How Parents Should Respond to Picky Eaters

picky eaters

Kids are notorious for being picky eaters. 

There are some willing to eat anything and everything, and then there are others who refuse new foods, vegetables, and many healthy options. 

After spending the time and energy to prepare family dinner, picky kids can make mealtime very frustrating. 

Many old-school parenting tactics demand that kids stay at the table until done or must eat a certain amount of each food, but these strategies do not help picky eaters and just strain family dynamics. 

Here’s some advice for how parents should respond to picky eaters.

What Not to Do with Picky Eaters

While it can be frustrating to deal with picky eaters, you have to keep your cool. Even though you want to support healthy eating habits, you cannot force them. Here are some common tactics that parents should leave behind:

  • Forcing kids to clean their plates. This strategy creates a power struggle in the family and makes mealtime stressful. It will not help picky eaters “learn to love” foods they are fearful of. 
  • Making dessert a reward. When you say “you can have a cookie if you eat the broccoli”, you make cookies seem good and broccoli seem bad, like a punishment. Don’t try to encourage picky eaters by rewarding them with a high-calorie, sugary treat. 
  • Not letting them leave the table until they have eaten everything. Again, this creates a power struggle and immense pressure. 

Better Ways to Help Picky Eaters

Most of us experienced the methods above when we were kids, but the reality is they are not the most effective for helping picky eaters eat more healthy foods. Instead, try some of these strategies:

  • Set a meal schedule. Include some small snacks based on your child’s needs, but limit excess snacking outside of the scheduled meals. 
  • Include kids in mealtime prep. Engage kids with cooking, letting them help in ways that are age-appropriate (mixing, measuring, setting the table, etc). It will help them become more comfortable with the look and smell of new foods. 
  • Focus on trying a bite, not finishing. While you shouldn’t force kids to eat or finish the food, it is good to encourage them to at least try everything. Developing a pallet for new foods starts with a bite, and from there, your child can decide whether or not to eat more. 
  • Don’t cook separate meals. If you head straight back to the kitchen to make something your picky eater likes when they refuse part of dinner, you facilitate their behavior. When you use scheduled meals, you know they will have a chance to eat again in a few hours. They will be more likely to eat what’s given. 

Lead by Example 

One of the best ways you can help picky eaters is to lead by example. Try everything on your plate, and show a willingness to try new meals/ food at restaurants. Don’t speak negatively about certain foods, or use words like “yuck” or “gross” to talk about ones you don’t like. Lastly, be patient and work with your child to support healthy choices rather than forcing them. 


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