Selective Eaters: Survival Tips

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Forget the "war on terror" for a minute.  Is your kitchen table a combat zone?  If your answer is yes, even sometimes, read on.  Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian and mom, weighs in on one of the most vexing issues for parents everywhere . . . how to deal with a picky eater. 


Your toddler’s on a two-month run of wanting only peanut butter and jelly on white bread with the crusts cut-off – for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Perhaps your five year-old refuses to try any new food. Or, your child barely touches his food at mealtimes, much to your chagrin.

While selective (a.k.a. picky) eating and a poor appetite are more common among the younger set, preschoolers and younger school children are not immune. Question is, how should you deal with a child who turns up his nose at novel foods, demands the same foods at every meal, or who eats like a bird, without getting completely aggravated?

First of all, don’t take a child’s behavior personally. Rejecting new foods, or the balanced, well-planned meals you make, has nothing to do with you or your parenting skills.  Hard to believe when you’re in the middle of a “food fight,” but true.

Here are some other strategies that may help you better handle erratic eating in your youngster.    

Banish grazing.  As much as possible, schedule meals and snacks for your child to better regulate his appetite. I don’t recommending complete rigidity, but children need to know that eating occurs at about the same time every day. When your child doesn’t finish his meal, save the rest for later; rest assured, he’ll be hungry in an hour or two. Don’t allow your son or daughter to graze on so-called snack foods (Goldfish, anyone?) between meals, and don’t let him or her cruise around all day with a sippy cup of water, milk, or juice within arm’s reach. 

Let kids make (healthy) choices. Allowing kids to make choices increases their interest in eating. Let them choose between a banana or an apple; whole wheat bread or whole grain cereal; or green beans and carrots. They may pick the same foods over and over, but that will eventually stop, hopefully before you’ve been driven completely crazy. 

Understand their resistance to new foods. Children spend their days learning and mastering new skills like walking, running, climbing, and talking, and are so consumed by novel experiences and sensations that they often don’t want any surprises on their plates. That may be why a child latches on to favorite foods to the exclusion of new ones.  Don’t worry. It won’t last forever.

• Serve new foods early in the day.  Children get tired as the day wears on, and being confronted with a new food may be the last straw for a worn-out toddler or preschooler.  Serve children something new at breakfast or lunch or just after a nap, when they are well-rested, and hungrier. 

Keep trying new foods.  Always serve a small amount of a new food alongside your child’s favorites. Expect to serve that food at least 15 times before your child accepts it, or even acknowledges it.  Encourage them to try it, but don’t go overboard.

Put on your best Poker Face.  Kids crave attention, even when it’s negative. When you get upset when your child rejects a food or won’t eat and you’re tempted to show your emotions, don’t.  Older toddlers in particular are fast learners. They remember that refusing to eat what you put on their plate, or demanding the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner pushes mommy’s buttons! And they’ll push those buttons, over and over.

Elizabeth Ward is a registered dietitian, mother of three, and author of Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Feeding Your Baby and Toddler.  Visit her at: