Thursday, February 16, 2012

10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

One of the most common questions parents ask me is, “How do I get my child to eat?”  I cannot ignore the fact that one of the top causes for parental anxiety is due to food related battles.  The following are 10 tips for parents with picky eaters.

#1 Teach the child to ‘listen’ to his/her body

Studies show that children are good at listening to their bodies until the age of 3, but by age 5 children are already overeating. What’s going on?  It starts in toddlerhood when we see kids as ‘picky eaters’.  I often hear the following phrases:  “Please, one more bite,”…“You can’t play until you’ve finished everything on your plate,”… “Don’t waste food,”…“There are starving kids in the world”.

 As toddlers and small children hear this, they begin to stop listening to their own bodies telling them that they are full and they don’t need to eat anymore.  By the age of 5, many children have already developed unhealthy eating habits usually due to cultural or psychological factors.

We need to learn to listen to our bodies. People tend to eat without listening to their stomachs telling them that they are full.  It takes approximately 20 minutes for a person’s stomach to communicate with their brain.  This means that from the time food goes into the mouth and hits the stomach, it then takes 20 minutes for the stomach to send a signal to the brain saying, “hey, I’m full”.

 So, bottom line: Eat slowly, AND, Eat until you are only 80% full.

#2 Don’t control your child

Control what is served on the table, but let your child “control” what they eat at the table.  Many parents don’t realize it, but their kids can sense that they can control their grown ups through food. Avoid bribery or forcing them to eat certain foods- this might only ignite a power struggle over food.

In addition, your child might come to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration. Serve small portions to avoid overwhelming your child and give him or her the opportunity to independently ask for more.

#3 Sit together as a family

Studies show that families who sit together at mealtimes produce children who are better eaters, have better relationships with their parents, do better in school, overall do better in everything. 

For those who have teenagers, just remember, soon you teen will be out of the house.  Many will go away to college and get on with their own lives. Now is the time to spend quality time with them and form those bonds through sitting together as a family during mealtimes.

#4 Stick to the routine

Try serving meals and snacks at the same time every day. Provide water or milk during meals, and offer water between meals and snacks. Allowing your child to fill up on juice or milk throughout the day might decrease his or her appetite for meals.  

Remember, children age 12 months and up should limit their milk intake to no more than 16-24 ounces per day.  The extra calcium can chelate iron which may lead to anemia.

#5 Be patient with new foods

Studies show that a child may need to be exposed to a certain food 15-20 times before they even take their first bite. Continue to offer foods even if your child refused them in the past. Provide choices at mealtime and don’t be deterred by petulant refusals.  Try encouraging your child by talking about a food's color, shape, aroma and texture- not whether it tastes good.  

#6 Recruit your child's help

Try to involve your child when buying and preparing food. At the grocery store, give your child a small basket and ask them to pick out whatever they like from the fresh produce aisle. Avoid the middle aisles of the grocery store where they tend to stock the processed foods. Don't buy anything that you don't want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table.

#7 Set a good example

Parents with healthy eating habits have children with healthy eating habits.  Try leading by example.

#8 Minimize distractions

Turn off the television and other electronic gadgets during meals. This will help your child focus on eating. Keep in mind that television advertising might also cause your child to desire unhealthy foods.

#9 Don't offer dessert as a reward

Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food, which might only increase your child's desire for sweets. Try selecting one or two nights a week as dessert nights.  You could also redefine dessert as fruit, yogurt or other healthy choices.

#10  Don't be a short-order cook

Preparing a separate meal for your child after he or she rejects the original meal might promote picky eating. Encourage your child to stay at the table for the designated mealtime, even if he or she doesn't eat, as long as the family is together. Keep serving healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred.

If you're concerned that picky eating is affecting your child's growth and development, consult your child's medical provider. In addition, consider keeping a food journal that records the types and amounts of food your child eats for three days.  This may help you to look at the big picture which can help ease your worries. It may also help your child's medical provider identify any problems. In the meantime, remember that your child's eating habits may not change overnight, but the small steps you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating.


  1. Dr. Choe, thanks a bunch. I will definitely do this to my 7 year old picky eater. Am glad to know my case is not hopeless. Looking forward to more posts.

  2. Dr. Choe, thank you for the tip. I will follow your advice.