Children can become a picky eater for so many reasons. But once you understand they why behind your selective little one, you will then know how to help your picky eater to try new foods.

Kids. They are adorable, lovable, kissable and know exactly how to make your heart melt with one phrase: “I love you so much, Mommy/Daddy.” But, they can also be wildly frustrating to understand… at mealtime. Why, oh why, will they just not try the casserole you made for dinner!?! Or eat the egg salad sandwich you put in their lunch box? Whether you are dealing with a two or twelve year old, helping your picky eater be open to new foods can be hard. Really hard. But there are a few very good reasons your child might be resisting unfamiliar foods….and a few ways to turn that resistance around that don’t involve nagging, pushing, or dinnertime battles that leave everyone feeling defeated. 

First, let me say that I am not the biggest fan of the term “picky eater.” I know that is certainly how it seems to you, but your children feel like they are being quite reasonable. They don’t want to eat certain (or most) of the food you are putting in front of them for a very good reason. But maybe your kiddo can’t vocalize the reason to you OR they have and you aren’t really understanding why it is such an issue. To understand how to help your selective eater be open to new foods, you first have to wrap your brain around WHY they are resisting new foods in the first place.  Once you can kind of figure out the why, you will be much more successful in figuring out the “how” in turning their eating habits around. Here are some of the more common reasons children struggle with embracing new foods:

Picky Eater Cause #1: Children (especially young ones) may have hypersensitive senses.

Your son/daughter always wanted to be Spider Man, now in some ways (s)he is. As children grow, their senses grow and evolve too. Some children are very susceptible to loud noises. Others are wildly put off by bright flashing lights. And others battle with extra sensitive senses of smell, touch and taste. These three senses being hypersensitive can dramatically effect a child’s eating habits. That cooked broccoli that tastes a little bitter and mushy to you is VERY bitter, mushy (and probably smelly) to your young eater.

How to turn it around:

Take note of textures your child prefers or dislikes and try to respect those as much as you can. If he hates mushy broccoli (I mean, who doesn’t?), roast it so it has a better texture. If fried eggs put her off, bake them into a soufflé or load up pancakes with eggs to help them get that kick of protein in the morning, Children typically outgrow these super sensitive senses in a year or two, so don’t worry about your child NEVER eating broccoli. They likely will as long you keep lovingly offering it through their lifetime of meals.

Picky Eater Cause #2: We all have foods we just don’t like and won’t like….even your kids.

I really don’t like olives. It doesn’t matter how I try them or how many times I’ve tasted them…olives and I are likely never going to be friends. And that is okay, because I do enjoy a broad range of other foods. My daughter has a passionate distaste for tomatoes. I’ve offered them to her plain, whole, cut-up with salt & pepper, in little salads and even in sandwiches…and every time, since the first time I gave them to her, she has refused them. I finally came to peace with the fact that tomatoes to her are what olives are to me…and I can’t force her to love something I do. If your child absolutely refuses to eat something time and time (and time) again, perhaps they just simply will not enjoy that food.

How to Turn It Around:

Does this mean you should write that disliked food off of your child’s menu for the rest of their lifetime? No way. Taste buds change and evolve (just like we covered above) and kiddos will come to love foods they once detested if they are continually offered them in a positive manner. I hated fish growing up and now it is one of my favorite foods as an adult! My parents continued offering it to me and role modeled how much they enjoyed it. Eventually, I opened up to its flavors and textures thanks to all of their exposure. In the same spirit, I will continue to offer Alice tomatoes occasionally as she grows. However, just as I have never warmed to olives, I am open to the fact that they may not be something she will ever enjoy.

A little girl drinking a green smoothie out of a glass and looking at the camera

Picky Eater Cause #3: Children go through highs and lows in their eating habits

You are utterly baffled. Junior used to love lentil soup. In fact, he ate it every day for lunch last week. But today, he gags and cries at the bowl of lentil soup in front of him. What gives!?! Junior is probably just in a low in his eating habits and will probably continue to be a bit selective about what food he wants to eat until he swings into a peak.

What causes a low in a child’d eating habits can vary. It can be a prolonged change in routine (like just coming back from vacation or trying to get back on track after the holiday season), just finishing a growth spurt (those kiddos are never more motivated to eat than when they are growing! Bank on that time!) or other transitions or life changes that have them feeling out of whack. Children are creatures of habit and when they feel like life is an unpredictable roller coaster, many opt to revert to the few things they have utter control over….what they eat being a major one.

