Why Are Kids Such Picky Eaters?

Tiffany Patrick

Co-Director, Pelham

By Tiffany Patrick

You can’t quite pin down the day that it happened. One day, your child was eating everything on his or her plate. The next day, there was a picky eater seated across the table from you. Fussy eaters can emerge around the ages of 18-24 months creating stress and guilt in parents. Rejecting new foods is a common occurrence among young children. It doesn’t mean that your child is a poor eater or not receiving proper nutrition. Most children will grow out of being a picky eater if they’re exposed to new foods regularly.  

Should you force a child to eat a food that is disliked? Never. Don’t try to persuade, bribe or trick a child into eating a food that’s being refused. Your child will only end up hating that food. Young children have a natural tendency for food neophobia—rejecting unfamiliar food, sometimes without tasting it. Human taste buds prefer sweet foods over bitter foods. As new foods are introduced into a child’s diet, foods tending towards the bitter side of the scale are rejected. Predictably, vegetables are the top food disliked by children. Don’t worry. Food preferences change over the course of a lifetime and, eventually, your child will eat vegetables again.

Parents play an important role in their child’s nutrition. Here are some things you can do to help your child develop healthy eating habits. 

  1. Develop a meal and snack schedule and serve food at the same time every day.  
  2. Don’t prepare special meals for the fussy eater. Children are more likely to try a new food if they see a parent or sibling enjoying it.  
  3. Serve small portions so that children can independently ask for more if they’re still hungry. Introduce a tablespoon or two of a new food at a time.  
  4. Serve a new food along with your child’s favorite foods. 
  5. Offer the new food early in the day when your child is fresh and not cranky. Being tired and frustrated is another reason why food is rejected.  
  6. Dessert can be offered a couple of times a week but shouldn’t be used as a reward for eating foods that the child refuses. This only decreases the desire for the unwanted food and increases the desire for desserts. An appropriate reward for trying new foods, over the course of a week, could be going to the movies or some other special activity. 
  7. The biggest and easiest technique you can use to encourage a child to eat a new food is repetition. It can take up to a dozen times before a food is accepted.  
  8. Don’t talk about whether or not the food tastes good. Your child may not even try it. Don’t cajole, pressure, or chastise when your child refuses to eat. Be neutral, don’t be discouraged, and try again tomorrow! 
  9. Children are more interested if they helped create the meal. A simple food preparation task might be to tear baby spinach into pieces for a salad. Have your child help you cut out food, like cheese or toast, with cookie cutters.  
  10. Delicious dips or sauces—such as tomato, hummus, salsa, and yogurt—can entice children to eat more fruits and vegetables.  
  11. Turn plates into canvases. Place prepared food onto plates to create faces or landscapes.  
  12. Most importantly, if you want your children to eat healthy, they should see you eating a variety of healthy foods. Small children will mimic your behavior.  

Picky eating is a normal childhood rite of passage and will soon pass. Keep providing balanced meals featuring a variety of different foods and you’ll promote a lifetime of healthy and responsible eating habits in your child.