Picky eater girl with head down at dinner table.

17 Effective Tips for Picky Eaters: The Ultimate Guide

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Need some tips for picky eaters? You’re in the right place! Picky eating is a very common challenge among families with young children…so,  you’re not alone! Over time, Picky eating may lead to decreased intake of variety in a child’s diet. Sometimes, this can lead to elimination of food groups altogether. 

These challenges often leave parents worrying about their child’s nutrition.

Picky eating can be especially worrisome during toddlerhood: a crucial time for brain, muscle and bone development. Eating habits and preferences also start to form, which can impact long-term eating habits. That’s where these tips for picky eaters can help!

It’s important to identify your child’s challenges and begin to address them as early as possible for optimal feeding success. Keep reading to learn how with these picky eating tips!

Here’s a quick overview of the 17 tips for picky eaters: most effective strategies

  1. Understand your child’s preferences
  2. Add in Nutrition where you can
  3. Make meals appealing
  4. Involve your picky eater in the meal planning and preparation process
  5. Introduce one new food at at time
  6. Offer frequent, small meals
  7. Be a role model
  8. Deconstruct your meals
  9. Avoid distractions
  10. Avoid pressure and stress
  11. Rotate the menu
  12. Celebrate food victories
  13. Limit overly sugary or process foods as much as possible
  14. Incorporate picky-eater friendly superfoods
  15. Avoid too many pre-packaged items
  16. Be patient and persistent
  17. Seek professional guidance if needed

1. Understand your Picky Eater’s Preferences

How to Determine your child’s preferences

 Analyze your child’s preferred flavors and textures to get a better understanding of where to start. What characteristics do they share? Are they sweet, crunchy, salty, orange? Does your child eat a pre-packaged snack, but then refuse them if they are poured into the plate? 

These hints will tell you so much about ways you can provide a new, similar food. You can also do this as your first step to food chaining. You can learn what food chaining is and how to do it here!  

2. Pump up Nutrients with Add-ins

Add in Nutrition where you can

This tip is not a fix-all and is generally for the pickiest of eaters. This option does not help children overcome their selective preferences because they don’t know they’re eating them. I use this method to boost nutrition in foods to ease worry, while families work on other picky eating strategies. 

How to add in nutrient dense foods for picky eaters

Some ways to add in nutrients include, blending veggies into smoothies and sauces, adding heavy cream, yogurt, butter or whole milk to boost calories and fat or, add in nut powders for a protein boost.

You can also Incorporate whole grains or seeds into familiar foods for an overall nutrition boost. ½ tablespoon of ground flax seed can add an additional 1 gm of protein, 1 gm of polyunsaturated fat (with Omega-3’s!), and 1 gm of fiber…. All of which are super important for young children. You can add this to their peanut butter and jelly sandwich or yogurt with fruit or blend into a fruit smoothie. 

3. Make Meals Appealing for picky eaters

Create visually appealing plate arrangements

Do your kids ever just look at their plate and say “ewww, i don’t like that!” before they’ve even taken a bite? 

Kids are very visual. This means choosing foods with varying colors and shapes, making fun shapes, or even displaying a food in a different way. 

Let’s take a look at some ideas

Experiment with fun and creative food presentations

This tip doesn’t mean that every meal needs to be a grand work of art. However, there are lots of fun ways to cut out some shapes, like these shape cutouts *link* + photo. 

Some easy foods to cut out are fruits like apple slices, bananas or even mango; veggies like cucumbers and tomatoes and other foods like deli meats, bread/toast, or pasta. 

It’s not only food that can look appealing. Try experimenting with fun plates, cutlery, cups or even placemats. Here are some of my favorite fun feeding items!

