If you have a picky eater in your family – you are not alone – most American households have at least one. Picky eaters consume a very narrow range of foods, which tend to be lacking in nutrients and fiber.
Picky eating is very common in toddlers, and as long as parents continue to offer healthy choices and do not cater to their pickiness, many kids will outgrow this stage. But picky kids can become picky adults if allowed to continue eating “kid food.”
Our bodies need antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to support all cellular functions. Picky eaters’ diets tend to be more lacking in vegetables, and contain too many processed foods. This can lead to nutrient deficiencies, lowered immune system, constipation, and even other problems like delayed growth and bone strength/ density problems (read Building Strong Bones in Kids). Eating a highly processed diet also increased the risk for weight gain and all degenerative diseases including heart disease and diabetes later in life.
The younger you can start, the better, because as kids get older – their eating habits get more “set” and difficult to change, and they are more independent – making more decisions on their own. But it is never too late to start improving dietary habits – even picky adults can do it!
Some typical picky eater “profiles”:
- The “Super-taster” - about a quarter of the population has more tastebuds on their tongue than the average – so foods really do taste and smell stronger to them, especially those with bitter compounds like broccoli. But because of the extra taste buds, super-tasters have very discriminating palates – so if encouraged to develop and expand their palate – they can be the chefs and the sommeliers of the world. It is worth encouraging them to expand beyond pizza and mac n’ cheese – they just might be the next Giada De Laurentiis or Bobby Flay! Read: Super-tasting Science: Find Out if You’re a Supertaster to learn more and to get a simple test you can do at home to see if you are a super-taster.
- The “Texture-phobe” is sensitive to the texture of food, they examine foods for lumps and don’t like to “feel” the texture on their tongue. Often, these kids can be more sensitive in other sensory areas too such as sound and touch. This kind of picky eater can respond well to things like smoothies, and hiding pureed fruits and veggies into other foods. A Vitamix or a powerful blender is an essential tool if you have a texture phobe – because it gets rid of texture.
- The “Snacker” eats very little at scheduled mealtimes, because they are snacking all the time. They might push dinner around on their plate, but shortly after dinner is into the pantry for a “snack.” Or the snacker is often just “too starving” to wait for dinner – and gets into the Goldfish beforehand, filling up. One strategy for the Snacker is to put away the crackers and instead put veggies and hummus to snack on before dinner. Another tactic is to boost protein and healthy fat intake throughout the day – snackers tend to eat a high simple carbohydrate diet, which can lead to blood sugar spikes and drops – which can negatively affect mood, energy, and hunger. Many “snack foods” are what I refer to as “filler foods” – they fill you up, but offer very little nutritional value.
- The “Controller” wants to exert control over a situation – such as what they will eat and will not eat. Offering choices that you can live with a great approach for these kids – would you have 3 or 5 more pieces of broccoli? Or read below for some of the ideas to take the power struggles out of the equation and make fruit and veggies “fun.”
- The “Drinker” is common among toddlers and young children. This child walks around with a sippy cup all day long, even using it as kind of a security blanket. The drinker fills up on milk or juice, and then isn’t as hungry for food. Instead of taking the cup away, simply put water into it outside of meals. Limit juice to 4 oz. of 100% juice each day. This issue also rears it’s ugly head again with teens, who consume more sodas, sports and energy drinks than any other age group. But teens also require more nutrition than ever, to support their rapid physical, emotional, and intellectual growth. Encouraging them to limit the sugar-laden drinks will help make sure they are getting the right nutrition their growing bodies need. Smoothies are also a great solution for drinkers – because you can pack a lot of nutrition into smoothies – add in chia seeds, greens, and more.
- Underlying medical issue – Being tongue-tied or another structural issue, digestive disorders, food allergies, and other physiological problems can all lead to picky eating. Autism or sensory processing can also make a kid more sensitive to foods and textures. If none of the below approaches work, it might be worth a trip to the doctor to look into some possible physiological or deeper psychological causes.
20 Tips for Transforming Picky Eaters:
- Ditch the “kid food.” Feeding kids a separate dinner, or always give them “kid-food” will not help a child to expand their palate. Besides the extra time it takes to prepare a separate meal for the kids each night, most “kid food” tends to be nutritionally deficient. In order for kids to develop their palate, they need to be exposed to a wide variety of foods, sitting down to the same meal together helps children explore different tastes and flavors. How else is your child going to develop the taste for salmon or Brussels sprouts? Sometimes due to parent’s work schedules this is not possible for everyone to sit down together, so having a family meal whenever possible is a good plan. A recent study showed that eating together as a family encourages kids to try new foods. Eating together as a family has also been shown to offer other benefits, read Bring Back the Family Meal for more info.
