Working in the nutrition field, I had big hopes for all the healthy foods that I would feed my child. MY child would joyfully eat avocado, salmon, spinach, blueberries, etc. So, of course, irony would have it that I have the world’s most picky eater (who eats none of these foods). Many toddlers and young children are picky eaters, but my child is next-level picky: he literally eats a rotation of about 5 meals. He’ll eat yogurt, but only one brand and flavor. He eats zero fruits and vegetables (except for the squeezie fruit/vegetable pouches, but again, only one brand and flavor).
Sound familiar? Here are some tips for parents of the pickiest picky eaters. Clearly, I’m no expert in getting children to eat a wide variety of foods but I have done a lot of research, consulted with an occupational therapist, and have gained some useful experience trying to expand my son’s diet as much as possible and ensure his nutrition needs are met. Here are some tips that I have found helpful.
Find Preferred Food Variations
I find that it helps to introduce foods similar to your child’s preferred foods. For example, my son eats peanut butter in PB&Js, so I was able to get him to eat sunflower butter and next I’ll try almond or cashew butter. Also, he will eat beef hotdogs, so I’m working on getting him to eat turkey hotdogs.
If my son takes a bite and immediately tastes a difference, he will refuse it and sometimes it will take a while before he will eat that food again. It helps to introduce the new food gradually. For example, with the sunflower butter, I started by mixing a small amount of sunflower butter with peanut butter for a PB&J and then slowly increased the amount of sunflower butter, while decreasing the amount of peanut butter until he would eat just a sunflower butter & jelly sandwich (which is great because now I can send it for lunch at his peanut-free school!).
Follow Your Picky Eater’s Texture Lead
It can be helpful to follow your child’s lead. If they have a preferred texture of foods, for example smooth, like yogurt, or crunchy, like chips, try other foods that have a similar texture. For example, my son discovered Cheetos and loves them, which is not exactly a win in the diet department. BUT, this gave me a clue that he might like similar crunchy foods, so now I’ve been able to get him to eat veggie straws, white bean puffs, and Inner Peas from Trader Joe’s (green pea puffs). Yes, I know this is not as good as getting him to eat vegetables on their own, but little new-food wins are wins nonetheless!
Take Baby Steps
You may have to go in baby steps. For example, I’m trying to get my son to eat blueberries and I’m starting out by getting him to just tolerate them being on his plate. I tell him that he doesn’t have to eat them, but he has to leave them on his plate (and not throw them on the floor like he did when we started). Next, I’ll try to get him to touch them, then smell them, and eventually taste them. Traditionally, we’re taught to not let our kids play with their food, but touching and smelling (and even tasting, then spitting out) new foods can actually help desensitize children to new foods so that they will eventually eat them.
Keep Introducing Foods Positively (and Never Force Feed)
It can be easy to give up after your child refuses a new food several times, but research shows that it can take 15-20 tries for children to try a new food, so don’t get discouraged or express your exasperation to your child. Continue offering new foods without putting a lot of pressure on your child to eat it, which can cause negative associations with the food. You should never force feed.
Serve New Foods with Familiar Foods
Children are more likely to try a new food if it is served alongside a familiar or preferred food. For example, if you are trying to introduce broccoli, serve it with preferred foods (for example, chicken and mac & cheese) rather than serving it with other unfamiliar foods. If your child likes dips and sauces (such as ketchup or ranch), you can try introducing new foods with preferred dips/sauces.
Ask for Help with Picky Eating
If you are concerned that your child’s picky eating is extreme or affecting his nutritional status, ask your pediatrician for help. Because my son’s diet was so restrictive, I asked my pediatrician for a referral to be evaluated, and he actually qualified for getting occupational therapy through Strong Start to help address the picky eating. It has been very helpful (and where I have learned some of these tips)! Most states have similar programs. You can also seek feeding therapy from a private speech therapist or occupational therapist. In some cases, it is covered by insurance.
Supplement If Needed
Pediatricians will tell you that it’s better to get nutrition from foods rather than from a multivitamin, but if your child just isn’t consuming enough healthy foods, a multivitamin supplement can be useful. Ask your pediatrician for a recommendation. Some children will willingly eat children’s vitamins, especially the gummies, but my son wanted nothing to do with them. I tried crushing them and adding to yogurt but he noticed the difference in color. We are having good luck with this one added to yogurt or milk. If you have to mix the multivitamin into foods like I do, be sure to fade it in (Tip #2 above). Start adding a small amount and gradually increase it until you reach the amount you need (or when your child notices).
I hope that these tips will help you to expand your picky eater’s diet. For more information and tips, check out these links:
- 10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Childhood Feeding Problems by the Ellyn Satter Institute
- Tips for Picky Eaters by the USDA
Have any tips or useful experiences to add to this list? Add a comment below!