7 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

Parents of picky eaters can help their children eat better by following some educational guidelines. We'll show them to you.
7 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

Last update: 02 August, 2022

Feeding children is one of the most worrying aspects for parents. That’s why, when a child refuses to eat, does so in very small quantities, or refuses a large majority of foods, alarm bells ring. The fear of nutritional deficiencies leads parents of picky eaters to make some mistakes that worsen or perpetuate the situation.

In other articles, we’ve talked about the characteristics of picky eaters and we’ll elaborate on this in today’s publication. However, to summarize, we can say that this can be a normal and transitory phase at a given moment of development, but it can also develop into a severe disorder if appropriate measures aren’t taken in time.

So, if your little one restricts large groups of foods, refuses to try new flavors and textures, eats very little, and every meal becomes a battle, don’t distress! Here are some guidelines that you may find useful.

1. Don’t pressure picky eaters

It’s natural that when parents see that their child eats very little or eats “poorly”, they feel concerned and try to solve the problem by any means.

However, putting too much focus on the child’s eating and giving it too much importance can perpetuate the problem over time.

Therefore, we recommend adopting the following positive and constructive attitudes:

  • Remain calm. Remember that this may be a transitory phase and that, in any case, any situation is best dealt with in a calm environment.
  • Don’t talk to others about how poorly your child eats when your child’s in front of you.
  • Avoid having all family conversations or interactions with your child revolve around food. This will cause your child to create a negative association with food, so try not to make a big deal out of it.
  • When it’s time to eat, don’t create expectations or anxiously watch how much and what your child eats. Again, this only adds pressure and unpleasant feelings at mealtime. Try to act natural and don’t make feeding the center of the dynamic.
A girl refusing to eat.
If your child refuses food, eats very little, or eats poorly, try not to pressure them. The goal is to modify habits, and this doesn’t happen overnight.

2. Allow self-regulation and respect preferences

Sometimes we exert excessive control over children’s food and we want to determine exactly how much and what our children should eat at all times. However, children are very capable of self-regulation, as they can easily perceive their hunger and satiety signals. So, if your little one doesn’t want to eat more, don’t force or pressure them to finish their plate. Trust that they’ll eat what they need.

At the same time, it’s also important to respect (as much as possible) children’s food preferences. This does not mean letting them eat only sweets, but giving them a certain margin of choice within healthy foods. Allowing your little one to choose between several types of fish or between several ways of preparing a vegetable will make them feel more autonomous, listened to, and taken into account, and this will improve their willingness to eat. This can be especially helpful around the age of two when refusal to eat is the result of the child’s desire to assert themself and express their individuality.

3. Encourage a healthy and natural relationship with food

The best measure we can take to prevent children from being picky eaters is prevention. And, for this, it’s important to help them develop a healthy and natural relationship with food from the beginning.

A good strategy is the practice of baby-led weaning, as this method allows the baby to get closer to food, explore its flavors and textures, and taste it at their own pace. Likewise, and although we’re talking about older children, this guideline is still valid. For example, we can involve them in the preparation of foods in a playful way, so that they can manipulate them, get to know them, and make them their own.

Likewise, we must be patient and offer new or rejected foods as many times as necessary, without despair, until the child accepts them.

4. No threats, blackmail, and bribes with very picky eaters

Many parents resort to reward or punishment tactics to get their children to eat. However, eating should be a natural and pleasurable act and not something the child does out of fear of reprimand or punishment. Nor should they do so as a means to earn a benefit, such as a sweet dessert. So, avoid rewarding your child with a toy for eating their lentils, and don’t threaten him with anger or withdraw your affection if they don’t finish their plate.

5. Try not to give in to your child’s whims

We know that having a child who hardly eats or refuses nutritious food is very worrying and that this can lead to giving them any food so that they at least eat something. However, it’s important to be firm and not give in to whims. Don’t worry, it’s okay if they skip a few meals. In the long run, it’s more necessary for them to understand that they’re not going to be offered what they want and that their only food choice is the food you’ve served.

6. Offer foods appropriately

As mentioned above, it’s important to offer foods several times and be patient with the adaptation process. Bad eating habits can’t be changed overnight. But, in addition, to make them more easily accepted we can follow three basic guidelines:

  • Offer the new or rejected food in small amounts. This makes it more likely that the child will open up to eating it than if we expect them to finish a full plate from the beginning.
  • Combine it with a moderate amount of a food they do like or tolerate. For example, if your child likes macaroni and refuses meat, you can put a little piece of meat next to the pasta dish.
  • Try to create attractive and eye-catching presentations. Although it may not seem like it, the visual aspect is fundamental to attracting children’s attention and encouraging their desire to try food. Therefore, you can make colorful dishes or create shapes and drawings with the food.
A pancake decorated with fruit to look like a flower.
The appearance of the preparations you serve is a key factor when it comes to acceptance. Involve your children in meal prep and give them time and opportunities to interact with the food.

7. Make mealtimes enjoyable

The most important thing is to make mealtimes feel like a pleasant social gathering again. Instead of turning it into a battle, power struggle, pressure, or constant nagging, make it a time for family sharing.

Eat together around the table, turn off the TV, put away cell phones, and spend time talking about pleasant topics.

Don’t focus on whether or not your child eats and don’t pressure them! Enjoy each other’s company during this time.

In short, helping picky eaters requires patience, temperament, and understanding. If you take the right steps, changes will probably begin to show in a short time, but every child’s rhythms are different.

If you’re concerned about your child’s nutritional status, don’t hesitate to consult your pediatrician. And, likewise, if you need help managing this situation, remember that there are specialized psychologists and nutritionists who can guide you in applying the appropriate guidelines.

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  • Fisher, M. M., Rosen, D. S., Ornstein, R. M., Mammel, K. A., Katzman, D. K., Rome, E. S., … & Walsh, B. T. (2014). Characteristics of avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder in children and adolescents: a “new disorder” in DSM-5. Journal of Adolescent Health55(1), 49-52.
  • Thompson, C., Cummins, S., Brown, T., & Kyle, R. (2015). What does it mean to be a ‘picky eater’? A qualitative study of food related identities and practices. Appetite84, 235-239.