Overcoming Eating Challenges: How to Encourage Picky Eaters

Picky eating is normal for young children. But it’s frustrating for caregivers who don’t want to become short-order cooks for the kids — or end up wasting food (or both!). When feeding a picky eater, you may also worry about whether your child is meeting their nutrition needs or learning bad eating habits.

Read on for more on how to encourage more variety and healthy habits in their diet. Below, find advice from UPMC experts on kids’ nutrition and tips for feeding picky eaters.

Why Is My Child Suddenly a Picky Eater?

Most children experience periods of picky eating, which often starts when they’re toddlers. By the time they turn 2, their growth slows, they don’t need to eat as frequently, and their appetites are smaller.

Toddlers also develop preferences for certain foods and change their minds frequently. As a result, they may suddenly refuse foods they previously couldn’t get enough of.

They’re also learning to express their independence, and food is one thing children often try to control. Repeatedly eating the same few foods (food jags) and refusing to try new foods are common at this age.

Picky eating is a normal stage of child development and usually fades with time. Most young children outgrow picky eating by the time they start school, but for some, it can linger for longer.

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Feeding Tips for Picky Eaters

When it comes to feeding young children, your job is to offer a variety of healthy foods at meal and snack time. Your child’s job is to decide what and how much to eat — or whether to eat.

These tips can help make mealtimes more peaceful:

  • Avoid bribing or bargaining with your child. It can promote more food struggles and lead to bad feelings about healthy foods.
  • Introduce new foods gradually; if your child refuses them, don’t assume they’ll never try them. After introducing a new food, wait a few days and serve it again. They may need to see the food 10 or more times before they’re willing to try (and like) it.
  • Involve your child in meal planning and prep at an early age. Let them select one or two new foods at the grocery store and discuss how you’ll prepare them. Let them measure ingredients, add them to a mixing bowl, or stir.
  • Make food fun. Children respond to colors, shapes, and textures. Let them arrange food into patterns, shapes, or faces on their plate. Serve dippable foods to make meals interactive.
  • Offer small portions, which are less overwhelming for young children than large portions. This also reduces waste if they refuse certain foods.
  • Prepare one meal for the whole family — don’t make a separate meal for your kid or feed them another meal later if they don’t eat. Include one or two foods your child likes in the meal planning to ensure they eat something. If they’re hungry, offer a bedtime snack, like a banana or cup of milk.
  • Try new and different ways of making the same foods, including different flavorings and cooking methods.

Kids’ Nutrition Goals

Children who are 2 or 3 need between 1,000 and 1,400 calories daily and more during a growth spurt. By age 8, your child will need about 2,000 calories a day. And most kids need three meals and two to three snacks daily to maintain energy.

When picky eating strikes, it’s normal to worry that your child isn’t getting enough calories or the proper nutrition to grow.

The good news is that most children do a great job regulating their calorie needs by matching their eating with their appetite. They may eat little at one meal but catch up later or the next day.

Parents and caregivers can do their part by providing a variety of healthy foods throughout the day and week. Serve meals and snacks made from whole foods instead of frozen, packaged, or fast food. Limit sweet treats and fruit juice, and skip sugar-sweetened soft drinks altogether.

Meals and snacks that include these foods will meet kids’ nutrition needs:

  • Beans or legumes. These include black, kidney, and pinto beans, as well as lentils and chickpeas. These foods provide fiber, healthy carbohydrates, and some protein.
  • Colorful vegetables. Help your child learn to love vegetables by offering them at each meal. Ideally, young children should eat 1 cup of vegetables daily, while older children should aim for 2 or more cups.
  • Dairy or nondairy alternatives. These include milk (or fortified plant milk), yogurt, or cheese. These provide calcium for growing bones.
  • Fruit. Children have a natural preference for sweets, so most enjoy fruit. Offer a variety of types and colors each week, but don’t let fruit replace vegetables.
  • Healthy fats. Foods like nuts, seeds, nut butter, avocado, and olive oil provide essential fats for their developing brains.
  • Protein foods. These include meat, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, and tofu. Children need ample protein for growth and development.
  • Whole grains. Good choices include oatmeal, whole-grain cereals, whole-wheat bread, and brown rice. Limit sugary cereals, which often contain empty calories.

What Are Some Healthy Snacks for Picky Eaters?

Children need snacks between meals to provide extra calories and boost their energy, especially after school or playtime. However, one of the hardest parts of parenting is feeding your family healthy foods for multiple meals and snacks each day.

Coming up with new ideas for healthy snacks each day can get challenging. But healthy snacks are also opportunities to sneak in nutrients your kids might miss if they don’t eat all their meals. When preparing snacks, include a variety of food groups, especially fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats.

Try some of these healthy snack ideas:

  • Banana sushi. Spread a whole wheat tortilla with nut butter and place a peeled banana on one edge. Roll it up and slice it into sushi-like pieces.
  • A bento box (small compartments) filled with all the food groups. A box could include blueberries, cucumber slices, sunflower seeds, a cheese stick, a hard-boiled egg, and whole-grain crackers.
  • Fruit tacos. Serve mini whole wheat tortillas with assorted cut fruit, vanilla Greek yogurt, and chopped nuts. Let children assemble their own “tacos.”
  • Pasta salad. Mix cooked leftover small-shaped pasta with chopped vegetables like broccoli, sweet peppers, and carrots. Drizzle with olive oil vinaigrette dressing.
  • Rainbow vegetables with hummus, bean dip, or Greek yogurt dip. Arrange slices of cucumber, purple carrot, red pepper, orange carrot, and yellow squash on a platter in a rainbow shape. Add the bowl of dip at one end like a pot of gold.

When to Ask for Help

Picky eating is very common, and for most children, it’s a phase that passes quickly. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist if you need support or have concerns that your child is restricting too many foods. They can help you plan healthy meals and snacks and teach you strategies to expand your child’s food choices.

You should also contact your child’s pediatrician if their picky eating causes weight loss or lack of energy. Your doctor can check for any underlying health problems.

American Academy of Pediatrics. Toddler Food and Feeding. LINK

National Library of Medicine. StatPearls [Internet]. Nutrition and Hydration Requirements in Children and Adults. LINK

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips to Help Your Picky Eater. LINK

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.