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Feeding Picky Eaters: Mealtime Strategies, Picky Eater Causes, and More

WebMD offers strategies for dealing with your little picky eater. Discover reasons why kids disregard healthy foods and find tips for helping them widen the variety of foods they will eat.

Is mealtime a struggle in your household? If you spend more time begging your child to eat than enjoying your own meal, you're not alone.

One in five preschoolers is a picky eater, several studies show. If your child only eats yellow foods, you may worry that she isn't getting adequate nutrition. Many children outgrow pickiness by age 4 or 5, but it can be difficult to endure.

“Let them choose the clothes they wear, not the foods they eat,” says Atlanta-based pediatrician Jennifer Shu, MD, co-author of Food Fights. “Kids get so used to mac and cheese, they forget that asparagus isn't so bad.”

Research suggests that picky children may become overweight, so it's beneficial to get kids eating a variety of healthy foods. But trying to coerce them to taste new things is tricky, as Jennifer Gunter of Mill Valley, Calif., can attest. Her 7-year-old son was so averse to solid foods, he consumed nothing but PediaSure until age 3.

“If we managed to get food past his lips, he'd gag and vomit,” she says. “It looked like he'd be taking a sippy cup and PediaSure to college.”

Gunter persisted until she found something her son enjoyed: thin slivers of milk chocolate, which melted in his mouth.

“Since you can make so many things with chocolate, I had something to work with,” she says. “I made chocolate cake to introduce textures, chocolate-covered bananas to introduce fruit, and peanut butter cups to introduce peanut butter.”

Profiles of Picky Eaters

To encourage your finicky child to eat a wider variety of foods, it's helpful to understand the reason for her eating habits:

She explodes when offered something other than chicken nuggets. She may be refusing food to exert authority, not because she truly dislikes something. “Picky habits start when children test their limits, around age 2,” Shu says. “Parents don't like rejection. They hear 'no' once or twice, they don't go back to that food.”

But many preschoolers need to be offered new foods 10 times before they taste them. Serving a new food among five or six familiar choices can take the pressure off, says Boston-area pediatric nutritionist Linda Piette, MS, RD, author of Just Two More Bites!

She gags when trying anything new. She may be an inexperienced chewer.

“Children who won't eat meat but prefer pureed food often have an oral-motor problem,” says pediatric psychologist Kay Toomey, PhD, director of Sensory Therapies and Research Center's Sequential-Oral-Sensory Feeding Solutions program in Greenwood Village, Colo. “Many prefer meltable, crunchy carbohydrates because they're easy to eat and have a single texture.”

Other possibilities include large tonsils, which get in the way, or a neurological condition like sensory processing disorder (SPD). Many children with SPD refuse food that crunches too loudly or looks, smells, or tastes weird, Toomey says. Others can't tolerate wet, slimy food in their hands or mouths. For others, chewing throws off their sense of balance.

Demonstrating food's physical properties may help. “Banging a carrot on the table and talking about how hard it is teaches that the teeth will need to use pressure to break it apart,” Toomey says, “versus yogurt, which is wet and smooth and can be just sucked down.”

She pushes her food around the plate from the first forkful, no matter what's served. She might be full from too many beverages or snacks.

“Kids carry around portable snack containers and boxes of juice, then they're not hungry for anything later,” says Shu, who suggests that many parents should serve fewer, healthier snacks. “If the child didn't finish lunch, give those leftover peas or carrots for a snack instead of pretzels or cookies.”

She becomes pickier when family members argue at the table.She may be trying to exit an unpleasant situation. “Kids may try to make mealtime shorter,” Shu says. “Alternately, they may try to get more attention by not eating, if they think enough attention isn't coming their way.”

Rethink Your Meal Strategies

Between meals, analyze clues that may cause your child's pickiness.

Is the TV on?Parents may think that flipping on cartoons will lead to clean plates, because TV-watching adults often eat on auto-pilot, but the opposite is true for picky children. Research shows that kids who watch television during meals can become overstimulated, making it harder for them to try new foods.

Is the whole family eating together? Children may be more likely to relax and experiment with new flavors if their parents and siblings are enjoying the same meal.

“It makes a world of difference for our family,” says Elizabeth Johnson Willard of St. Johnsbury, Vt., whose two children (ages 20 months and 6 years) shun most meats, fruits and vegetables. “ Seeing us try new foods helps encourage our children to do the same.”

A child who eats alone may also sense your anxiety about his pickiness.

“The parent hovers over every bite the child takes, which doesn't help,” Piette says.

Are your own attitudes negatively influencing your children?In some families, Dad avoids anything green and Mom turns down starchy side dishes because of her diet. Kids are perceptive enough to notice but may get the wrong messages: They may think that they're exempt from eating broccoli, too, or are allowed to refuse something that the rest of the family is eating.   

Set a good example by tasting a little of everything that's served -- unless you grimace while forcing down your spinach. “Kids are smart,” Piette says. “They can tell by the look on your face.”

Makeover Dinner

Running out of ideas for introducing new foods? An offbeat tactic may be just what you need:

Let them eat cake. Experts agree that offering ice cream as a reward for eating vegetables can backfire, making kids dislike veggies in the long run. So can skipping dessert altogether. To de-emphasize that it's a prize, consider serving dessert with the meal, instead of at the end.

Emphasize style. A fruit salad arranged into a smiley face may entice a picky eater to indulge. So can putting unfamiliar foods in special settings. Christen Cooper of Pleasantville, N.Y., realized that her 3-year-old daughter – who normally refuses new foods – will try almost anything served attractively. “Sometimes, I'll get out her plastic princess tea set and serve a little finger sandwich with something on it that's new,” Cooper says. “She usually tries it because it goes along with the act, so to speak.”

Show interest in their interests. Did your son's favorite Yo Gabba Gabba character eat carrots and string beans? Offer the same foods as Brobee's Vegetables. This trick works for Leigh Steere of Boulder, Colo., whose 7-year-old son tries new foods when the recipes come from a Star Wars cookbook.

Encourage food play. Little fingers poking at dinner can help kids figure out food textures, which are sometimes bigger stumbling blocks than flavors for picky eaters. “Parents should be tolerant of the messiness,” Piette says. “It does help; it's a sensory thing.”

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