- Follow a 90/10 rule. It is the things we do most of the time that have the biggest impact on our health. The 90/10 rule is a good “real world” plan. It encourages healthy choices most of the time, but allows for some flexibility. On this plan, 90% of the diet comes from “healthy” nutrient dense foods, and the 10% left can be “splurge” foods. The Obama family follows this plan, which is nice because it allows for occasional treats, but only if kids have eaten a primarily healthy diet, such as having 5 servings of vegetables and fruits. Even getting to an 80/20 ratio would be a big improvement for many! Too often, kids who eat very few to no vegetables at dinner (or all day) will then fix themselves a huge bowl of ice cream or another sweet dessert. My husband came up with this rule – “your dessert can not be bigger than the serving of veggies you had for dinner.”
- Stop the power-struggles. Some kids are picky for attention, or to exert their independance. Instead of giving them attention for negative behavior, focus on and encourage the positive. You could set up a reward system – put out a jar, and let them earn marbles or coins for trying new foods, or eating their veggies. If they are getting more attention for making healthy choices – that will reinforce the “good” behaviors. Another strategy is to offer 2 choices that you can live with – “would you like a salad or broccoli with dinner tonight?” When kids are able to make a choice, they feel more independent and in control.
- Have FUN! Humor is also a great tactic for breaking through power struggles – be silly and have fun at mealtimes. One way to make food fun is to cut it into fun shapes. I like to use little fondant cutters to cut fruit & veggies into fun shapes, kids also like to make melon balls. Put the shapes and melon balls onto skewers – and stick them into a watermelon that was cut in half and put upside down – and you have a beautiful centerpiece (see eHow video). Set up a salad bar at home. The kids get their lettuce, and then add the different veggies that they like – red peppers, carrot shreds, etc. Link this into the rewards system, and they get points for trying a new veggie, or for each one they add to the salad. Experts even encourage kids to play with their food – our kids like to eat their Brussels sprouts with their hands and peel off each layer – hey, they are eating and loving their Brussels sprouts, so why quabble about table manners at this point? If we were out to a nice dinner – we would probably discourage eating with hands however.
- Keep Track. When kids are paying attention to how many fruits and veggies they really are eating every day – it can be eye-opening (for parents too!). Create a food chart, or I encourage kids to use 5 a Day Silly Bandz to track their daily fruit & veggie consumption. They put them all on their left wrist in the morning, and each time they eat a serving (not a bite) of fruit or veggies – they get to move 1 band to the right wrist. The goal should be to have at least 5 or more on the right wrist at the end of the day – it is a fun, visual & tactile way to keep fruit & veggies on the brain. If you are sitting down to dinner and all the bands are still on the left wrist, it says something about their diet that day (and often their energy and mood will coincide)!! Some families might decide to make dessert conditional – the daily veggie and fruit goal must be met in order to have dessert (this goes back to the 90/10 rule).
- Food is Fuel. Help kids understand how foods affect how their bodies feel and function. Sugary cereals or doughnuts for breakfast can cause them to crash and burn, that kind of fuel won’t help them “ace” their test or help get their team to All-Stars. Teach kids to be “intuitive eaters,” to think about how a food makes their bodies feel or function. Many foods (like sugary foods) make you feel great for about 15 minutes, but then your body crashes, along with your mood and your brain function. Some foods can cause digestive troubles too. Help you child connect to how a food makes them feel – 30 minutes, 1-2 hours after eating it. So if they overindulge in candy, cookies or another food that leaves them feeling icky – use it as a learning opportunity. Ask them how all that sugar made their body feel. Some people live their whole lives and do not make the connection between what they eat and how their body feels. Helping kids to do this is an incredible skill to develop that could serve them for the rest of their lives.
- Encourage Adventurous Eating. Instead of pointing out that they are a picky eater, encourage them to be an “Adventurous Eater!” In my School Assemblies – I ask kids if they would ride in a hot air balloon, or zip line in Costa Rica? Most kids say “yes.” I say that if they are adventurous with what they like to do, they can also be more adventurous with what they eat – they have nothing to lose! I always tell them that there might not be buttered noodles or pizza in Costa Rica, so they should start training their taste buds now to be a world traveler. Plus picky eating is soooo 2012!
