Although the reasons for it may be complex, most run-of-the-mill picky eating can be addressed with some common rules, say experts.
No more endless snacking or permanently-in-hand juice cup. “When you are hungry, the value of food increases, and it makes food more palatable,” 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. Offer meals or snacks every three to five hours, depending on the age, and be confident that your child will survive until the next one.
“The parents’ job is to decide what will be served and offer healthy options. The child’s job is to decide what and how much of what you serve to eat,” says Katja Rowell, M.D., a childhood-feeding specialist and the author of Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating. Don’t cater, plead, or bargain. If your child doesn’t eat, fine. (Some experts recommend letting kids have a bowl of yogurt or cereal as an option later—but not a full backup meal prepared by you.)
Include something you know your child will eat at every meal, even if it’s just rice or bread. And when adding in a new food, make it one that the rest of the family likes, so you are not wasting vats of untouched chard.
Go for Exposure
To encourage familiarity, let little ones play with their food. Touching or licking the suspicious kiwi helps kids overcome wariness. It can take many tries before a child learns to like something. Don’t declare, “Susie hates tuna!” after the first thumbs-down. If you’ve heard the soul-crushing rule that it takes 30 tries for a person to learn to like something new, know this: Experts say that the number is closer to 10. But most agree that parents give up way too soon.
“How would you like it if the waiter said, ‘Did you have three bites of your steak yet? The risotto is not too salty! You should love it,’” says Rowell. Pressure can kill an appetite. Try a single, casual encouragement, if anything. Also: “You are not leaving until you finish those lima beans!” will backfire. “When kids are forced to eat something that they don’t want to, the primitive brain perceives that food as a threat,” says Ludwig. Next time, the very sight of it may cause anxiety.