Got a Picky Eater? Try These 11 Tips at the Table

September 06, 2018 6:00 AM

New research shows parental reactions to picky eating can have long-term effects, for better or worse. Here’s how to make peace at mealtime.

You finally get home from a long day of work, prepare a nutritious meal and your child refuses to eat it.

You try bribing, bargaining and even begging to see a clean plate.

Sound familiar?

University of Michigan researchers recently explored this dilemma in a new study. Their findings, published in the journal Appetite, suggest that pressuring children to eat foods they dislike won’t lead to a well-rounded diet later in life — nor will it encourage better health or development. 

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That’s why a smart, sensitive approach is important.

“Worrying whether your child is getting enough nutrients or eating enough is understandable,” says Julie Lumeng, M.D., a developmental behavioral pediatrician at U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and director of the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development.

“But how you handle your child’s current relationship with food can have lasting consequences on your relationship — and their relationship with food in the future.”

Fortunately, it’s easy to foster good habits without fights or tears.

Lumeng, the study’s lead author, shared 11 ways to make mealtime smoother.

11 tips for picky eaters

1. Model eating new foods 

By demonstrating that certain foods taste good, your child will be more likely to try those items, too. Depending on the individual, having another child — such as a sibling or a peer at day care — exhibit that he or she also likes this particular food can be even more persuasive than a parent’s behavior.

2. Combine a “disliked” food with a “liked” food

Substantial evidence shows this is a good method to get your child to eat more of a vegetable or healthy food item. Try serving broccoli with ranch dressing, for example, or zucchini with parmesan cheese.

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3. Support good choices

Rather than forcing your child to eat every fruit and vegetable in the produce section, allow your child to eat cucumbers often if those are a favorite — while still encouraging new foods and intermingling them. Find the fruits and vegetables and other healthy foods your child likes and serve them regularly.

4. Limit exposure to unhealthy food

Fast food is carefully created. Competing with the salty, sweet and fatty ingredients present in fast food is extremely difficult, so avoid it as much as possible. Also, keep foods that require self-control out of the house. Instead of having ice cream in the freezer, visit your favorite ice cream shop as an occasional treat. 

5. Use cooking methods that satisfy your child’s palate

Between steaming, baking, sautéing and more, one preparation style is bound to taste good to your child. Spices, sauces and dips also can make foods taste more appealing. Use them in moderation but recognize their potential to enhance taste.

6. Give a range of options

People eat more when presented with options. So, instead of a large pile of peas or carrots, give your child a small pile of both veggies. Experiment with your child to discover his or her favorites and don’t make assumptions. Just because your child may despise eggplant doesn’t mean your child will despise cauliflower.  

7. Don’t hide or disguise food

This can introduce additional nutrients in your child’s diet, but it will not register to the child that he or she actually likes that food. Rather than pureeing foods for sauces, promote eating the food in its natural state to show that it’s something your child can enjoy.

8. Keep the peace

The way someone handles your likes and dislikes toward food is a window into your relationship with them as a human being. Do you embrace your child’s taste and try to understand it, or do you criticize it? Arguments should not overshadow bonding moments at mealtime. Establish healthy dialogue about good foods — and how you can make less desirable items taste better.

SEE ALSO: Warning Signs of Eating Disorders and Proven Treatments to Help

9. Stay calm

Unless a medical professional signals cause for concern regarding your child’s diet, refrain from excessive worry. If concerns about picky eating persist, consult with your family physician. As long as your child’s aversion to specific foods is not hindering growth, health or development, allow dietary autonomy.

10. Understand the root of picky eating

A child’s reluctance to eat certain foods isn’t always because he or she is “just being difficult.” A top reason is having an anxious temperament. Individuals who run anxious tend to be anxious about trying new things, including new foods. Genetics may also play a role, as we all have different ways of perceiving taste. What might taste great to you — broccoli, for example — could taste bitter and inedible to your child.  

11 Be patient

Remember that it takes a child 5 to 10 times of trying a food to determine whether he or she likes it. Giving up completely after one rejected bite or two times of trying the food might eliminate a food from your child’s diet that could be a potential favorite after a few more tries. 

More resources from Michigan Medicine for parents of picky eaters are available here.