How to Please a Picky Eater (Toddler or Teenager)


Top 5 Mistakes Parents Make with a Picky Eater

  1. Forcing a child to eat everything put on the table for a meal
  2. Bargaining with a child to eat healthy items in a meal in order to get a dessert or treat
  3. Not re-introducing a food item if the child doesn’t like it the first time
  4. Parents don’t eat healthy food themselves but expect their children to eat healthy food
  5. Stocking the refrigerator and pantry with junk food but expecting a child to choose healthy items over the non-nutritious snacks

1. Forcing a child to eat everything put on the table for a meal

  • A child doesn’t have to eat everything on the table, but should try at least one bite. If after the bite he says, “No, thanks” at least you’ve exposed the child to the new food.
  • Don’t force a child to eat an entire serving of something she doesn’t like, but don’t make a separate meal for the child
  • Remember, kids will not starve! They will learn to be more flexible with food choices rather than go hungry.
  • If a child skips a meal because he doesn’t like anything, the child will be hungry enough at the next meal to be more willing to eat what is served
  • Try to include at least one item the child likes at every meal, but don’t avoid all items the child does not like.
  • Don’t threaten or punish—this only results in power struggles with your child!

2. Bargaining with a child to eat healthy items in a meal in order to get a dessert or treat

  • Bargaining does not work long term to help the child learn to eat and enjoy healthy food such as vegetables.
  • It also promotes the false belief that a cookie or cupcake or other dessert item has more value than the healthy food item

3. Not re-introducing a food item if the child doesn’t like it the first time

  • The 10-15 Rule: Studies show that it can take up to 10-15 tastes of one kind of food before a child accepts or likes the food. Repetition is important!

4. Parents don’t eat healthy food themselves but expect their children to eat healthy food

  • Parents are the best role model for their kids. It helps if they eat the kind of food they want their children to eat. If parents don’t eat vegetables or fruits, chances are, their kids won’t either. 
  • If kids see their parents ENJOYING vegetables and fruits, they are more likely to choose to eat them as well.

5. Stocking the refrigerator and pantry with junk food but expecting a child to choose healthy items over the non-nutritious snacks

  • Don’t stock unhealthy items like candy. If a child is hungry, give her the choice of two healthy snacks to eat instead of giving in to the candy that she requested
  • Put healthy foods like cut up fruit where your toddler or teenager can quickly find them when they are hungry.
  • Avoid giving milk or juice before a meal to pacify hunger. This prevents kids from eating the rest of the meal
Home made macaroni and cheese, with some dried...

Home made macaroni and cheese, with cauliflower. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some ideas to encourage your kids to eat a healthier, wider variety of food:

  • It is normal for kids to eat less as they turn one year of age because of slowing of their growth at this age. At age two toddlers want to make their own food choices. Many toddlers appear to be picky eaters to parents because they don’t like to try new foods and prefer to snack.
  • It’s normal for kids to like one thing one day and not like it the next, or want the same food three days in a row and then say they are sick of it. In general, try to avoid preparing only the things a child eats—say prepared chicken nuggets, hot dogs and macaroni and cheese, to the exclusion of other food.
  • Involve your child in food shopping so that she can choose the vegetables and fruits she wants to try. Kids are more likely to eat a food they picked out. Remember not to bring your kids to the grocery store when they are hungry. Set ground rules in advance of shopping: no candy, no soda, no sugary snacks or cereal. They can choose any fruits and vegetables as long as they are willing to try them when brought home.
  • Involve your kids in making meals. They are more likely to eat the food “masterpiece” they made. Making cooking a fun experience will encourage kids to eat the food they cooked.
  • Kids are also more likely to eat food they have helped grow, so a having your child involved in a home garden or going to the farmer’s market will encourage them to eat more vegetables.
  • Avoid “grazing” all day long, because prevents a child from learning when he is hungry or full. Kids learn to manage their appetites by knowing when meals and snacks will be available.
  • Don’t encourage filling up on snacks, especially junk food or sugary snacks, because kids will learn to skip meals and eat only the unhealthy snacks.
  • Breastfed or formula fed babies should eat on demand because this is a period of high growth. Toddlers also need three meals and up to three snacks a day, so they should be encouraged to have a healthy snack before meals.
  • Let kids as young as 9 months of age feed themselves. Children should be able to use utensils by age 15-18 months. Having this control will help kids learn how much food it takes to fill them up and not overeat.
Healthy Berries are Good Food for Health

Photograph used with permission from epoSo.de

It is ok to disguise healthy foods in your kids’ favorite dishes:

  • Kids generally love pizza. Kids will eat vegetables like broccoli or spinach if it is on a pizza
  • Add a healthy vegetable like cauliflower to a kid pleaser like macaroni and cheese.
  • Add fruits or even vegetables to “milk shakes” Adding pre-frozen fruit to smoothies gives them a creamier texture similar to a milkshake.
  • Combine dried fruits, unsalted nuts and unsweetened cereal for a healthy snack mix
  • Make yogurt parfaits with fruit and granola. Even kids who won’t eat yogurt, fruit or granola separately tend to like them when they are served up as an appealing parfait.
  • Kids love peanut butter and jelly. Add peanut butter to celery sticks or apples for a healthy snack.
  • Add pureed vegetables like spinach to homemade hamburgers or turkey burgers
  • Add vegetables like squash or zucchini to spaghetti sauce. Kids tend to like pasta, so adding any vegetable to a pasta dish makes it more palatable to kids.
  • Add pureed cauliflower to mashed potatoes
  • Substitute sweet potatoes for French fries, and bake in the oven instead of deep frying.
  • Make baked vegetable “fries” or “fingers” by coating zucchini, eggplant or squash with egg substitute and bread crumbs
  • Make homemade baked chicken fingers coated with parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs instead of the fast food variety.
  • Légumes

    Photo credit: Wikipedia

    Carrots and corn are vegetables with high natural sugar content, so these are good vegetables to make in a pinch for picky eaters

Pay attention to the texture of foods or the way it is prepared. For example, some kids love applesauce but not raw apples.

Some kids will only eat vegetables if it is with a sauce, and others will eat only if there isn’t any sauce

Kids often prefer stir fried veggies (use a small amount of canola or olive oil) to steamed

  • Add vegetables like broccoli to a baked potato
  • Sometimes kids don’t like “mushy” foods. Cooking vegetables so they are tender-crisp may be more appealing to these children.
  • Yes, it is ok to add a small amount of ketchup or barbecue sauce to any food item including broccoli if it will encourage your child to eat the food item.
  • Make healthy whole grain waffle “sandwiches” (no syrup) containing lunch meat or vegetables inside. Use hummus or salad dressing as a spread inside the waffle.

Last Updated by Dr. Vee on October 22, 2012

  • English: vegetables

    (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thought on “How to Please a Picky Eater (Toddler or Teenager)

  1. Pingback: Survival Guide for Parents of Picky Eaters

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