How to turn it around:

That’s tricky because it is not a one-size-fits-all answer. It mainly comes down what caused the dip in the eating habits in the first place. If you have been out of routine for a while and haven’t been as consistent with your dinner time structure, then the best way is to return to that routine and see if a week or so back on track helps your child fall back into their “high” eating habits. If your family and life schedule has had a permanent change, then hold on and wait for the new sense of routine to fall into place. And if your child’s selective eating is because they have just finished a growth spurt, rest assured that another is coming and keep offering all that healthy food for when the growing starts again.

a child's hand with a raspberry on each finger

Picky Eater Cause #4: You’ve become part of a food power struggle

“You’re not leaving this table until you eat your vegetables!” Sound familiar? We’ve probably all said it at least one. Okay….more than once. And usually it backfires in our faces with crying, pouting, and maybe even threats. There are no good feels for anyone when it comes to the food power struggle and actually contributes to children resisting new foods MORE.

Children have very little say in the happenings of their life. Truly. They are usually told when to sleep, eat and what activities they can do and when. How smothering that lack control must feel! But the one thing children DO have ultimate control over is what they eat. You truly cannot make them eat the chicken stir-fry if they are determined not to. And some will hold onto that power for dear life even if that means not eating.

How to turn it around: 

By simply not engaging in the power struggle and giving LOTS of healthy choices…..some new and some old favorites. I try to give my daughter at least 6 small options at every meal (I actually use a muffin tin for many of her meals, as it helps remind me to give lots of choice), always 3 things that she loves and will eat and 3 things I am hoping she will warm up to. Choice helps children to feel empowered and in control, instead of boxed in and bored with the food selection on their plate. We never force Alice to eat anything she doesn’t want to. We don’t even make her taste it. We encourage “tasting bites” and tell her if she doesn’t want to eat something that she may politely refuse it by saying “No thanks, not for me today.” No gagging or “yuck, that’s gross” is tolerated, but we will respect a polite refusal.

We also require that new foods (even if they are not going to be eaten) stay on her plate. I won’t force a kiddo to eat something, but I will strongly insist it stay on the plate. Why? Because sometimes children need to stare down a new food many times before they are willing to try it. I love the story of Alice and The Roasted Broccoli to drive this strategy home.

Once upon a time, Alice would not eat broccoli. Not a bite. She would barely even a glance at it. She was solid in her anti-broccoli stance. Rock solid. I offered it to her 5 times. Then 10. Then 20. She still wouldn’t budge.  I had offered broccoli to her so many times, in fact, that I was just at the threshold of calling it quits on the green vegetable when we went to a friend’s house for dinner. And they served her roasted broccoli.  There I was, chit-chatting with my friend and her husband while the children ate dinner when I glanced over and say Alice shoveling broccoli florets into her mouth. Stunned doesn’t cover it. But it made me realize the power of patience, persistence and choice when it comes to helping children embrace unfamiliar new foods. 

Picky Eater Cause #5: They Aren’t Hungry

Hunger is key in motivating children to try new foods. When your child is hungry, he/she will likely be much more open to new foods because their body is craving whatever it can get its hands on…..and that’s exactly the moment you should be offering new foods. When your child is full or satiated, those hunger signals are not driving them towards any food that is being offered to them and they will likely seek out foods that satisfy their taste buds or has textures that they enjoy.

How to turn it around:

 I am certainly not suggesting that you starve your child by any means, but there is nothing wrong with letting your child feel hunger  in anticipation of the meal you are cooking or putting together for them.  I am not opposed to snacking if your child is truly hungry between meals (especially during a growth spurt), but I do think its okay to cut off the portion being offered and aim to not have any snacking 2 hours before a meal. That way, your child can still feel their natural hunger signal inspire them to try the new/healthy foods you are offering them while not being so ravenous that its uncomfortable.  If the whining/nagging/begging is too much for you to bear while you are getting dinner together, my friend, Robyn, had this wonderful idea of having a veggie platter available for her daughter should she come hunting for something to eat before dinner. That way, when her girl was hungry, she could nibble, but was still filling up on nourishing foods instead of quick convenience snacks that stifle her hunger signals before the meal. If her daughter didn’t like the veggie selection being offered to her, no sweat…she could wait for her healthy dinner to be ready then! Either choice her daughter made lead her to healthy food selections and filling her hungry belly.

When fighting the good fight of exposing your child to healthy/new foods and raising a healthy eater, there is very one important thing to keep in mind at all the meals he/she refuses: Health is a habit that needs to be practiced over and over. The goal isn’t that your child is going to eat every thing you put in front of them without batting an eyelash, but rather for your child to recognize what a healthy plate should be filled with (fruits, veggies, proteins, and such) at each meal. If you constantly expose, encourage and role model positive and healthy eating habits, more likely than not…your child eventually will too. So be patient and consistent. Your kiddo will carry this knowledge with them all through his/her life and THAT is the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.