You Want Me to Eat What? What to Do About a Picky Eater

“EEEEWWW! I don’t like broccoli!”

“No, no, no, no, I won’t eat it EVER!!”

“I just want chicken nuggets.”

Sound familiar? If you are a parent, chances are at one time or another your child has been a picky eater. But how do you know if your child’s super-selectivity is typical and will change, versus being a red flag for a bigger problem? When should you let your child eat what he or she likes, and when should you push for them to try something new?

Eating should be fun. We all need to eat multiple times a day, but eating is often a social activity as well. Many of our celebrations and social functions center on food in some form, from birthday parties to holidays to just going out for a special occasion. But when you have a picky eater, mealtimes can be stressful and anxiety-provoking! And finding something your child is willing to ingest when you are out and about can practically require a Ph.D., or an incredible amount of culinary creativity. Not to mention the fact that when you work hard to put a meal on the table, it’s nice if people actually eat it…and we tend to get a little cranky when the plate is met with a grimace and a groan.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard “I’m too full to finish” at dinner, but when I said, “Okay, ready for some ice cream?” I got an enthusiastic “yes”, you’d find me on a tropical island instead of here! Of course, I said, “Well, if you’re too full for dinner, you’re too full for dessert!” Not a popular answer, but logical, don’t you agree?

What to do? Advice varies, but let’s look at what some of the experts have to say. As always, you’ll need to decide what works best for your family, but years of clinical experience and research have given us some helpful guidelines.

Forcing, bribing, and coaxing may get the job done short-term, but it sets up your child as a mini-negotiator, and does not typically increase their liking for the foods whatsoever. Remember, too, that foods need to be presented (and tasted) about 10 times before we will know if we really like them or don’t like them. So encourage your kids to give new foods a chance, and require them to take only a small bite and then let them move on to the foods they like.

The Mayo Clinic offers some ideas:

  • For many children, it is true that they WILL eat when they are hungry. Don’t worry, she won’t waste away (but please see note at the end re: more serious eating issues). If children say they are not hungry at mealtime, still have them sit at the table and offer them something. No need to make a huge deal about it if you don’t want to. They can eat it later when they are hungry.
  • Avoid “short order cook” syndrome. Cooking something separate for your picky princess encourages her selectivity. The default at our house if you don’t like what I’m making is a peanut-butter sandwich or a bowl of cereal. Which, might I add, you make yourself (my kids are old enough to do this). Sometimes that is not an option, though, and the rule is you eat what’s offered or you don’t eat (see bullet above). Hmm, this might be why I’ve been given the “Meanest Mom in the World” award for several years running.
  • Make eating fun. Try presenting new foods in appealing ways like a “funny face”, cutting foods into shapes, or using yummy sauces for dips. Sometimes it’s so entertaining to eat these foods we forget they’re also good for us.
  • Set a good example. If YOU won’t eat the broccoli, what do you expect when your kids see it piled on their plate?
  • Minimize distractions at the table. Have a conversation and enjoy your time together. Avoid television, toys, or books at the table as a general rule. I will say that we bring activities when we go out, but the toys go away when the food arrives. has all sorts of great ideas for dealing with picky eaters. It even offers more helpful things to say versus hindering progress.

PLEASE NOTE: these tips and ideas are NOT for children who have severe feeding disorders or extremely restricted eating habits. Children who will eat 10-15 or fewer foods, and/or completely restrict one or more entire food groups (i.e., fruits) may evidence restricted eating. These children typically have severe difficulty with mealtimes, with extreme anxiety, tantrumming, and even gagging over certain foods. If you think your child may have a significant feeding problem, please speak with your pediatrician or family physician. You can also contact us for questions by responding to this post, or going to Beaumont’s Center for Human Development and Speech Pathology Departments offer help for children with significant feeding problems.

— Lori J. Warner, Ph.D., BCBA-D, Licensed Psychologist, Beaumont Children’s Hospital, Director, HOPE Center

2 Responses to “You Want Me to Eat What? What to Do About a Picky Eater”

  1. 1 Anonymous May 18, 2011 at 8:37 am

    Thanks for the great tips, Dr. Warner! As a parent, it is nice to have some guidelines as to what is normal and where we can go for help when we are feeling especially challenged.

    • 2 May 18, 2011 at 11:58 am

      You are very welcome! I could fill a book with all the stories our families share, as well as the mealtime wrangling we’ve endured…please know there are MANY resources here at your disposal. Most of the time, you’re going through what most parents do, and “this too shall pass”. 🙂

      Dr. W

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