How to Handle Picky Eaters

Tips for dealing with common standoffs.

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Photo by Christopher Testani

Vegetable Hatred

Stop bargaining over how many bites of asparagus must be eaten before dessert. This only teaches kids to view the vegetable as an obstacle that must be overcome. Instead, try to boost appeal. “Kids may eat sliced peppers if you present them in a bag covered in stickers,” says Natalie Muth, M.D., a pediatrician, a registered dietitian, and a coauthor of the forthcoming book The Picky Eater Project. Offer dips or toppings (sesame seeds, wonton noodles). Present the same vegetable in different ways to see if you can get traction: raw carrot sticks, shredded carrots, roasted carrot coins. If your child likes breaded chicken, make the small leap to breaded zucchini rounds. And take advantage of hunger by serving vegetables first, suggests Karen Le Billon, the author of French Kids Eat Everything. What about hiding pureed vegetables in spaghetti sauce or brownie batter? “First, some kids will be able to detect even a tiny amount and reject it. More important, though, they’ll lose trust in what you’re serving them,” says Kristi King, a pediatric dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital, in Houston. This Trojan-horse method also doesn’t address the big goal—getting your child familiar with the taste of spinach so he can grow to enjoy it willingly. Take heart: “Fruit has many of the same nutrients as vegetables,” says Maryann Jacobsen, a registered dietitian and the author of From Picky to Powerful, so don’t panic if your child is rebelling against anything green.

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Off-the-Menu Ordering

Some children get into the habit of expecting every dinner to have a kids’ meal option. As a result, you are making several dinners. Commit to making one. “Things may get worse for a few days,” says David Ludwig, Ph.D., M.D., the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children's Hospital and the author of Ending the Food Fight. “In many cases, the child has been running the show and is now thinking, Wait! I had it good!” Be patient but firm. If she rejects your meatballs, no worries. She will have another chance to eat in a couple of hours. Lesson learned. (You can put the meal in the refrigerator and, when she’s hungry before bedtime, ask, “Would you like your dinner now?”) Giving two choices—before you start cooking—can also help. “Would you like barbecue or baked chicken tonight?” Let kids add their own seasonings—special sea salt, cumin—at the table. Do make-your-own tacos or pizza night. And, yes, the classic move of getting kids involved in the shopping and prepping does work; they’re more likely to try food that they picked.

The White-Foods-Only Diet

Soft and undemanding or salty and safe, processed carbs—pasta, bread, fries—are favorites of the picky. Such eaters have an extra-hard time warming up to new foods. At each meal, offer a combination of things your kids like (bow ties) and things that they are not convinced of (Broccolini), suggests  Katja Rowell, M.D., a childhood-feeding specialist and the author of Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating. Knowing that there’s always something that they can eat ratchets down the tension and can make kids more open to experimenting. Maryann Jacobsen, a registered dietitian and the author of From Picky to Powerful suggests putting out a small sampler plate, where a few bites of a new food can be presented in a low-key, playful way. Broaden your child’s palate gradually by offering new foods that are close to beloved ones: “If they like French fries, try sweet potato fries,” says Muth. Love cheese? Try serving broccoli with cheese sauce. Or use condiments as a bridge: If your child likes ketchup, she might try chicken or baked potatoes if she can douse them with the familiar flavor at first. This babystep method can be used to help kids overcome their dislike of textures, too. Keep adding slightly bigger chunks into the homemade applesauce, for instance.

Fear of Food Colliding

Kids might like the individual parts, but mixed together, it looks like a new and unfamiliar food. Invite your child to watch you prepare the casserole so she can see that nothing terrible is lurking in there, says Sharon Donovan, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has studied picky eating extensively (whose son rejected her lasagna, FYI). And don’t stress too much; this is one hang-up that experts aren’t too concerned about. (Many adults still cling to it.) Let her deconstruct a sandwich, buy a few plates with compartments, and move on.

Stuck on Toddler Fare

By age 11 or 12, most kids are getting more adventurous. But if weary parents have long ago thrown up their hands in the face of wasted food, some kids may still be in a rotation of PB&J and chocolate milk. At this more logic-driven age, you can try some nutrition talk. “If your child is an athlete, talk about how certain foods can give her more energy,” says Kristi King, a pediatric dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital, in Houston. Positive peer pressure can work here, too. A friend who loves cabbage rolls can be a good influence. If you sense an interest, explain that it takes multiple tries to develop a liking. “Say to them, ‘Let’s train your taste buds,’” encouraging them to take a small bite or lick of a food that they want to learn to enjoy, says Muth.

RELATED: 5 Emotionally Intelligent Solutions for Everyday Parenting Challenges

The Newly Vegan Teen

“We expect tweens and teens to explore their developing identities through food choices,” says King. (“I’m not eating anything with a face!” “Sugar is poison!”) Calmly discuss the reasons behind the decision. Are they doing it because of a burgeoning belief in animal rights? If so, be supportive but help them make sure that they are still eating a balanced diet. “Some young vegetarians don’t eat meat but also don’t like vegetables, which won’t work,” says Muth. Offer to take her to a nutritionist for advice. Older kids may all of a sudden develop picky eating as a way to assert control in the face of stress, such as divorce or bullying. And this is the age when eating disorders develop, so be sure to get to the bottom of any dramatic changes.

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Still Picky at 35

If you have a spouse or a friend who remains picky as an adult, ordering grilled cheese at a business dinner, try to muster a little sympathy. “No one would choose to be an extreme picky eater. It’s painful and embarrassing,” says Stephanie Lucianovic, the author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate. Nancy Zucker, Ph.D., the director of the Duke Center for Eating Disorders, in Durham, North Carolina, helped create an online registry to study adult picky eaters at the Duke Center for Eating Disorders and got thousands of responses. “People have been telling these adults for their entire lives, ‘If you just try it, you’ll like it,’ but it’s not that simple,” says Zucker. If you are the picky adult and want to change, Lucianovic recommends gradual exposure: “I would take one bite of fish off my husband’s plate at a restaurant. No pressure to eat the whole thing.” At home, she started putting a tiny dollop of sautéed greens on her pasta, gradually increasing the portion to get used to it—and eventually to enjoy it. Now a food writer and a culinary-school graduate, Lucianovic gives this advice to others in the same boat: “Take it one bite at a time, and be kind to yourself.”