  1. Fun plates like these construction plates.
  2. Or the Spinmeal plate that turns mealtime into a fun game
  3. These placemats that make mealtimes fun and educational!
Fun, educational placemats for toddlers with multiple themes, alphabet, solar system, fruits and veggies, colors, numbers and map of United States

4. Involve Your Picky Eater to Build Confidence

Take them grocery shopping and involve them in ingredient selection

A young girl shops in the produce section of a grocery store. The girl is placing a small watermelon into the shopping cart

Letting your child help in the planning and shopping of meals will help them feel involved, encouraged and proud. 

Start by asking them what meal ideas they have. This may take a bit of negotiation, but allowing them to provide their input will make them much more open to trying new foods at these meals. 

Next, take them shopping. Allow them to help choose the produce. Allow them to select and place in the produce bag. This will help them become more familiar with fruits and veggies, long before it is on their plates with the expectation to eat it. More on creating pressure-free moments later…. Keep reading! 

Let them participate in simple meal preparation

Kids love to help in the kitchen, however parents are sometimes in a rush, feel it can be too dangerous, or feel like it’s just easier if they do it themselves. 

Every week, try to choose 1-2 days or evenings (maybe it’s the weekend), so that your child can help prepare food. 

Simple tasks are best at first- like placing already-chopped veggies onto the baking sheet for roasting, or mixing ingredients in a bowl. More advanced tasks will come later, as kids get older and more comfortable in the kitchen. 

Allow kids to choose from healthy options within a controlled range

This is one of my favorite picky eating tips. I LOVE this strategy, it’s super effective.

Parents will provide 2-3 options and the child can choose from those options. This allows the parents to be in control overall, but allows the child to make a choice and feel that their input is valued. This will help with acceptance of foods and increase confidence for your child. 

For example:

Parent- “Which vegetable would you like for dinner tonight: Broccoli, green beans or peas?”

Child- “Green beans”

See, it’s so simple! Parents are ultimately in control, but allowing your child to decide on the options makes them feel empowered!

5. Introduce One New Food at a Time

Gradually expose them to unfamiliar foods

It can be easy to overwhelm a child with too many new foods at once. This can lead to an overall shutdown and possible meltdown at mealtime. 

To avoid this, provide only one new food at a time, and stick with that food for a few days until you’ve provided several exposures. 

And even more, when exposing to a new food, you may need to expose your child to each food very slowly. You can do this with food chaining. For some food chaining examples, you can read this article.

Pair new foods with familiar favorites to reduce resistance

Providing the new food with foods that are already accepted can make the new food seem less overwhelming and also ensures you (the parent) that your child won’t be hungry after the meal. 

Try Food chaining

As already mentioned, some children may need extra help with introductions to new foods. Food chaining is a slow, methodical process used by many healthcare professionals to help increase the variety of foods accepted. 

Food chaining is done over time, by slowly changing one characteristic of an accepted food, until you reach a new food.

For example: if a child loves chicken nuggets, you can slowly link characteristics until you reach fish. 

Chicken nuggets→ fish stick→ lightly breaded whitefish filet→ baked fish

Food chain, linking chicken nuggets to fish sticks, then to a breaded fish fillet, to a lightly breaded fish fillet, to grilled or baked fish

6. Offer Frequent, Small Meals

Provide regular snacks between main meals

If you’re worried about your child’s nutrition, snack time is the perfect opportunity to boost nutrition for picky eaters! 

Opt for nutrient-dense foods including protein and fiber. You can pair foods like apple sticks with cheese cubes to get a well-rounded snack that will provide nutrition and help ease your mind.

It’s important to make sure snacks are provided at least 2-3 hours before the next meal and not any closer. Having a snack within a close timeframe to the next meal could actually discourage meal intake. 

Small snack portion sizes

Keeping snack sizes small is just as important as snack timing when it comes to acceptance of the next meal. 

Remember snacks should not be as large as an entire meal, but it is helpful to pair a protein with a fiber-rich carbohydrate source. A great example is fruit and cheese.

This also includes not filling up with liquids like milk or juice between meals.  