- Purge the pantry. Some families simply need to clean out the refrigerator and the pantry to remove the temptations for a little while. Toss out the sugary sodas and other sweet drinks, cookies, candies, sugary cereals, processed snacks, and more. Even fruit juice can be trouble – as even though it is natural, it is still a big jolt of sugar. Replace them with lots of veggies, whole fruits and whole grains, nuts, and other healthy choices. A week or two might be all you need to “rebalance” habits and cravings. The more sugar a person eats, the more they want, so getting rid of it for a while can be a good strategy to reset their taste buds. The kids will likely protest for a few days, but you might be surprised at what they end up choosing for dessert when there is no ice cream or cookies around.
- Stop the snacking!! Kids today eat about 30% of their calories as snacks, according to a study from the U. of North Carolina. But many snacks and kid foods are empty calories, with lower nutrient-density. Kids that are allowed to snack all day long and right before meals, will come to dinner with their bellies already full of “snack food”, leaving no room for the meal being served. If kids sit down to dinner hungry, they are more likely to eat what is served. European kids snack very little, and they tend to eat 3 square meals a day, and eat the same meal as the parents, and therefore they have much more sophisticated palates. If your child has not eaten since lunch and is looking for a snack before dinner – put out a tray with a selection of colorful veggies with dip – some baby carrots, snap peas, red pepper and other chopped veggies. Put out some hummus or another dip to make it fun. We like to use colorful mini bowls for dips – it makes it more fun, and they use less of the dip. Summertime is a great time to boost the fruit and veggies – they are in season, so they are less expensive, more plentiful, and as ripe and delicious as ever! When you bring home the veggies, wash and cut them so they are ready to eat when the kids ask for a snack.
- Experiment. Try raw, cooked, roasted… Someone who does not like cooked carrots – might like them raw dipped in dressing. Roasting vegetables brings out the natural sweetness of that food, so vegetables roasted in the oven tends to be sweeter than the steamed kind. Make sure to not overcook vegetables – mushy vegetables don’t look or taste appealing to anyone, plus much of the nutrition ends up in the water if overcooked. Baby spinach is very mild tasting – if you chop it up well – many kids might surprise you and eat a spinach salad, which is packed with nutrition.
- Turn them into a Top Chef. If they cook it – they will eat it, or at least they will try it! When kids cook “they come to at least try the food,” said Isobel Contento, professor of nutrition education and co-author of a study conducted at Columbia University Teachers College. So get your picky eater into the kitchen, or sign them up for some healthy kids cooking classes. If a kid cooks it – they will want to try their creation. Sometimes, kids can really get into cooking, and can even be a big help around the kitchen.
- Ditch the sodas. Kids who drink sodas regularly eat more and also have a higher risk of heart disease later in life. Replace sodas with plain ole water throughout the day. A large percentage of kids simply do not get enough water during the day, which can lead to chronic dehydration and other related problems. For a treat, we like to make “fresh fruit fizzies.” To make them, you squeeze fresh citrus fruit into a cup, and add some sparkling water. If it is not sweet enough, stir in a little squirt of raw local honey or organic agave nectar – and voila! You have a fun antioxidant rich healthier soda, they are fun to make too.
- Serve veggies first. Picky eaters often leave their veggies for last on their plate and claim they are “full.” Serve the veggies first when they are hungriest – or hold off on any seconds until the veggies have been consumed.
- Whip up a smoothie! Smoothies are a great way to pack in the nutrition. Instead of a lot of juice start with a whole orange as your base. Add in some frozen blueberries, a frozen banana and some vanilla protein powder. I like to add spinach or a greens powder to my kids’ smoothies – if blended well, they don’t even know it is in there – and spinach is high in vitamin k, vitamin A, and magnesium. A Vitamix is a good tool for families with picky eaters, yes they are expensive – but they last for decades, and are powerful blenders that can remove all the texture from foods – important for a texture-phobe. They allow for easy inclusion of vegetables into smoothies.
