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Picky Eating: How to Help Change a Child's Food Habits

Jun 28, 2018
image of children eating

Picky eating is common among young children. In fact, up to 50 percent of children are reported as picky eaters by their parents or caregivers.

Picky eaters aren’t just kids who refuse to eat vegetables, but also kids who only eat a few foods repeatedly and kids who refuse to try new foods (also known as food neophobia). Here are some tips to help better understand picky eating and how to manage it:

How can I get my child to increase their food volume, eat more vegetables or try new foods?

This question is probably the most common one parents have about picky eaters. It’s a bit easier to answer by breaking it down into do’s and don’ts:

Do:

  • Gently encourage trying new foods and eating more food (amounts and types).
  • Model! If you want your child to eat vegetables or try a new food, you should do it too.
  • Offer a variety of options during meals or snacks (2-3 different foods is a good amount). Try to have one option be something you know your child will eat, while the others can be something new or things you are trying to get them to eat, like vegetables.
  • Have meals together as a family as much as possible.
  • Keep mealtime conversation positive or neutral.
  • Praise your child if they try a new food or eat more volume, variety or vegetables. A simple, “Thanks for trying that food” should work.
Don’t:
  • Create battles over eating or try to force kids to eat certain foods. This method almost always backfires, leading kids to hate certain foods simply because they link them with a bad experience or argument versus actually disliking the food.
  • Discuss negative or heated topics during meals, even if the topic is unrelated to foods (e.g., poor behavior in school, bad test grades).
  • Become a short order cook (making meals for the picky eater, then something for everyone else). This is way too much work and perpetuates the picky eating.
  • Give sweets or desserts if no regular meal foods were eaten to avoid rewarding food refusal.

I’ve tried the suggestions above, but they didn’t work. What do I do now?

Implementing these strategies is much easier said than done and it’s very common for parents to need help getting their kid on track with eating. If you’re stuck, reach out for help; a nutritionist, child psychologist or pediatrician can all be helpful in providing guidance for moving forward.

Will my child grow out of this picky eating stage?

This is a tough question. The answer is maybe. There isn’t long-term data on how kids’ eating habits evolve as they grow. Some kids get over it and others need help. Catching picky eating early and discussing with physicians to learn if intervention is necessary is key.

How will I know if it’s more than picky eating?

There are certain things to watch for when it comes to picky eating; decreases in weight, long periods of time without gains in height or weight, lots of crying during meals or apparent fear of eating, frequent reports of pain or nausea during or after eating, or choking, gagging or vomiting during or after meals. If you see something that concerns you or you have a gut feeling that something isn’t quite right with your kids – pay attention to it! It’s always better to get it checked out.

What should I do if I am concerned or see any of the warning signs above in my child?

Head to the pediatrician. It’s never a bad idea to get your child examined to rule out a medical cause for picky eating or determine if picky eating is causing any negative consequences. They may suggest you see a physician specialist, like a gastroenterologist, for further evaluation. They may also suggest evaluation and treatment with a child psychologist to address eating challenges with behavioral treatment.

For more information on feeding problems, listen to our PediaCast and for more information on Big Lots Behavioral Health Services at Nationwide Children's Hospital, click here.

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700 Children’s features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.