7. Be a Role Model

Demonstrate healthy eating habits yourself

Do you ever notice that your child is interested in what you’re eating… often even willing to nibble right off your plate? 

Littles love to imitate you. So be sure to fill your plate with the same foods you’d like your child to try. Maybe they will learn to like it while trying yours and eat it from their own plate the next time!

Enjoy meals together as a family to encourage participation

Family at dinner table. Mother is serving meal from a blue pot.

Family mealtime is not only a great way to encourage positive mealtime habits, but also provides a time for family bonding and an overall good experience. The goal is to have a pleasant, stress and pressure-free mealtime, and also provide an opportunity for positive role modeling.

8. Deconstruct your meals

Want to have taco night, but your little one won’t eat tacos? Try deconstruction! 

Serve a small pile of taco meat with tortilla triangles or tortilla chips, a small pile of shredded cheese and a few cherry tomatoes! It’s the same family meal, but looks different and has no mixed up ingredients!

You can do this with many combination meals like pasta, rice dishes, sandwiches and more, with great results. 

9. Avoid Mealtime Distractions

Create a calm, distraction-free environment

At mealtime, it can be easy for kids to want to quickly nibble and run off to play again. Even more, kids may even want to bring their toys or electronics to the table. 

Avoiding these distractions will help your child to focus on their meal and increase overall food intake. Otherwise, they may miss their colorful plate, or the fun shapes of their food. In our home, toys and electronics are off-limits until after the meal (adults included!)

10. Avoid Pressure and Stress

Why do picky eaters eat sometimes but not others? 

Kids are more likely to try new foods when there is no pressure and no expectation that they MUST eat the food in front of them. 

Have you ever noticed that your child asks to try various ingredients while you’re cooking? Or have you noticed if you (the parent) are eating a snack or meal and your child is extremely interested in what you’re eating? 

This is because it is a pressure-free and stress free environment. They feel the freedom to choose when, how much and what food they are interested in trying. This is why bribery and coercion often don’t work for picky eating!

Allowing multiple opportunities like these will help your child discover on their own, that they do, in fact, like a multitude of foods! Then the next time that food shows up at meal time, they are already familiar and ready and willing to eat it. 

 How to create a relaxed mealtime environment for picky eaters

Creating a more relaxed and positive mealtime environment can help reduce stress associated with meal times. 

You can create a relaxed mealtime environment by: 

  1. Avoid distractions at the table
  2. Play soft music
  3. Discuss fun topics
  4. Use food play
  5. Allow kids to change meal time seating arrangements
  6. Try out fun plates, cups, cutlery, placemats
  7. Avoid forcing kids to eat
  8. Use patience and kind words

In a pleasant environment, kids may be more willing to try new foods, or re-try foods from previous encounters 

 11. Rotate the Menu

Introduce a variety of foods over time

Avoid the picky eating cycle- when your child is served the same foods over and over again, but then will only accept the repeated food. A struggle occurs when trying to serve a new food, so you go back to serving the familiar food, because you know they’ll eat it. 

Sound familiar? That’s what I call the picky eating cycle. 

To avoid this, it’s important to not fall into the habit of serving only the foods your child already likes repeatedly. 

Mix it up, try new recipes, add new foods to already familiar foods, and allow them to help choose. 

Prevent food fatigue by alternating menu options

Has your child suddenly stopped accepting their favorite foods? This could be caused by food fatigue. Use this fan-favorite tip for picky eaters to avoid the picky eating cycle.

When favorites are over-served, kids can eventually burn out, or decide that’s the ONLY food that they will accept: Neither are great options. 

It’s important to keep kids engaged in the menu selection process, allow them to grocery shop, go fruit, veggie picking and expose them to various foods so food fatigue can be avoided. 

12. Celebrate Food Victories

Praise and acknowledge your picky eater’s willingness to try new foods

Using positive reinforcement, has a much greater impact on a child’s confidence to try new foods. A positive experience will always be the better choice when managing picky eating. 

