Thursday, April 5, 2012

Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

I have people ask me all the time, “why wont my kid eat vegetables?” Getting your child to eat a healthy balanced diet can be a challenge, but here are a few tricks of the trade that will help you to raise a healthy, independent eater!

1) Eat vegetables yourself! Why on earth would a child eat a green mysterious looking vegetable on his or her plate if there is none on yours? Children learn by example, and if Mom and Dad aren’t excited about vegetables, it is certain that your child wont be either. Don’t like vegetables yourself? To get the whole family started on a veggie kick, start with simple, familiar, less bitter choices like carrots, sweet potatoes, romaine lettuce, zucchini and cucumbers. Don’t be afraid to make them taste good too! Try a delicious dip like hummus or tzatziki for raw vegetables and serve cooked vegetables with a little pat of butter and sea salt.

2) Don’t buy “kid food”. One of my biggest pet peeves is junk food that is marketed to children. Hot dogs, macaroni and cheese out of the box, chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs, little rainbow colored crackers, sugary cereal with Dora the Explorer on the front of the box. Your child does not need this food. It is often sugar and preservative laden and when given the option, they will choose this food over others because of the marketing. If you grocery shop with your child and they beg for this food, which they will, simply explain to them that there is nothing in the food that will help them grow up big and strong. Then, allow them to choose a fruit or vegetable out of the produce section.

3) Make ONE meal. You are not a short order cook. When you prepare dinner for the family every evening do you make 3 different meals to please everyone in the house? The family should eat together seated at the table, and they should all eat the same thing. If you have a baby that eats pureed food, include a simple fruit or vegetable in the family meal and reserve a little to mash up for baby. You can do the same for your toddler by cutting up the fruit or vegetable into bite sized pieces and/or fun shapes and wait to add strong spices after his or her food has been reserved. Make sure that you serve one item in the meal that you are sure everyone will enjoy and then you wont be jumping up to cater to your picky eater.

4) Don’t force it. If your kid still refuses what you would prefer they eat, never force it. Forcing your child to take 5 more bites is torture. Imagine if you were forced to eat when you weren’t hungry or to eat something that tasted terrible to you. Not nice. It is not up to you how much your child eats or whether or not they eat at all. Forcing food can establish unhealthy eating behaviors and negative feelings about food so if your kid says they are done with dinner then respect your child’s decision. You CAN remind them that food won’t be available again until the next meal or snack, and if they still refuse, then drop it.

5) Never bribe with food. “Clear your plate and you can have dessert.” “If you are well behaved today then you can have ice cream.” Parents do this all the time, and again you are setting your child up for unhealthy eating habits. You are telling them that if they are really “good” then they can eat something “naughty”. You are also teaching them to ignore their hunger and fullness cues.

6) Don’t give up! It can take a child up to 20 times of being introduced to a new food before they want to eat it and enjoy it. If your child refuses avocado one day, they may eat it the next so keep offering but again, don’t force.

7) Have fun and relax! Don’t let mealtime be a stressful time in your household. Feeding your children can be fun and exciting. Worrying about them eating too much or not enough not only causes you undue stress, but it stresses out your child. Children are quite in tune with their bodies and recognize hunger and fullness, better than most adults. Allow your child to make some of their mealtime decisions but don’t let them run the show. Do the best you can do by providing wholesome and appealing food at set times and trust your kid can figure out the rest!

For more information on feeding your child visit:


  1. Great article; you nailed the same thoughts I have and tell parents!!!!

  2. Really great article! I agree with all of the above... especially the 20x rule!

    Two more things that have worked for us is to offer Emma some choice in the meal (i.e. Would you like the broccoli cooked or raw? Would you like sliced cucumber or peppers?) The key is to make them two choices that you can live with. Emma likes to feel like she has some say in the family meal or her lunch.

    The other piece that has worked really well is to teach Emma about food. We teach her about the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables - what healthy fats are - substitutes we can make in recipes to make them healthier - how water helps her be healthier - and how food is related to her athletic performances. Knowledge is power! We try to encourage her with phrases like, "Wow, your body is really loving that salad!" or "Your body is smiling right now because you chose to eat ___ instead of ____."

    The dessert after dinner is a tough one. More complicated than I first assumed. Originally it seems logical not to link the two at all, but when kids say they are "full" but then have room for an occasional treat it gets a little gray for me. I tend to try to make a compromise where she must finish her vegetables and protein before having a treat which is easier to do when she has helped pick out that portion of the meal.

    I also agree that modeling and enthusiasm about healthy foods is KEY. Also exposure to all kinds of flavors early on was really helpful. We let Emma (and now Owen) do a lot of tasting of our food too. Emma enjoys all kinds of different flavors and ethnic foods - even sushi!

    Always enjoy your articles, recipes and sharing of knowledge! :-) Thanks for posting!

    1. Jessi,
      Sounds like the dinner table is an awesome place at the Thompson house! The dessert part CAN be tough. You may try offering the occasional "treat" at the same time as the meal. Setting limits on the cookies, but not on the vegetables and chicken make it easy and stress free for kids. They know that they are allowed one cookie regardless of how much they eat. It sounds like Emma is a pretty adventurous, healthy eater!