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Getting Your Picky Eaters to Eat

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Getting Your Picky Eaters to Eat

May 18, 2023

A growing child needs a wide variety of foods, including vegetables. But toddlers are some of the pickiest eaters around. Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, discusses why kids are so particular when it comes to eating, and has some strategies for encouraging even the pickiest eaters to try new foods.

Episode Transcript

Do you have a child at home who is probably a toddler and doesn't want to eat anything? He refuses to eat his fruits and vegetables. He throws a fit and feeds everything to the dog. Chances are you have a picky eater.

As my parents and my husband can attest, I used to be a picky eater. My husband says I still am, and my children can be too. I see way more picky eaters in my practice, and there are a lot of reasons why.

Picky Eating is a Normal, Common Behavior in Toddlers

The biggest problem is toddlers. They go through an appetite slump where some days you're wondering how they can even grow when they really only eat three macaronis a day and call it done. Picky eating is a normal toddler behavior for a lot of kids. Their growth really slows down between the ages of one and five. That's when they start getting picky. They start saying, "I don't like that."

By age two to three about 20% of kids are picky eaters. They won't like foods that are difficult to chew, so meats. They don't want to chew their meats. They don't want to chew their vegetables. Some people like well-cooked foods instead of raw foods. Some kids actually have big tonsils. If your kid is actually choking on bread and meat you need to have them see the doctor to make sure that it's not their tonsils that it's not their tonsils that are causing them to be a picky eater.

Most Kids Overcome Picky Eating

Most kids who are picky eaters will outgrow it. The biggest thing is to be creative. You want to prepare a main dish everyone likes and don't let your child say, "I don't want to eat that," and just go without. Encourage them to try new foods.

It can take numerous times of introducing a food before kids will actually decide they like it. If your child has any really strong food dislikes like they will just not eat something, or it will make them gag and throw up don't serve it. It's okay.
If your child won't eat that many vegetables, but they'll eat more fruits, encourage that. Fruits and vegetables interchange themselves. A lot of kids will eat more fruits than vegetables. They're sweeter. Some kids actually prefer more vegetables than fruits. Go with that too.

Don't Punish or Bribe Your Picky Eater

The one big thing is don't punish your child for being a picky eater. Respect that this is something they will outgrow. Don't bribe your child to eat and say, "If you finish everything on your plate you can have a cookie." That's not what you want to do. You want to encourage them to eat healthy because if you give them the foundation for healthy eating at this age when their appetite picks back up when they become elementary school age they're going to have a good foundation for fruits, vegetables, and healthy foods, and not always expect to have that cookie at the end.

Possible Medical Issues of Picky Eating

Food allergies are something to consider. A lot of food allergies present with just, "I don't feel good. My stomach hurts. I've got some diarrhea. My throat's a little bit itchy." Think about that as a reason for picky eating.

Other kids, kids who have heartburn issues. Yes, even little kids can have heartburn issues. Don't forget your kids are not little adults. You're not going to have them eat as big of a portion as you might think.

Portion Sizes for Kids: Understanding Appropriate Amounts

Their portions are actually much smaller. Look at their hand. A serving size of meat should be the size of the palm of their hand, and a serving size of fruits, vegetables, rice, and beans, should be the size of their fist. That's not a really big portion for a lot of kids. The perception might be your child is a really picky eater, but actually stop and think, "Maybe they actually are eating as much as they should be." The one thing you're going to ask your doctor about is how are they growing. Kids who are picky eaters who we start worrying about problems with don't grow. You'll start noticing that their growth curve will flatten out.

Growth curves change between two and five years. They're not the same as they were in the first year when they're tripling their birth weight, and they're not the same as they are when they get to be in elementary school when they go into kindergarten through second grade where they have their next growth spurt.

Their growth is kind of flat. They only gain a couple of pounds a year. If your child, even though they may seem like they're not eating a lot, if they are still growing along their own growth curve then you know they're getting the nutrition they need.

Create a Positive Eating Environment

The one thing you need to remember if you have a picky eater is to make mealtime fun. You want to make it a pleasant experience to come to the dinner table. Don't make it a punishment.

If your child is really underweight then you're going to want to talk to your doctor. If your child just won't eat anything except junk food you're going to want to talk to your doctor.

The main thing is small portions are okay. Picky eating is normal. Encourage fruits, vegetables, and healthy foods over processed and junk food.

If you have any other questions about your child's growth or their eating, this is something most pediatricians are very comfortable talking about. Be sure to ask your doctor about your child.


updated: May 18, 2023
originally published: October 31, 2013