14 Ways for Parents to Handle Fussy Eaters

Don't try to force a fussy eater to eat.
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Fussy eating is one of the most common food-related issues parents struggle to address. One day, your child’s favorite food in the world is peanut butter and jelly; the next, your child won’t touch the stuff. Unfortunately, if left unaddressed, picky eating can result in a limited diet and a lack of adequate nutrition.

But trying to get a child to eat a nutritious meal can be a challenge, and if you’re not careful, it could result in serious power struggles and ongoing arguments. When this happens, you're actually reinforcing your child’s persnickety eating habits—especially if you’re raising a strong-willed child.

Consequently, if you have a fussy eater on your hands, it's important to address the issue as soon as you can. Here are some steps you can take to encourage your little one to become a healthy, happy eater.

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.

The problem, you might say, isn’t offering new foods like broccoli or asparagus but actually getting the kids to try them. One thing you can do is limit snacks.

The hungrier kids are, the more likely they are to eat whatever meal is put in front of them. Offer one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon snack but skip any pre-dinner snacks.

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 farmers 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 the preparation of dinner. Depending on their age, allow them to set the table or tear lettuce up for the salad. You could even allow them to help plan a fun menu and then encourage them to invite their favorite toys, like the teddy bear they still cuddle with at night.

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. Award points for each different color food they try and reward them with a small prize at the end.

Another option is to create finger paints with different foods. Although it might get a little messy, the good thing is that you don't have to worry about your kids licking their fingers.

Try 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. It might be that they would prefer it steamed, or it might just be that they're having a difficult day. The next time you serve it, your kids might be more willing to take a bite or two.

Also, try saving what your child didn’t eat if they refuse to eat at all. Then, if your child wants a snack later, try offering the same dinner again. Eventually, they will get the idea that they can’t skip dinner and go for the delicious snacks later.

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 or a sweet dipping sauce. So try adding a tasty condiment if you keep striking out when introducing new foods.

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.

Eventually, your kids might opt to eat these new foods without special dipping sauces. But for now, celebrate the fact that they are at least eating it.

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, you never know what your children will or won’t eat. There’s no point in giving them a pile of food just for them to reject it. 

Work on Your Cooking Skills

When it comes to what your kids will and won't eat, take a broader look at their habits. For instance, as hard as it might be to admit, if your child is eager to eat at restaurants or at grandma's house, it could be a sign they're not a fan of your cooking.

Consider adding or deleting spices, trying new recipes, or changing things up a bit to see if they like your food cooked in a different manner. You also could ask your child to tell you which foods they like best. Try to find recipes that center around those ingredients.

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. Consequently, 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

When you don’t want a battle, it’s easy to fall into the rut of peanut butter and jelly, chicken nuggets, and mac-and-cheese for every meal. However, in doing that, you’re simply reinforcing the idea that your little one doesn’t need to try new foods—plus, they won’t get the variety of nutrients they really need.

As a result, set a goal to introduce one or two new foods a week. For instance, you could plan to serve their favorite lunch one day and then try something new the next. Likewise, you could add a new vegetable a few times a week at dinner. The key is to be consistent and creative as you work to expand the foods they will eat.

Refrain From Forcing Them to Eat

There are many adults who have suffered long-lasting emotional and physical consequences as a result of being required to clean their plates. For instance, they now may struggle with obesity, food addiction, or an eating disorder.

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 differently.

For example, a taco bar allows your picky eater to skip the tomatoes and sour cream and just eat ground beef, cheese, and beans. Likewise, you could separate out a portion of spaghetti for your child before adding the sauce. Or, try portioning out some chili before the beans are included if your child doesn't care for beans.

Be a Role Model

Every person has certain food preferences. But, if you don’t like cauliflower and your child doesn’t like cauliflower, why would they even try it if you’re not willing to do the same?

As a result, you need to model the behavior you want to see from your child.

If that means you have to suck down three to five bites of roasted cauliflower, be willing to do it. Likewise, try to avoid saying things like "I don't like vegetables" in front of your kids. Most likely, they will repeat this phrase back to you at some point if you're not careful. Consequently, you need to behave around foods the same way you would want your child to respond.

Avoid Saying Vegetables Are Healthy

Referring to cookies as "yummy," and carrots as "healthy" sends the message that vegetables don’t taste very good. When you stop telling kids vegetables are healthy, they tend to show more interest in eating them.

Likewise, labeling foods as "good" and "bad" can create unhealthy relationships with food as your kids age. Instead, try to get your kids to see that foods serve different purposes.

For instance, a birthday cake's purpose is to help celebrate the day the person was born, while an orange provides you with the vitamin C that your body needs. Neither food is good or bad—they simply serve different purposes.

Keep It Low-Key

Constantly saying, “Eat your vegetables” or “You’re such a finicky eater” may only reinforce your child’s choices. 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.

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 to try new foods, try not to worry too much if your efforts aren't 100% successful at first. Even if your little one refuses to eat anything but grapes for a period of time, they most certainly won’t live on grapes for the rest of their life. But, if you’re still concerned, trust your gut and talk to your child's doctor.

Talking to your doctor 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.

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  2. 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

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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