Sorry, there was a problem.

An unexpected error occurred and your request couldn't be handled. Please call a Dignity Health representative at
(844) 274-8497
OR
Chat with us here.

Reference code:
A young boy looking at his bowl of tomato soup with apprehension
Family Health

Tips for Dealing With Picky Eaters

Whether you know a picky eater or are one yourself, the issue is common across all life stages. But what defines picky eating, how does it originate, and are there nutritional deficiencies associated with it? Learn the answers to these questions, plus tips and strategies to help picky eaters broaden their palate.

What Is Picky Eating Exactly?

While the definition of picky eating can differ depending on who you ask, a picky eater tends to be afraid of trying new things, be resistant to eating a variety of food textures, and stick to eating only their favorite foods. The prevalence of picky eating is also hard to nail down. One study of 959 children, conducted by Eating Behaviors, found 25 percent of the subjects to be picky eaters, while a review of 41 studies done by Childhood Obesity found the prevalence of picky eating to be hugely variable, from 6 to 59 percent of children, depending on the definition. However, neophobia, firmly defined as an unwillingness to try new foods, was found to be present in 40 to 60 percent of the population.

Picky Eating Patterns

  • Studies show that picky eaters have a significantly lower intake of eggs, sandwiches, and vegetables. However, overall calorie intake between picky and nonpicky eaters differs only slightly.

  • The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied the macronutrient (carbs, fat, and protein) and micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) intake of picky kids between ages 2 and 5. Three-year old children with picky eating were found to have lower intakes of vitamin A, iron, and zinc. Across all age groups, picky children had a much higher intake of added sugar and a much lower intake of meat, fish, veggies, and fruits. Again, there was no significant difference in how much energy, or calories, each group consumed.

  • Pediatrics and Neonatology recently published a study finding that picky kids tend to exhibit slower development in learning ability, interpersonal relationships, and physical performance, as well as difficulty with attention span and cooperation, than nonpicky eaters.

Origins of Picky Eating

What factors can cause a child to display picky eating behaviors? The Eating Behaviors study found associations between picky eating, pregnancy health, and birth delivery complications. The Pediatrics and Neonatology study also found that a lack of appropriate caregiver-child interactions, like repeated food attempts and encouragement, as well as the presence of inappropriate caregiver interactions such as threatening, snacking, and nutrition supplementation were more common in children with picky eating.

Overcoming and Preventing Picky Eating

As a parent, how do you best avoid introducing or enabling picky eating tendencies in your children?

  • Don't panic. Research has continually found that while picky kids may have lower micronutrient intakes, overall calorie intake and weight trends were stable between picky and nonpicky eaters. Surrounding the issue with worry can make it harder for both you and your child.

  • Create relaxing mealtimes. Try not to make your picky eater the focus at mealtime. Allow him or her to enjoy the meal without feeling watched or pressured by creating a relaxed environment amenable to trying new foods. Also, don't allow devices or distractions at mealtime to better promote mindful eating and interesting conversation.

  • Avoid pressure and rewards. Resist forcing or pressuring your child into eating or trying new foods, as this can lead to negative food associations. By the same token, don't bribe your picky one with dessert, as this may only strengthen your child's bond to sugar.

  • Cook with your kids. Invite your children into the kitchen. By including your picky ones in the cooking process, you're increasing the chance that they'll try new and healthful foods because they've had a hand in the process.

  • Set a good example. Ensure that you're a good role model around your picky child by enjoying healthy foods in their presence and at mealtimes.

  • Get creative. There are many creative ways to make fruits and veggies more attractive to your child — from using the right sauce to hiding legumes and vegetables in casseroles or pastas. Some great "hiding" veggies include pureed carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, eggplant, tomato, onion, peppers, and garlic.

  • Don't short-order cook. Avoid catering to each child's food preferences and making multiple meals at dinnertime. By serving only one option, you're teaching your kids to try new foods and appreciate the effort, time, and resources that went into creating a healthy meal.

Picky eating is common in both children and adults, but there are ways to expand your picky one's palate with less frustration. By understanding what picky eating is and common deficiencies surrounding it, you can use different techniques to challenge the difficulties of offering new foods in your household. If you need more guidance on the subject, ask your pediatrician or primary care doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian.

Posted in Family Health

Christina Manian is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally from the Boston area, she attended Boston University where she majored in nutritional sciences with a concentration in dietetics. She recently completed her nutrition education at the Mayo Clinic with a focus on medical nutrition therapy. While her background has mostly been in the clinical setting, Christina embraces wellness nutrition as the backbone of optimum health. She is excited to be able to educate a larger audience about nutrition through the written word.

More articles from this writer

Choosing Smarter Carb Alternatives

6 Benefits of Dietary Fiber

Diabetes Management: A Guide to Growing Your Own Food


*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.