Got a picky eater? (Tips for ending the food battles)

Riley was a dream come true when it came to trying new foods as a toddler.  She loved garlic roasted potatoes, butternut squash risotto, various forms of grilled chicken, and just about any other adult food I put on her high chair.  The more spices, the better.  Then she went to preschool.  Suddenly my good little eater is offended by just about any smell (“Daddy I don’t like the SMELL of that salad!”) and sticks to a few favorites (although she will eat chicken in almost any form and loves steak, so I can’t complain).  And Liam has been hopeless since 18 months.  The boy who once ate a hamburger at a birthday party when he was nine months old is just about the pickiest eater in town.  While Riley will eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and will try new things as long as they don’t “smell so bad”, Liam won’t even try.  Sean put a very small piece of a sourdough bagel on Liam’s plate this morning.  His response?  “I don’t like this.  No thank you Daddy”.  At least he was polite about it!  It makes life difficult, for sure.  It’s hard to go out to dinner or even to a friend’s house.  I used to pack some of Liam’s favorites whenever we left the house, but I’ve decided it’s time to introduce him to the real world of eating, where sweet potatoes aren’t always on the menu.  I’m not doing him any favors if he learns that mommy always carries his favorite food around for him.  He will eat any fruit you can find, and gobbles up snap peas at an alarming rate.  But other than that he sticks to a fairly consistent routine.  It’s a tough line to draw because he’s only two and I won’t ever let him go hungry, but I want to gently guide him toward making healthier choices in the future.  Sean refused to eat a grilled cheese until he was 11, and even then he ate it at a friend’s house.  I’m prepared for a long road ahead.  Here are the facts:  Many toddlers have sensitive palates, which causes them to stop short of trying new things.  Many toddlers are also weary of textures (Riley still won’t eat oatmeal because it’s to “clumpy”) and will stick to what feels good to them.  Teething and illness can lead to food aversions due to negative associations.  And many preschoolers go through a phase where they decide that they “hate” everything that they loved just one day before. Sometimes preschoolers will only want to eat one color, or stick to a few favorite foods for a while.  This can be the result of asserting their independence (more on control later) or a fear of new things.  The good news is that this behavior usually resolves itself during the fourth year.  Try not to worry too much about it.  Your child is probably eating better than you think, and the parent very rarely wins food battles.  Below are some tips to help you help your picky eater start eating a little more:
1.Take baby steps:  Try to avoid overwhelming your little one with a plate full of new foods.  Try one new item at a time.  Be sure to put a couple of foods on the plate that you know your child likes, that way he can have a good meal and choose whether or not to try to the new food (Liam immediately spied a ravioli on his plate tonight and declared “I don’t want this on my blue car plate”.  A mom can try…).  Keep in mind that it often takes multiple exposures for a child to try and to enjoy a new food.  Keep offering.  And remember, portions should be small for this age group (ex: 2Tbs of pasta or rice).  And ALWAYS model healthy choices.  If they see you eating it, it must be good.
2.Feed when hungry:  Sticking to a fairly structured eating routine ensures that a child will eat enough throughout the day and still feel hungry at meal times.  If your child is grazing on snacks all day, meals will seem inessential to him/her.  I have to cut Liam off from his snacks at a certain time, whether or not he’s finished so that he will want to eat his meals later.  Offer a new item when your child is hungry so that it will seem appealing.  When they’re hungry they are more likely to give it a try.  Again, just offer the one new item (like yummy mango slices) amidst the usual fare for best results.
3.Avoid battles:  I’ve said it before but I will say it again:  The only two things toddlers and preschoolers can truly control in this world is what they eat and when they poop.  Food wars are a losing battle.  Offer them healthy snacks and meals and then step back.  If you keep prompting them to eat they will quickly realize that the lack of eating is driving you nuts and getting your undivided attention.  Try to make meals fun and engaging.  Read a story. We always start dinner by asking, “what was your favorite part of today?”  If they don’t eat, or only eat one thing on the plate, don’t stress.  Some nights Liam barely eats at all, or only eats on the run.  He manages to sleep just as well and then loads up on breakfast the next morning.  Offer a healthy dessert as a reward.  When Riley is going through a phase all I have to say is, “you don’t have to eat your dinner, but if you do you can have some cherries” (or something else tasty) and she’s hooked.