- “Enhance” foods. I don’t call it sneaking, or hiding, I call it enhancing. I enhance everything I make for myself whenever I can, why not my kids? Chia seeds and kale can boost the nutrition in smoothies, butternut squash makes a delicious “cheesy” pasta dish. Great for texture-phobes – as the texture is removed by pureeing the vegetables first. Some people think this tactic is deceptive – read: Is Hiding Fruits & Veggies Deceptive, Or a Solution to the Obesity Crisis? Weigh in with your opinion in the comments below. Get a Choco Banana Supersmoothie and a Superfoods “cheesy pasta” recipe by downloading this free Cooking with Superfoods eBook. Also, try The Sneaky Chef and Deceptively Delicious cookbooks for more “boosted” recipes.
- Taste Buds Change. I always teach kids the “15 Tries Rule.” Studies show that it sometimes takes 15 exposures to a food for someone to develop an affinity for a particular food. So remind your picky eater that just trying a food once or twice is not enough – they need to try it at least 15 times. As long as they at least take one bite each time that food is served – they are giving it a try. Encourage them to keep trying, and if they try it and do not like it, do not force them to keep eating it. Praise them for at least trying. They will be more likely to try it again next time. How do you know if you don’t like it if you don’t at least try it? I tell kids that if they have not tried a food in a while – they might just surprise themselves and love it! This is another reason that I like to enhance foods – even if we do not know the food is in there, or taste it consciously – our taste buds are getting exposed to it, and so it helps us to develop our palate for that food over time.
- Boost spices & flavor! So often, picky eaters are fed a diet of bland and boring foods like buttered noodles and nuggets. Often parents mistakenly think that picky kids prefer foods lacking in flavor. Surprisingly, many kids are craving more flavor and variety, they just may not know it themselves. My former picky eater loves pestos and spicy foods – the more flavor the better. This is why Flamin Hot Cheetos are unfortunately so popular on playground – they are bursting with spice and flavor that kids are craving (and unfortunately also artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, and other toxic ingredients). So don’t be afraid to give them foods that have flavor – they might find a new excitement with food after eating a boring bland diet for so long.
- Supplement. Get your picky eater on a high quality multi-vitamin and/or foods-based supplement. This will help to make up for some of the nutrients that they are missing in their diets.
- Check their zinc status - essential to the normal growth and development of animals and humans. Zinc is required for the synthesis of steroid hormones by the adrenal glands, required for growth. Low zinc levels can cause picky eating in kids. Supplementing with zinc can also sometimes correct unexplained slow growth in children. Contact a nutritionist about having your child’s zinc status checked.
- Set a good example. Picky eating runs in families – but is it nature or nurture? According to a 2005 study, parents who consumed more fruits and vegetables were less likely to pressure their kids to eat and had kids who were less picky and consumed more fruits and vegetables. The study concluded that “parents should focus less on “picky eating” behavior and more on modeling fruit and vegetable consumption for their children.” Kids watch what their parents do, and tend to follow their lead. So when parents choose and eat more fruits and veggies, so will their kids.
Do not give up!! First of all, realize that transforming a picky eater is no picnic. Some kids can fit more than one of the above “types” of picky eaters, which can make the challenge even more difficult. Don’t expect a picky eater to change overnight – most kids who are picky will need a lot of encouragement, and despite improving, could always be a little on the picky side. But even little improvements in their diet – can add up over time. But realize – it is worth the effort, kids who do not eat a well balanced diet are going to be at an increased risk for diseases later in life. Obesity and diabetes are rising in this country, and changing that starts at home in the kitchen. Keep reminding yourself that it is worth every frustrating minute of your time and energy to help them expand their palate.
If your picky eater does not improve at all after several weeks of trying – it might be worth seeing a specialist. Severe cases of picky eating are called Selective Eating Disorder and can last until adulthood if not treated. The definition of a true eating disorder is defined as abnormal eating habits that cause detriment to health, and can also interfere with social and professional relationships. Read No Age on Picky Eating in the Wall Street Journal to learn more.
Your child’s pediatrician can monitor their growth to make sure they are on track for height and weight. Some picky eaters can be underweight because they do not consume enough foods to maintain their weight, but others can be overweight due to the over-consumption of high calorie, nutrient deficient foods. In both cases, nutrient deficiencies can exist.
©2013, all rights reserved. Sara Vance. Article originally published 7/19/11, revised on 6/13/13.
Sara Vance is a Nutritionist in the Encinitas, CA area. Sara knows how hard it is to make healthy choices – she was a picky eater and overweight as a child, and is passionate about sharing her knowledge with others. One of Sara’s kids was also a picky eater – who has come a long way using many of the above tips!