11 Tips for Making Mealtimes Healthy Fun for Young Picky Eaters

April 25, 2017

As a parent you’ve probably experienced many, if not all, of these common child eating habits:

  • Not letting different foods touch other foods on their plate
  • Spitting out foods with odd or unfamiliar textures or tastes
  • Only wanting to eat snacks for breakfast, lunch, and dinner

Sound familiar? These are among of the many, seemingly peculiar habits young children with discriminating palates, better known as “picky eaters.”

Yes, it can be frustrating for a parent, educator, or anyone in general when a child is a “picky eater” and refuses to eat healthier food alternatives. The problem gets more difficult when it seems like nothing we try works.

Research by Keith E. Williams, Ph.D., director of the feeding program at Penn State Hershey Medical Center shows that “once you get the ball rolling on tasting new foods, it takes, on average, only six attempts for kids to accept them.”i

Food and the concept of eating in general should be enjoyable, and while we can’t guarantee a frustration-free zone, we can give you different approaches for you and your picky eater to try.

Children need to have a positive experience with food. It’s part of their natural curiosity that opens a world of possibilities as they experience different foods, flavors, smells, taste, and build great memories of meal times together. Yes, it’s possible for your to make that happen!

Many of my co-workers have their own picky eaters. Here’s their advice:

You have to be very patient with a picky eater – it’s not about your timeline. I would take my son with me to the grocery store and allow him to pick out some of the vegetables by color. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t.  I also tried to serve or introduce new foods along with his favorite foods.  It’s also very helpful if your picky eater has a sibling to help encourage – it’s a family affair and everyone has their role.  – Abena Ocran-Jackson, sr. manager, Credentialing and Social Services.

My daughter was a very picky eater at first. No veggies and fruits. You’d have to peel to breading off the chicken nuggets before she ate them, and she would only eat pasta with no sauce. But after sometime, she started to eat foods that she normally ignores. One of the most important things parents can do is set a good example. If you turn your nose up at certain foods, like broccoli, you can’t expect your child to try it either. In my case, I make a variety of foods, including Filipino dishes, not just the food that my children normally eat. Let them decide what to eat, and encourage them to go against their instincts and try new foods without pushing or pressuring. – Jun Daproza, Information Technology.

7 Tips for Promoting Healthy Eating Habitsii

The following approaches will help you contribute to children’s healthy physical development in the long-run without the need to take drastic measures like force feeding and punishment:

  • Offer children different foods daily.
  • Serve low- or no-sugar foods and foods rich in vitamin C, like berries, oranges, cantaloupe, broccoli, and spinach. These foods promote dental health.
  • Serve foods in small portions. Allow children to have seconds.
  • Do not insist that children finish all the food on their plates.
  • Reward children with your attention, not food.
  • Involve children in preparing the food they eat.
  • Toddlers should consume about 5 ½ cups of water daily. For preschoolers, they should have 7 cups per day.

4 Tips to Making Mealtime Fun for Childrenii

  • Set up snack so children can serve themselves when hungry and eat with their friends they like.
  • Plan and lead small group cooking activities that allow children to take turns using cooking tools and following recipe steps.
  • Serve the results of children’s cooking, family-style.
  • Use lunches with toddlers and preschoolers to introduce them to new concepts e.g. why peeled bananas turn brown, counting pieces of food, how raw food is different than cooked.

By allowing children to choose the foods they want to eat while continuing to introduce them to more options at home and while grocery shopping, you are contributing to their development, helping shape their personalities and creating health eating habits. Parents can’t force children to eat, but we can do our best to teach them that eating healthy foods is delicious, fun and exciting – whether they touch each other or not!

Helpful resources:

USDA food guide pyramid for young children – https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/FGP4Children

USDA food plan for young children – www.choosemyplate.gov

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Want more stories like this or other early childhood education stories on the Council blog? Email me your ideas to claudinah@cdacouncil.org.

i Cicero, K. (n.d.). Proven Strategies for Picky Eaters. Parents. Retrieved from http://www.parents.com/recipes/nutrition/picky-eater-strategies/
ii Washington, V. (2017). Essentials for Working with Young Children (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: The Council for Professional Recognition

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