Dealing with the Picky Eater

Photo by CarbonNYC via Flickr, Creative Commons use.

Photo by CarbonNYC via Flickr, Creative Commons use.

Almost every family struggles with a picky eater – the child who wants the same thing at every meal, or one who won’t try anything new. But rest assured, challenging eating habits may be just a passing phase.

Feeding a Healthy Appetite

Refusing certain foods and having strong preferences for others is normal at any age, but especially for toddlers.

For a baby, eating is an adventure, but a toddler is interested in other new activities, such as walking and talking. Suddenly, the baby whose big appetite used to please Mom and Dad is a taller, thinner toddler who eats well on some days and hardly anything on others. Eating is still important for the child, but a toddler’s caloric needs slow down just as her interest in independence and active exploration of the environment speeds up.

Focus on your child’s overall nutritional intake over a week, rather than meal by meal. Don’t worry over one missed meal or a day or two of skimpy eating. As your child learns about feeling empty and full, they’ll gradually begin to eat in a more regular pattern. Try to serve meals and snacks at about the same time each day. Toddlers are just beginning to develop self-discipline, so teach your child to eat just enough to satisfy a healthy hunger – no more, no less.


Dr. Justin Kahn

If your child wants the same thing over and over, offer that food once a day. The rest of the time, cook a normal family meal, giving them a small portion. Include a food they have favored in the past. If they eat only their favorite foods, they’ll be hungry again soon. Follow a snack schedule and don’t allow other eating between meals. Before long, he should be sampling all the foods served.

Introducing New Foods

Don’t threaten or trick your child into trying new foods. If you simply encourage your child to try them – and are persistent in doing so – they’ll learn to savor an array of foods. It is OK to ask your child to try at least one bite of a new food. If your child refuses, try serving the food again. It may take up to 10 tries before they will accept a new food.

Still, be prepared to accept the fact that your child really may not like some things. Respect their preferences. If necessary, talk to your pediatrician about whether or not you should give your child a multivitamin.

Avoiding Power Struggles

Feeding problems are more likely to develop between ages 1 and 2. Part of the reason may be that the child can’t yet communicate well, so eating or not eating becomes a way to get parents’ attention.

Occasionally, a child develops a feeding problem because parents attach excessive importance to food intake, and the child rebels against being controlled. Other children fuss during mealtimes because they enjoy the extra attention they get from parents, or because they know their parents will give in and they won’t have to eat a disliked food.

Don’t give in to food demands, and don’t take food refusals personally. Just because your child doesn’t want to eat what you’ve cooked, doesn’t mean they don’t love you. If he won’t eat, just take away the plate and calmly offer a substitution, such as peanut butter, cheese or yogurt.

10 Tips to Encourage a Healthy Appetite

  1. Set a schedule – Allow an hour and a half to two hours between eating times. A child who eats all day won’t be hungry at dinner.
  2. Eliminate distractions – Ban TV and phone calls during mealtimes and only allow eating at the table.
  3. Seek compromise – If your child does not like milk, offer cheese, flavored milk or yogurt instead.
  4. Banish the bribing – It’s tempting but bribing a child to eat simply reinforces the pattern.
  5. Get them involved – Your child will be more likely to eat something they’ve helped create. Involve kids in food-related activities, such as shopping, meal planning, cooking and gardening. Even young children can help stir, mash, pour and measure.
  6. Monitor fluid intake – Pay attention to your child’s fluid intake during and between meals. Fluid can fill up little tummies and cause your child to be less hungry for solid foods.
  7. Play, play, play – Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise. Active play is a great appetite builder.
  8. Get plenty of sleep – Tired and cranky children do not eat well. Make sure your kids are getting enough sleep at night.
  9. Set a good example – Like it or not your child is always paying attention and will mimic your behavior. Set a good example by eating well and exercising regularly.
  10. Know when to let go – This could be the hardest, but it’s important that you respect your child when they say they aren’t hungry. It will do no good for your child to force food. If you are really concerned that your child’s picky eating habits, consult your pediatrician.

Dr. Justin Kahn is a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics Warren.

Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics provides medical care to infants, children and teens at 20 pediatrician offices throughout northeast Ohio. Evening and Saturday appointments are available. Most insurance plans and Medicaid are accepted.

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