June 13, 2023

Dear Melissa & Friends: Tips to Help Your Picky Eater Without Food Shaming from Jennifer Anderson, RDN

My son is now 10 years old, but he’s been eating a whole foods-based diet since he was born, because that was how we ate as a family. He also wasn’t what I’d call “picky.” (If you served it with a toothpick or with ketchup, he’d try it.) That means I have absolutely no street cred whatsoever to help you feed your picky eater, or transition your child to a more whole food-based diet.

Thankfully, I have friends like Jennifer Anderson, a Registered Dietitian and the founder of Kids Eat in Color. Jennifer has been my go-to resource for many years, helping me introduce my son to new foods and encouraging his eating habits in a way that doesn’t food-shame or promote an unhealthy relationship with food or his body. Today, Jennifer is going to answer your questions about how to feed your picky eater in a way that supports their mental and physical health, and keeps your dinner table from becoming a battleground at every meal.

MU: Picky eating is common with toddlers, pre-schoolers, and even older kids—sometimes into adolescence. What do you most want parents to know about their “picky” child?

Jennifer Anderson: The most important thing to know is that while a child refuses to eat a food, they aren’t doing it just to make you angry. Your child is listening to their body and their body is telling them, “Do not eat that bumpy green broccoli thing!” There are many causes of picky eating, including but not limited to:

  • Anxiety
  • Sensory system challenges
  • Fatigue
  • Allergies
  • Food sensitivities
  • Unhelpful routines around food

Rather than focus on the picky eating itself, it can be helpful to get curious about why they might be picky.

MU: What are some common (well-intentioned!) mistakes parents make when attempting to navigate picky eating?

JA: “You can’t have dessert until you eat your broccoli.” When we bribe kids to eat foods it’s because we want them to eat. They hear, “Broccoli must be bad, and dessert must be good.” We’re working against ourselves.

“Candy is so unhealthy/bad for you.” When we categorize foods as good/bad (or healthy/unhealthy), they receive all sorts of confusing messages. They can become more anxious about eating, feel pressured to eat certain foods, or even want “bad” forbidden fruit foods more than they previously did, all of which can contribute to picky eating.

“Eat your peas. You liked them last night. You have to try three bites!” Flat-out pressure is so easy to do—and it comes from a good place. When I pressure my kids to eat (because this sort of thing just flies out of your mouth sometimes), it’s because I deeply care about their health. Our kids deeply care about their independence though, so it brings on a battle of the wills really quickly.   

MU: How can these strategies harm our child’s relationship with food and their bodies?

JA: One of the most important skills a person can take through life is listening to what their body is telling them. Is it full? Is it hungry? Does it feel sad? Does it feel like something isn’t right? Eating is the best training ground for listening to our bodies. 

Your child is the only person who knows how full they are or if something makes them feel sick. By allowing them to decide whether they will eat a food or not, we are giving them our vote of confidence. They are the experts on their body and they can trust what their body says. If it says, “No,” we support them making this choice rather than pressuring them to override what their body is saying.

Bribing kids to eat with dessert really makes dessert even more desirable and the rest of the food less desirable. Once the food is on different playing fields or they have heard some are good and others are bad, new eating dynamics can come into play, such as obsessing about certain foods and feeling guilty for eating other foods. 

Young kids can internalize these categories. They may easily think they are bad if they eat “bad” foods or they are good if they eat “good” foods. This emotional element to eating is unnecessary and makes it more difficult for a child to have a good relationship with food, their body, and emotions.

MU: What are some picky eating strategies that are effective and promote a healthy relationship with food?

JA: There are many strategies parents can take to help picky eating. Here are three: 

  1. Use the names of foods. We have an amazing vocabulary for talking about foods, their names,attributes, and what it’s like to eat them. “Broccoli is bumpy and green, and crunches when I bite it!” This is low-pressure and engaging for kids. It keeps food on a level playing field, but also draws attention to it.
  2. Play! As you are eating, add an element of fun to your meal. Grab that broccoli and sing into it like a microphone. Play an imaginative game with toddlers by looking at your broccoli, tweeting, and then looking at them and asking, “Do you hear the birdie in my tree?” Ask your child, “Can you count the peas on your plate?” The more fun you have, the more relaxed your child will feel, and the more likely they will be to try foods.
  3. Serve micro-portions. Rather than overwhelming your child with a food they are still learning to like, serve a very small amount of it. Think, one pea. This keeps them from feeling overwhelmed and can help them be curious instead.

MU: How can parents looking to adopt healthier eating habits for their family encourage their picky eaters to eat (or at least try) more whole foods?

JA: Serve and eat lots of the foods you want your child to eat. Modeling and food exposure are powerful tools in your toolbox. As the parent, you get to choose what foods are in your house and available at meals to eat. Your child needs to always have at least one food they feel comfortable with in unlimited quantities at a meal, but you don’t have to be a short-order cook. 

If a child comes to a meal and sees their favorite strawberries and potatoes and is comfortable with them, then they will be more relaxed when they see the other parts of the meal, broccoli and chicken. When they are relaxed they are more likely to try the other parts of the meal. 

MU: What are some signs that you should call in a professional (like an RD or pediatrician) for your child’s eating habits?

JA: If you are concerned your child is losing weight, has a nutrient deficiency, or is unable to chew, swallow, or handle food in a developmentally-expected way, it is important to contact your child’s healthcare provider first. From there, it may be helpful to seek support from a registered dietitian if the issue is food-related or a pediatric occupational therapist if the issue is feeding-related.

If you are wondering whether your child’s picky eating is typical or atypical, here are some questions to ask yourself: 

  • Is feeding your child very stressful to you or much more stressful than for other families feeding their children?
  • Is your child eating less than 30 foods? Or less than 20 foods?
  • Does your child ever try a new food?
  • When your child stops eating a food, do they stop eating it permanently (they don’t start eating it again several months later)?
  • Has your child stopped eating one of the food groups entirely (fruits, vegetables, grains, or protein foods)?

Each “yes” to these questions is a red flag for more complicated picky eating. We find that most parents in our BetterBites® Picky Eating Program sought more support when they had at least 2-3 red flags from this list. Learning advanced techniques to use at home for handling complicated picky eating can help you move forward.