5 Tips for Feeding a Picky Eater

Our older son is in a picky eating phase.

(Somewhere my parents are smiling, since I refused to eat anything but pasta with butter, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and cut-up fruit from age 5 to age way-too-old-for-that-nonsense.)

Of course, now I live in California, where peanut butter is practically illegal, so we have to find other ways of getting protein into our tiny people that won’t make them gag or send one of their classmates into anaphylactic shock.

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As a former picky eater, I get it. Sometimes tastes change, new foods can be scary, and mealtime is one of the only points in the day when a tiny preschooler can exert some control.

So rather than let dinnertime become a battleground, here are some things we’ve learned about feeding a picky eater.

I’m no parenting expert, but I’ve benefited a ton from the advice of friends, the wisdom of our pediatrician, and a lot of reading. I’d love any tips you have to share, too!

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1. If you’re serving dessert, put it on the plate with the meal

We had sooooooo many dessert battles. Stubbornness. Tears. Raised voices. Flopping onto the rug like a trout. It turned us into hostage negotiators rather than parents.

Our meals usually went something like this.

Preschooler: What do I have to eat to get dessert?

Parent: All your chicken and three bites of broccoli.

Preschooler: Nooooo! I haaaaaate broccoli! And this chicken is YUCKY!

Parent: Well, then, that’s your choice.

Preschooler: But I waaaaaant dessert! What if I just eat my potato? I like this potato!

Parent: And your chicken.

Preschooler: Nooooooooooo!

Repeat. For half an hour.

Tired of dinners ending in tears, we took a tip from a friend who suggested putting a tiny bit of dessert on his plate if we’d be eating dessert that night. The result? Dinner bliss.

Sure, he eats dessert first. But then he goes for the rest of his dinner, eats until he’s full, and the battles are no more.

We don’t always have dessert (and we rarely if ever have it with lunch), and on those nights we leave it off his plate. But a few chocolate chips or a scoop of ice cream is a small price to pay for a peaceful dinnertime.

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2. Control the quality of the food

This tip is straight from my pediatrician. (We love you, Dr. Ball!)

For awhile we’d ask our son what he wanted for a meal, like total dodos. He’d say fish sticks. EVERY time.

Finally we realized not to ask him, just to serve him something good. He could eat it or not. Turns out he’d often eat it, especially if we didn’t try to force it.

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3. Pack healthy snacks

We snack a lot. We are a snacky family. Also, our kids are constantly hungry (which I guess tends to be more common with boys?) and when we’ve tried to eliminate or pare down snacks between meals they have turned into raving savages.

I know they’ll eat snacks, so I make sure to pack healthy ones. If it’s all that’s in the bag when they turn ravenous at the park, they’ll eat it, even if it’s a bag of almonds or snow peas and hummus.

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4. Set a good example

I’m pretty bad at this one, I’ll admit. Before he was two years old, my oldest son would smell my breath at bedtime, poke a finger into my mouth, and ask, “Whatchu got?”

It was usually something involving chocolate and peanut butter. I can guarantee that it was never, ever a carrot stick.

Kids notice what you do more than what you tell them to do. If I want him to taste the kale chips, you’d better believe I have to go first. Which is why we don’t buy kale chips.

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5. Let them control the quantity of what they eat

I don’t believe in forcing kids to eat anything. Our only dinnertime rule is that everyone has to try one bite of everything. As Daniel Tiger himself says, “You gotta try new food, cuz it might taste goooood!”

Occasionally our four-year-old takes a bite of something new and says, “Yum!” More often, much more often, he says, “Yuck.” (We are working on getting him to say, “No thank you.” These things take time.)

But he’s tried it! With repeated exposure, sometimes he warms up to things. Either way, he’s found out for himself what his taste buds say, not just his eyes and nose.

Do you have a picky eater? What have you found that helps?

5 thoughts on “5 Tips for Feeding a Picky Eater

  1. Yep, this is my son! Mine wilts when the item we are serving “doesn’t look right”, or heaven forbit, someone else “touched it”! And he is also in a five food rut – he will hold out a very long time for food he likes! Thanks for the tips – I will try them!


    1. I’m hoping he grows out of it. But… it took me until like 25, so I’m not holding my breath!


  2. Great, practical tips! My first child ate EVERYTHING, and I’ll admit, I patted myself on the back. And then I had my second and third…and learned humility 🙂
    When I grocery shop with the brood they get to pick a ‘treat’- but the treat is generally from the fruit aisle. They don’t mind- they’re just happy to have a hand in the choice.
    I also have them help me cook. When the older two became very whiny about food for a while, I had them make meals- simple things, but they were proud of themselves and much more accepting of my work. For a while, anyway 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Hahahahaha. It’s always hilarious when the first kid is super well-behaved and the parents think they have it all figured out… Then comes the fun! Picking a fruit treat is brilliant! I’m going to do that!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with the healthy snack idea. My kids are now 2 and 3.5 and I can’t believe how much snacking they do! Setting a good example is a great piece of advice too. My husband and I would joke around with the kids about feeing the broccoli if they’re bad, now we regret doing that 😦


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