Picky eating is a common complaint of parents. Although there is no clinical definition for picky eating, many parents characterize a picky eater as a child who does the following:
- Only eats a limited number of foods
- Refuses to try new foods
- Avoids certain foods and/or food groups
- Displays strong preferences for food presentation and preparation (e.g., different foods cannot touch each other or mix)
Picky eating is a natural response for children and is to be expected. A picky eater is usually not associated with major changes in nutrient intake or rates of growth. Children know how to eat and grow. We need to trust them to do their job with eating.
What Is Considered Normal Eating?
- Enjoying a particular food or meal one day but not the next
- Eating very little or a lot during a meal or day
- Tasting a food but not eating it
- Being exposed to a food several times but refusing to try it
You can support your child as he or she develops preferences and learns to enjoy a variety of foods. Here are some helpful hints for teaching and supporting healthful eating habits:
- Model healthful eating behaviors. If your child doesn’t see you trying something new, they are not likely to try it either. If your child sees you consume something regularly (healthful or unhealthful), they may want to try it eventually.
- Offer new and previously refused foods, and let your child approach them cautiously. Forcing a child to accept and eat a new food often results in more resistance. Repeated exposure to a particular food is important. Studies consistently suggest that as many as 10 to 15 exposures may be necessary before a food is accepted.
- Cook healthful, nutritious, and balanced meals. Encourage family meals and prepare foods that your family enjoys. Pair liked and familiar foods with unfamiliar and less-liked foods. Allow your child to determine when he or she has had enough to eat. Be realistic about the varying amounts that children eat.
- Create meal times that are calm and pleasant. Sit down and eat with your child. Turn off the TV, put toys away, and engage him or her in conversation.
- Maintain structured meal and snack-times. Young children should be offered a meal or snack every two to four hours. Structured meals and snacks will allow a child to arrive at a meal or snack ready to eat.
- Encourage food exploration. Children learn through touching, smelling, seeing and even playing with their food. Occasionally plan creative and fun meals and snacks. Use cookie cutters to make fun shapes or give your food fun names.
- Invite your child to participate in preparing meals and snacks. Children enjoy helping and may eat better if they feel involved in the process.
- Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook by Ellyn Satter. This book is an excellent resource for getting the family meal on the table. For more information, visit www.ellynsatter.com.