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Coping with A Picky Eater

​​This information is included in our Guide to Parenting At The Table. Click here to see the rest of the guide.

Picky EatersDo you often find yourself suffering from "short-order cook syndrome," preparing two or three different menus at mealtime to appease the desires of a finicky eater? Mealtime should be a pleasant family time and a positive learning environment for all family members. If you find that mealtimes usually end in arguments about how much your child should be eating and how much he or she is not eating, follow these guidelines. They'll help you cope with your picky eater and make family mealtime more enjoyable.

  1. The first step is to eliminate possible health problems. Make an appointment with your family pediatrician and share your concerns about your child's appetite and eating habits. Ask the doctor to weigh and measure your child and have him or her show you how to plot out a standard growth chart. Assess your child's growth and development over time, taking into consideration genetics and family body types. If your physician has no concerns, you can move on to mealtime strategies without worry.
  2. Establish rules for a sit-down, family-style meal where everyone sits together to eat. Turn the television off. Focus on conversation that includes all family members, limiting adult-only conversation. Also, don't use mealtime to nag or punish your child for behaviors that aren't related to mealtime.
  3. Establish a set of mealtime rules for your child. For example, he or she must stay seated, must eat at the table, must use his or her silverware, cannot throw food, etc.
  4. Praise your child for any appropriate behaviors that occur during a meal, especially when he or she samples new food items or ones the child doesn't prefer or like. Praise! Praise! Praise!
  5. Don't discuss eating habits or problems at or near mealtime; such discussions or teaching should take place at other times. Do not bribe, threaten, or chide your child over his or her eating habits at the dinner table. You may discuss mealtime rules, but this should be done sometime before the meal begins. Don't let discussions become lectures about the importance or value of a good diet. Always keep any talk about food intake to a minimum.
  6. Limit your child's eating time to 20 minutes. If your child is going to eat, he or she will do so in the first 20 minutes of the meal. If your child finishes before that time, give praise and let him or her leave the table. (This decision depends on your mealtime rules.) 
  7. Give your finicky eater small but reasonable portions of preferred foods along with very small amounts of nonpreferred foods. Tell your child that he or she must eat the nonpreferred foods in order to have seconds of the preferred foods. Over time, gradually increase the quantity of nonpreferred foods you want your child to eat or at least try. Do not force your child to be a member of the "clean plate" club, and do not force him or her to eat the nonpreferred foods. 
  8. Plan your menus in advance. Include your picky eater by letting him or her help plan the family menu, encouraging them to try something new. Children's cookbooks are available to help with meal planning. Once you have created a menu, stick to your plan. Remember, you are not a short-order cook. 
  9. Desserts or snacks should be given only if your child finishes the previous meal. 
  10. Make mealtime a family affair. All family members should follow the same eating and snacking rules you set for your finicky eater.
  11. Be sure to limit the amount of beverages your child drinks between meals (do not limit water intake). Children should not drink juice, milk, or other flavored liquids close to mealtime. 
  12. Make mealtime fun by providing an occasional smorgasbord of favorite foods. The more fun mealtime is, the more invested your finicky eater will be in participating and trying new foods.
  13. Final Step: Provide numerous opportunities for your child to learn to manage inconveniences (like trying new foods!). This can be accomplished by having him or her do new chores, decreasing TV or computer time, and increasing expectations for good behavior.

Final Reminders:

  • Not to worry. Parents of a finicky eater often worry about starvation or a lack of growth and development: Will my child grow up to be big and strong? Will my child get sick? Will my child never develop a taste for other foods? Starvation should not be a concern just because your child hasn't eaten a vegetable or fruit in the past six weeks. If your child receives good medical attention and is in good health, there's most likely nothing to worry about. Your child's ultimate height and body weight is more a function of the genes that you have donated to him or her than what you feed him or her. The next time you are at a family gathering, take inventory of the variety of body shapes and sizes.
  • Assemble a support group and enroll grandparents, daycare providers, your pediatrician, spouses, etc. in your plan. 
  • Some of us love to eat and some of us just don't. Kids are no different. 
  • Bribery and forcing your child to eat will get you nowhere. If you push, the results will probably be unhappy meals, unhappy relationships, and increased defiance.

Bon appetit!

For more information on this topic, check out  Help! There's a Toddler in the House!