Positive reinforcement- not bribery- creates a sense of achievement after they have tried a new food. This will encourage more adventurous eating overall and creates a positive association with all the foods they try. 

13. Limit Sugary and Processed Foods

Minimize sugary snacks and beverages

While working on picky eating, it’s important to nourish your child’s body and mind with good nutrition. 

When kids fill up on sugary, overly processed foods, they may not be hungry for the next meal, or develop preferences for those foods, which makes it difficult to accept other nutrient-rich foods. 

We recommend replacing processed foods with whole, nutrient-rich alternatives. For example, rather than fruit snacks, how about a handful of berries? Add in a string cheese and you have a well-balanced snack that will help keep your child’s mood and energy up. 

 14.Incorporate Picky Eater-Friendly Superfoods

What is a superfood?

A superfood is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a food (such as salmon, broccoli, or blueberries) that is rich in compounds (such as antioxidants, fiber, or fatty acids) considered beneficial to a person’s health”

These foods are packed with vitamins and other nutrients to get the biggest bang for your buck, so to speak. 

With this in mind, it’s a great idea to boost your child’s nutrition with some of these foods to optimize health and wellbeing. 

Introduce superfoods with subtle flavors

Some of the best picky-eater, kid-friendly, superfoods include: 

  1. Blueberries
  2. Salmon
  3. Sweet potato
  4. Avocado
  5. Eggs
  6. Beans

Nutritional benefits of superfoods for picky eaters

These superfoods include a combination of vitamins, protein, fiber, and minerals. 

These multi-tasking foods will help with a multitude of things from keeping your child full, helping to ease constipation, providing a source of protein and providing some vitamins that can be difficult to get from the diet-like Vitamin D. 

15.  Minimize packaging 

It’s common for kids to prefer certain brands of foods, or foods in packaging. It’s not your fault! 

Packaging is designed to stimulate and excite. It is often targeted at children for this reason. 

To avoid brand or packaging preferences, take items out of the original package and pour beverages in cups before serving. . Giving a granola bar? Unwrap it first and serve on a napkin or plate. Serving a package of cookies? Dump them out first. 

a bowl of goldfish crackers next to a pre-packaged bag of goldfish crackers.

By removing branding and packaging as often as possible, you are preventing development of brand-specific preferences. You’ll be glad you did! 

16. Be Patient and Persistent

Understand that changes in eating habits take time

We feed our families several times a day. Some days it seems like our entire days revolve around meals. So, I know it can be frustrating to deal with picky eating struggles multiple times daily and finding a fast solution is important to you. 

But keep in mind, there is no quick-fix. Forming new habits can be a slow process, but don’t give up. Remember, the time will pass anyway, so try to optimize at any opportunity you can.

Stay committed to gradually improving their diet

These tips for picky eaters are guidelines, and do not require perfection! 

Every meal doesn’t need to be gourmet. Sometimes we have to grab take-out or eat on the go. That’s life! 

But staying committed to the process over time will gradually form new eating habits and will create a path for adventurous eating and a healthy relationship with food. 

17. Consult a feeding professional if Necessary

Seek guidance from a pediatrician or registered dietitian

If you’re concerned about your child’s nutritional intake, growth or development, it may be time to seek some additional guidance. 

Your pediatrician and pediatric dietitian can address any concerns about nutrient deficiencies or growth and provide you with further guidance and interventions. 

Picky Eating Take-Away

Overall, these tips for picky eaters are not a quick-fix for picky eating, but are small, long term strategies that require consistency. 

The benefits of fostering healthy eating habits from an early age is so important for long term feeding success and development of a healthy relationship with food. 

I want to encourage parents and caregivers to approach the process with patience, creativity, and a positive attitude. Keeping the process fun and positive will have a huge impact on your family’s mealtime success. 

I know, there’s a ton of info about picky eating! Want to save this article for later use? Click HERE to get a PDF copy sent to your inbox!

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