4.Avoid negative associations:  If your child senses your stress level rising with each meal there is the potential for him/her to build up a negative association with eating.  The latest research suggests that eating disorders are being diagnosed more frequently and being seen at much younger ages.  Don’t create food issues by forcing your kids to eat.  Check in with your pediatrician regularly or track down a pediatric nutritionist (for you to consult, not your child) if it makes you feel better.  But keep your stress away from the table.  Trust me on this one, make eating a stress-free activity.
5.Make it fun:  Preschoolers shouldn’t need the gimmicks to get them eating, but they might enjoy the fun along with a younger sibling.  Riley recently ate car shaped pasta with her turkey meatballs in an attempt to get Liam to try some pasta.  He took one lick.  This is a BIG step!  Use large cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun shapes.  Add food coloring to make meals fancy.  Have a Fancy Nancy fan on your hands?  Have everyone dress up for dinner…works like a charm!  I usually try to avoid toys at the table, but sometimes Liam will eat something out of the back of a little truck.  Do what you have to do to keep it fun!  Again, make sure you are keeping them engaged in conversation.  Wiggly toddlers won’t last long if you pay no attention to them!
6.Try a food chart:  Print out some blank food charts and let them color in the different sections as they eat the corresponding foods.  Toddlers and preschoolers love to fill out charts!  Get a customized food pyramid chart here: Riley likes to be reminded of how food helps her.  “Mommy, will I have so much energy after I eat this chicken?  How much did I grow from those snap peas last night?”  Play along, it’s good for them to understand how food fuels our bodies and helps us grow.  Find fun ways to teach kids how to “eat the rainbow” here:
7.Milk refusal:  This is common when kids are taken off the bottle later or a new sibling arrives on the scene.  Talk to your pediatrician, but kids can get enough calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin D through other foods such as yogurt, reduced fat cheese, calcium fortified orange juice, and possibly some supplements.  Not sure how to get them off the bottle?  Let them choose the sippy cup and keep offering in a very calm, non-stressed way until they accept.  It was about two months between Liam choosing his car cups and declaring “I ready for milk in a big guy cup!”  Let them lead the way, but plant the seed early (like 14-16 months).  If you’ve waited until after two you will have a more difficult transition.  Keep in mind that some kids (Riley) will only drink milk warm.  As long as it’s given well before bedtime and not associated with falling asleep, it’s ok.  You can also consider soymilk or rice milk, but make sure they are fortified and your child gets enough protein during the day.
8.Consider add-ins:  Add some grilled chicken to that macaroni and cheese or a slice of turkey to the grilled cheese.  Sprinkle wheat germ on cereal or yogurt.  Try tofu.  But don’t sweat it if they eat around it.  Just keep trying.  Riley used to pull apart her grilled cheese, remove the turkey, and then put it back together.  Now she loves turkey and cheese sandwiches!
9.Let them have treats:  You enjoy a good dessert once in a while, right?  Try to let your child have a treat here and there just because they can.  Bake cookies.  Go out for ice cream.  Do something fun.  If you completely avoid it they will find it eventually, and then they are likely to go overboard.
Hang in there.  I’m with you on this one.  Picky eaters can lead to a considerable amount of stress in your house if you let them.  But if you step back and let them approach new foods at their own pace, you just might be surprised.  After watching his Mimi make a salad a couple of weeks ago, Liam went over and plucked a tomato from the bowl when she wasn’t looking.  He ate it to mixed reviews and hasn’t asked for one since, but he was proud of his accomplishment…and so was I.  We’re still talking about it!
You tell me.  What lengths have you gone to get your picky eater to eat?

This just in from a girlfriend:  She added mashed bananas to pancakes for her VERY picky eaters and they gobbled them up! Which reminds me, my mom used to add applesauce and cottage cheese to pancakes, and we were none the wiser.  Keep sharing your tips in the comment section!
About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)