Picky Eaters: 5 Tips to Help Your Children Broaden Their Tastes

Growing up, my grandmother took it upon herself to ensure that I was not a picky eater. Verbal complaints were met with more of the same food (to give me practice liking it). Food that wasn’t eaten reappeared at the next meal (to give me another opportunity to finish it). It was hard-core and at the time I very much resented it. However, I now enjoy a well-rounded palate that appreciates a variety of food from around the world.

Fast forward twenty odd years and I am now faced with teaching my picky children to try new foods. I figured my grandma’s method worked for me, so why not try it for my kids. Therefore, when my 9-month-old daughter kept spitting out her stuffing gravy, I patiently kept spooning it into her mouth. I had every intention of making her like it—until she went from spitting to vomiting and from that into a full blown anaphylactic reaction. That first attempt was an epic fail. It took about a year to sort out what foods were safe for her to eat during which time she developed into an extremely picky eater.

Infants have very few taste buds. This is a good thing as breast milk and formula can often be quite unpalatable. (I know, because in residency we were forced to “taste test” a variety of infant formulas. Their tastes ranged from bitter cow manure to bland Styrofoam.) Most parents start introducing solids between 4-6 months of age. The taste buds are still immature and the infant will greedily eat just about anything introduced. Fast-forward 6-10 months, and things aren’t quite as dandy. Suddenly, the sweet infant who loved peas has become the feisty toddler who throws his peas one by one onto the kitchen floor. Parents wonder what went wrong. Actually, nothing went wrong. Not only have the infant’s taste buds started maturing, but he or she is developing more confidence and independence. This leads to testing the waters to see what is and isn’t acceptable behavior with food.

So what are some ways to navigate this developmental stage and emerge from the other side with a child still willing to eat a variety of foods? Here are five tips that may be helpful.

  1. Only allow your child to eat food at a designated meal times. Snacking with either juice or food suppresses the hunger drive. This hunger drive is necessary to help children WANT to try new food.
  2. Give foods as simply as possible. Toddlers prefer foods that aren’t heavily seasoned or mixed with other foods. Often, they prefer pasta without sauce, salad components (without dressing), etc.
  3. Only give 1-2 small bite-sized pieces of a new food. Offer the new food first. You might make other food contingent on toddler tasting new food. Don’t force the toddler to do more than taste the new food.
  4. Continue to offer the new food at several meals (but don’t force toddler to do more than taste it).
  5. If your child is truly restricting their diet to only 2-3 articles of food, get professional evaluation. Sometimes self-restricting or extremely pickiness are actually the only sign of an underlying medical problem (food allergy, eosinophilic gastritis, swallowing problem, etc).

Thankfully, my daughter at age 5 has learned to broaden her food repertoire. My son is now slowly following suit. Picky eating can be frustrating, but with patient persistence your child can learn to enjoy new foods.

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Rachel Nelson MD

graduated from Loma Linda University and completed a pediatric residency at UC Davis. She has a passion for helping children reach their full potential. She is married to a colorectal surgeon and together they have two children: Amy and Michael. Dr. Nelson enjoys playing outside with her kids, gardening, and music.

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