrøm L. Child and parent predictors of picky eating from preschool to school ageInt J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017;14(1):87. doi:10.1186/s12966-017-0542-7

Additional Reading
  • Cano SC, Hoek HW, Bryant-Waught R. Picky eating. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 2015;28(6):448-454. doi:10.1097/YCO.0000000000000194

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.