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What To Do When Your Kids Are Picky Eaters

January 10, 2018|Child & Adolescent

By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.

Many parents are concerned about their children being picky eaters. Is the behavior normal? How they can broaden their child’s food choices without creating more problems? Do they need to do so?

It’s good to remember that many young children are picky eaters. Their taste buds are much more sensitive than ours, so foods that are fine for us may taste too strong or spicy for children. This may be why a lot of kids gravitate to what some parents humorously call the all-white diet (refined carbs, bland cheeses and yogurts, bananas etc.) There are a few other factors to keep in mind as you deal with your picky eater:

  • Young children are also sensitive to details such as texture and temperature, but may not have the language or self-knowledge to explain what about a particular food they dislike. A parent may want to experiment: do they like raw carrots but not cooked ones, crunchy peanut butter but not smooth, or room temperature apples but not cold ones? Very rarely, a child might be having a mild allergic reaction but again not know how to explain that a certain food makes her mouth and/or throat feel funny.
  • A teaspoon of something you’re getting them to try, repeated over time, should be enough to gradually expand their taste repertoire. Don’t force it, and don’t make a big deal. It can take a dozen or two dozen tries before something tastes “familiar.”
  • Young kids are especially bad at recognizing their physical needs for the bathroom, food, or sleep. Instead they may have accidents, get irritable, refuse to go to bed etc. If a child is tired and cranky, he may be fussy about his food even if he’s quite hungry — so it’s best to feed him when he’s not over-tired (this is one reason many people carry snacks and feed their kids dinner well before the adult mealtime or move up their own mealtime.)
  • Making things playful and/or getting your child involved can be helpful. Try calling the foods by funny names, presenting them in an imaginative way, and letting kids “make” their own, whether by just assembling the foods or helping to cook (my daughter loved a three-ingredient recipe book.)
  • Adults tend to over-estimate how much very young children can eat. They often want quite small quantities, especially when they’re not in a growth spurt.
  • Think of balanced nutrition over time, not per meal or even day. If your children eat pasta for dinner every night for weeks, that should not be a problem if they eat other foods during the day. Or if they insist on toast at every meal a few days running, they will likely get bored with it and want something else on day three or four.

Generally, if picky eaters go to their regular checkups, are putting on normal weight and engaging in normal physical activities, they’re doing fine. The pediatrician would alert you if they weren’t. However, always check with your pediatrician if you have nutritional questions, if your children’s eating behavior changes suddenly, of if they have rapid changes in weight. Strong emotional reactions around food and eating should also be brought to your doctor’s attention. Such reactions include your child being very anxious about mealtimes, having extreme aversions, being inflexible (for example, having a meltdown if certain foods touch each other,) or being fearful of swallowing. These may be signs of medical, developmental, or psychological issues that need to be further addressed.


Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.


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