11 Tips for Dealing with Finicky Eaters

They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Ironically, the same holds true for kids and their sometimes finicky eating habits. Here are some tips on how to help finicky eaters develop better habits.

  • Don’t get pulled into an argument. If you are fighting with your child to eat something, you have already lost the war. Arguing with your child to eat a specific food without talking back or by using the “because I said so” technique is not an effective long-term strategy. Explaining to your children why eating a specific food is beneficial and offering suggestions on ways to improve the taste to their palate, you’re helping them understand the purpose of healthy eating.
  • Allow your kids to help make their own food. If your children help to make their own food, they will be more likely to eat it. Treat your meal preparation as if it were an art project at school. Start with simple tasks and increase their responsibility as they get older. By the time your child goes off to college, they’ll have the culinary experience to fend for themselves instead of ordering pizza and ramen every night. Sal Severe, PhD, author of How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too says, “If they participate in helping to make the meal, they are more likely to want to try it.” For example, just mixing guacamole in a bowl will entice kids to eat avocados where they might not have done so before.
  • Be patient. Kids are going to be far more adventurous with their eating after the age of 5. Studies have shown that there is something called a “flavor window” that is open between four months and 18 months where your child can be introduced to specific foods. Your child might like broccoli as much as ice cream. Using this window is a great way to try to develop a palate for healthy foods.
  • Don’t bribe your children to eat with unhealthy foods. Bribing your kids is a big mistake. When you reward a child to eat healthy foods with unhealthy foods, we are telling them they need an external reward to do the right thing and it reinforces eating unhealthy food. Negative reinforcement, when it comes to food, isn’t the best tactic to utilize when getting kids to eat healthy.
  • Don’t label your child’s eating habits. By saying your child is a picky eater in front of them, you are typecasting them for the role of being a picky eater. Kids under the age of five are going to naturally be selective eaters. “Being selective is actually normal,” says Elizabeth Ward, MS, RD. She notes that we should refer to children as limited eaters rather than picky eaters to avoid any negative connotations.
  • Take what you can get. If you can get your child to eat something from each food group, at least it’s a step in the right direction. Kids are comfortable with routine and familiarity, so let them enjoy what few things they do eat in each food group. “Even though they are not getting a wide variety of foods, they are actually doing OK nutritionally,” say Ward. Once your child hits their growth spurt, appetites will grow and give you the opportunity to introduce more foods into their diet.
  • Curb the oversnacking. If you’re going to let your child snack, don’t let them waste it on empty calories. When they say they’re not hungry and they’ve been drinking milk or juice, it’s probably because they’re full. Give them flavored water if they’re thirsty and don’t offer high calorie snacks like chips or sodas. If you’re going to hand out snacks, make sure that you’re offering them items that supplement meals.
  • Offer a variety of foods, but do so with consistency. Numerous studies have shown that you need to offer a specific food at least 15 times to your child before they will accept it. Offer it a couple times a week, but not every day. You need to keep the option there regularly so they know that it’s something that will continue to be on the menu.
  • Be consistent and set limits. If you’re going to offer new foods to your kids, make sure that you’re setting limits. If there are sweets, make sure that they eat a specific amount of the foods they’re having an aversion to prior to doing so. Don’t be overly controlling or too permissive, but be consistent so that your child is aware that healthy foods come first.
  • Set a good example. If your children are seeing you eating junk food while pushing healthy foods on them, they’re going to be less likely to want to follow suit. Don’t participate in the “do as I say, not as I do” line of thinking when feeding your children.
  • Talk healthy when you’re not eating. Rather than having a stressful discussion with your child during a meal, save the conversation about eating habits at a time that doesn’t involve food. Make it a conversation, not an argument, preferably during a bedtime story.
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Lynette Rowland has 20+ years of experience in the magazine industry, specifically within the parenting market with over 12 years of experience as the editor/associate publisher of conglomerate of parenting magazines. She is currently the editor/publisher for Rinksider Magazine and editor/writer for Today's Family Fun.