Picky Eater Challenges: A Complete Guide for Parents

Picky Eater

There are many picky eater challenges that you deal with as a parent, each one as frustrating as the next. That doesn’t mean you can’t overcome them. Instead of having another argument that ends in tears, or worse, you feeling guilty, use these ideas to help your child learn their own hunger cues and ensure that she or he is getting the nutrients needed to grow.

More: Simple Ways to Get Picky Eaters to Eat

Challenge: They Won’t Eat Healthy Foods

There are a lot of reasons why picky eaters throw broccoli onto the ground or run away when you ask them to eat a plate of food that’s unfamiliar to them. This can be especially challenging with young children for a few simple reasons, according to Melanie Potock, Pediatric Speech Language Pathologist and Feeding Specialist:

  1. They’re entering a natural stage of being hesitant about new foods, which aligns with their cognitive development to challenge the world around them right now—it’s how they learn.
  2. They may simply not be hungry. Their growth has slowed in comparison to the first two years of their life.
  3. Eating is just plain boring—kids at the preschool age want to be playing, jumping, and moving. Sitting down to eat is not high on their priority list.

One way to combat this challenge is to offer healthy foods that are crunchy. Your little one gets satisfying feedback from that crunch; plus, it may feel good if they’re still teething. Don’t forget to check out our blog post, 10 Healthy Meals for Picky Eaters, for some fresh ideas too.

Challenge: They Don’t Want What’s Offered At a Friend’s or Family’s House

This a common picky eater challenge for many families. You know the scene: everyone sits down to dinner and your picky eater is anything but interested in the food on the plate. Ashley Smith of Veggies and Virtue is a pediatric registered dietitian and shared about this struggle in her recent blog post, 7 Holiday Feeding Struggles —but, as you know, this isn’t a challenge just during the holidays. It may even give you anxiety as you prep to go nearly anywhere that involves eating around friends or family.

The solution, luckily, is simple. Come with an alternative prepared and offer a mix of foods that are both familiar and new. Smith explains, “By doing this, you begin to set a precedence for your child about what to expect from family meals. You make them aware that there will be elements offered that they love, like, and are “still learning” … you help them to recognize that a separate meal will not be made for them outside of these choices.”

Challenge: They Won’t Stay at the Family Mealtime Table

If your picky eater challenge is that your child won’t stay at the dinner table, you’re not alone. Potock shares one simple way to turn it around and keep them put: create more structure around meal time.

For example, start and finish dinner with a song, a prayer or lighting a candle. When the meal is done, everyone brings their plates to the counter to complete the meal. Potock reminds, “Kids under three may not be able to stay at the table as long as the rest of the family, but they still need to take their plate to the kitchen counter before running off to play.”

However, if your picky eater comes back wanting more, here’s an example of what to say:

“Sweetheart, you did a good job taking your plate to the counter. That tells Mommy you’re all done.” Then, reassure the child that more food is coming after ____________. “We’ll have a little snack after we go to the park.” Now, change the subject. “Which park do you want to go to—you pick! The one with that big slide or the one with the swings?”

If this doesn’t work as planned, and your picky eater gets fussy or throws a tantrum, Potock also reminds you to ignore the behavior. However, this may not last long—it takes about three meals for a child to understand that we are parenting consistently and not going to give in, according to Potock.

If your child gets hungry a few times after dinner, know that she or he will learn to stay at the table a little longer before leaving the table.

More: 10 Ways to Make Sure Your Picky Eater is Getting Nutrients They Need

Challenge: They Graze All Day

While grazing may seem like a solution to ensuring that your child gets the nutrients he or she needs, it actually leads to less adequate nutrition because your little one is never very hungry. The solution, according to Potock, is a hunger schedule that includes meals and snacks.

To ensure your picky eater is hungry when it’s time to eat a meal, keep Potock’s size suggestion in mind: “Snacks should be small, 1 tbsp. per age plus water, unless there is a medical reason for additional volume.”

For example, your three year old could have two thin slices of apple with 1 tbsp. of peanut butter spread on top, or 3 tbsp. of food a different snack of their choice. The key, however, is not to allow seconds. Potock explains that snacks provide just enough nourishment to get them through to the next meal and still be hungry to eat. Here’s her example schedule:

  • Breakfast
  • 2 to 2 ½ hours of playtime
  • Snack
  • 2 to 2 ½ hours of playtime
  • Lunch
  • 2 to 2 ½ hours of playtime
  • Dinner
  • (Maybe) Bedtime snack, “If the child hasn’t gone to bed within two hours of dinner,” Potock says.

More: 10 Ways to Make Sure Your Picky Eater is Getting Nutrients They Need

Challenge: They Come Home With a Full Lunchbox

Getting your child to eat their lunch can be one of the most frustrating picky eater challenges—you put effort into making the meal, even on the busiest mornings, only to find a full lunch box when your picky eater comes home. If you’re at your wits end with lunch, Meredith Thivierge, Johns Hopkins pediatric dietitian, shares some simple tips to get them munching on their midday meal.

  • Make it Fun: Kids love fun shapes and bright colors, but you don’t spend hours cutting special shapes out of deli meat to appease your child. You can make it more fun by choosing brighter foods or arranging the food in a way that’s more interesting. Get some more fun ideas in our picky eater lunch ideas post.
  • Sneak in foods they won’t eat. Thivierge gives the example of blending cauliflower with potato or try a different cooking technique, which can change the look, feel and texture.
  • Involve your child in shopping for and prepping lunch. Make a list of foods together, including all the foods they enjoy most and have them pick out weekly lunch ingredients.
  • Avoid introducing new foods at lunch, where your child will be more distracted.
  • Think outside the box; remember to switch it up from sandwiches—dinner leftovers can be a great option to provide variety.
  • Make a point to eat lunch with your child, or show her or him that you’re eating lunch too. If you snack all day, your child will want to skip lunch and do the same.

Challenge: They Fill Their Belly at Dessert

Dessert is everyone’s favorite part of the meal, but if your kiddo is waiting to eat until dessert, she or he is missing out on important nutrients. Potock suggests that there are many ways to combat this challenge. Here’s what she recommends

  • Option #1: Make dessert part of the meal by serving them together. This helps to take dessert off its pedestal, simply making it another yummy part of the meal. Just remember to keep the portion small, like serving a tiny cookie or 1-by-1 inch brownie square. This puts the eating in your picky eater’s hands. They can eat it first, eat it last or skip it if she or he is full, teaching the child about how to gauge their own hunger needs.
  • Option #2: Limit desserts to the weekends. For example, when passing by a bakery, you could say: “I’d love those cupcakes too, so let’s be sure to make some of our own this weekend. We can even make those chocolate ones with the pretty pink beet puree that make them so moist and delicious!”
  • Option #3: Pick one dessert day each week and let your picky eater have as much as she or he wants—when the supply runs out, it runs out. A good way to do do this is to make a batch of cookies, with just enough for everyone in the family to have 3 or 4. If your picky eater wants to save some of theirs for the next day, then that’s totally fine. This gives you a chance to teach your child how to be mindful of what they want and need. This is the key to self-regulation and learning to listen to our bodies.

Picky Eater Challenges Don’t Have to Be Frustrating

Don’t let these challenges keep you from enjoying dinner with friends or force you to cook a second meal after a long day at work. Instead, take the advice of these picky eating specialists to help your child understand hunger cues, take ownership of eating time, and get all the nutrients she or he needs to grow and thrive.

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