Advice for Parents of Picky Eaters

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 8, 2022

If you’re not a picky eater yourself, it can be hard to understand why your toddler has such an aversion to trying new foods or eating their vegetables. You might feel like their habits are somehow your fault and feel desperate to change them. You should know that picky eating is very common in children and none of it is the parent’s fault.

Many kids will end up outgrowing their picky eating as they grow up, meaning that your only job is to work alongside them to create healthy eating habits from the time they’re very young. It can be tiring trying to figure and fix the problems that follow a picky eater, but since it’s such a common issue faced by parents, there are plenty of tips and tricks to help you out along the way as well as support systems such as online therapy. Hopefully, they will set both you and your child up for success for years to come.

Types of Picky Eaters

There’s more than just one type of picky eater, which can make a parent’s job even harder. These picky eaters fall into four categories: Sensory dependent eaters, preferential eaters, general perfectionists, and behavioral responders.

To start, general perfectionists won’t eat food that touches. Preferential eaters won’t try any new foods or foods that are mixed with one another. Sensory dependent eaters will not touch food that either smells or looks weird or that appears to have a texture they’re not used to. Finally, behavioral responders will act out when their food doesn’t seem just right. They might throw a fit, cry, or gag just looking at food or won’t even come to the dinner table at all even when they don’t know what’s for dinner. Kids with sensory issues or disorders like ADHD might also be picky eaters.

How to Get Your Child to Eat

So, you’ve realized you have a picky eater. Toddlers are notorious for being picky with their food, but any child or person of any age can be a picky eater. Here are some ideas for picky eaters (toddler approved!):

  • Making eating fun: Use fun, colorful bowls and plates, cut food into shapes, and play games at the dinner table. Who said eating had to be boring?
  • Offer new choices: Parents should strive to offer new food choices consistently to their kids. If they say they don’t like it, keep reintroducing the food, even if that means mixing it with something else that they do like. There are lots of creative ways to incorporate “disliked” foods into a meal—adding it to soup, making it into pasta, etc.
  • Be patient: Your child is learning the art of eating, so be patient as they grow. You should respect their quirks when it comes to eating without letting them control the entire culinary experience.
  • Let them feed themselves: Sometimes kids appear to be picky eaters when really, they just want more control. If your kid is trying to feed themselves, let them! Or at least let them help. The choice is yours: have a picky eater who refuses to eat, or have a possible mess to clean up because your child chooses to feed themselves. Most will choose the latter option.
  • Practice what you preach: If you want your child to try new foods, try new foods yourself. You can even taste a food in front of them and say things like “yum” to show them that it’s okay to eat that food.

  • Use the right language: Instead of telling your child they don’t like that new food they just tried, try switching up your language. A more helpful phrase to say is that your child just isn’t used to the new food yet. Telling your child that they don’t like something will sometimes ensure they never try it again. The reality is that people have to try a food up to ten times before deciding they do or don’t like it.

It’s important to get help when you feel like you need it or just don’t know where to turn anymore. Feeding specialists can help sort out difficulties you may be having with your child and their eating habits. Eating issues can cause a huge strain and lots of stress for both parent and child, so make sure to reach out to someone who can help you if it reaches that point. Rest assured; you are not alone in facing this problem.

Nutrition for Picky Eaters

Having a picky eater doesn’t mean nutrition goes out the window. It’s still important! Nutrition is all about routine, portion control, and consistency. Picky eaters can make nutrition harder, but parents can play an important role in making sure kids are healthy and satisfied. In order to make nutrition a daily part of your child’s life, follow these tips:

  • Don’t force anything: You should teach your child that their appetite is something to be respected. If they refuse food or say they’re not hungry, don’t force them to eat.
  • Be a good example: If you eat healthily and nutritiously, your kids are more likely to do the same. Set a good example by trying different foods, eating your greens, and putting away your food whenever you’re full.
  • Offer a little: If there are foods you know your child likes, consider offering a little of that food with each meal, but then filling the rest of their plate with other foods. Your child might only eat the food they like, but you shouldn’t prepare a different meal for them if this is the case. That will just teach them that they can be picky and still get what they want. Many kids will go ahead and eat the other food on their plate because they’re hungry.
  • Have a routine: Parents should try to prepare meals and any snacks around the same time each day. Snacking constantly or not having a routine can lead to overeating, undereating, or rushed eating, which often means less healthy options.
  • Be careful with dessert: Dessert shouldn’t be an every-meal or every-dinner type occasion. Consider offering it only a couple times each week. You should also try to offer healthier foods like fruits and yogurt as dessert.

Eating habits shouldn’t be boring or feel like a chore, especially when your child is young. You should attempt to make the culinary experience a happy, stress-free one so that your child looks forward to meals and snacks. Kids absorb what their parents say and do more than you might think, so pay attention to your own attitudes toward food. Your little ones are always watching!

When it’s More Than Picky Eating

If you suspect that your child is displaying more than just picky eating, you may be on to something. Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder are always possibilities that you’ll want to rule out. Some eating disorders don’t have names because they don’t meet the criteria for a specific disorder. Eating disorders are not obvious by looks alone and anyone can have one. Parents play an important role in looking out for and catching an eating disorder before it worsens. Here are some signs and symptoms you can watch for as a parent:

  • Exercising to an excessive degree
  • Not eating in front of the family or other people; wanting to eat alone
  • Going to the bathroom after meals to purge their food
  • Weighing themselves on the scale constantly
  • Tracking their weight meticulously
  • Behavioral changes
  • Eating an abnormal amount of food but not gaining any weight
  • Becoming weaker
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Dental or mouth infections/problems
  • Being extremely cold all the time
  • Being hard on their self-image
  • Obsessing about their appearance
  • Not wanting to go out
  • Depression, anxiety, anger, and other mental health disorders
  • Being moody or temperamental
  • Feeling guilty after eating

The reasons for having an eating disorder are vast. Pressures at home, work, and school can contribute as well as any type of bullying from friends, family, or peers. Your child might be in a sport or other activity that puts a high emphasis on weight or appearance, such as gymnastics or dancing. Or, they might have gone through a stressful event that triggers the eating disorder. Whatever the reason, getting help for your child is what’s most important. If you suspect an eating disorder, talk to your child, do not shame them, learn as much as you can about eating disorders, and seek help for them. Steer future conversations away from food when you can and remind your child that you’re there for them.

Need More Support?

Having a child who’s a picky eater or who has an eating disorder can be tricky. If you or your child need more support, BetterHelp is here to offer support for adults (18 and older), while TeenCounseling is here to support your teen, no matter what they are going through. The BetterHelp and TeenCounseling platforms give you access to highly trained, licensed therapists who are ready to talk about any and every type of problem you may be experiencing. You’ll be able to message, chat, and talk with your therapist on your own time from anywhere in the world. Sign up with BetterHelp today to start experiencing breakthroughs and get your life back.

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