10 things I wish I knew about picky eating
  /   Dahlia Rimmon MS, RDN

10 things I wish I knew about picky eating

As you dive into the adventure of introducing solid foods to your baby, you may discover them happily devouring a wide variety of foods. Kale? No problem. Curried beans? They're eagerly awaiting seconds. But as your baby approaches their first birthday—bam! Suddenly, their favorite foods are pushed aside (or on the floor!), and you're left with a kiddo who favors crackers and rice above all else. Vegetables? Forget about it.

The good news is that picky eating is completely normal, and most kids go through a phase or two (or three!). If you're feeling overwhelmed and every meal feels like a battle, know you're not alone. We're sharing our top 10 things we wish we knew before our kids started their picky eating journey, so you can learn from our experiences, tackle the challenges, and maybe even master mealtime like a pro.

1. Kids’ growth slows down

Kids grow at a pretty rapid pace in their first year of life, but as they approach their first birthday, their growth slows down. You’ll notice your toddler and preschooler eating less than they did as babies. This change in appetite reflects their slower growth—they simply don’t need as much food anymore. So, when your hungry kid shows up for breakfast and only eats a few spoonfuls of yogurt before calling it quits, chances are that’s all their body needs.

2. Kids notice everything

Kids are incredibly observant and pick up on things even when we don't realize it. If lasagna and broccoli are served for dinner and we skip the broccoli, kids will notice and remember. They also pick up on our negative comments about certain foods ("Ugh, Brussels sprouts again?"), which can affect how they feel about those foods. Kids mimic our behaviors, so to influence their eating habits, we need to model the behavior we want to see.  

3. Kids can be overwhelmed by new foods

Young kids may experience neophobia, where they feel anxious, overwhelmed, or even fearful of new foods and flavors. Your once adventurous little eater may now turn their head at anything even remotely unfamiliar or even reject foods they used to enjoy. While this is a normal part of development, it can be frustrating for parents when new dinner dishes are met with rejection. If you're planning to try out a new chicken recipe, it's wise to have a side of dinner rolls just in case, and keep your expectations low to avoid disappointment.

4. Pressuring kids to eat will backfire

When you have a kid who survives on buttered noodles, it's natural to worry about their diet.  You might feel tempted to nag, beg, pester, or persuade them to eat different foods because you want them to grow up healthy. However, any form of pressure to eat can backfire. Even gentle nudges, like repeatedly asking, "Do you want to try my cranberry meatloaf?" or "Just one more bite, pretty please," or offering incentives like, "I’ll give you a sticker if you eat your peas," can do more harm than good. They'll probably resist, causing mealtime battles and meltdowns. Plus, pressuring them to eat can create stress and anxiety around meals or certain foods, which is the last thing we want.

5. Avoid bribery 

While bribing your kids may seem like a quick fix, it’s actually pretty harmful in the long run. Many parents resort to bribery because they just want their kids to eat. But when you say, “You can have dessert only after you finish your dinner,” you're implying that dessert holds more value than dinner, which isn’t ideal for fostering a healthy relationship with food. Elevating certain foods, like sweets, can cultivate unhealthy obsessions, particularly if they're restricted. Plus, kids are notorious for craving what they can’t have.

6. Keep a neutral attitude about eating behaviors

It’s important to maintain a neutral attitude when dealing with our kids’ picky eating habits. Although it's easier said than done, try not to react when your child rejects breakfast for the fourth day in a row. Reacting could either fuel the fire or make kids feel guilty or shameful.

7. Get creative (with little effort!)

 It’s possible that your kiddo is avoiding certain foods because of their texture, flavor, or how they're presented. Switching up how you serve food can really change the game. For instance, if you usually make roasted chicken, try shredding it or experimenting with new sauces and flavors to add some excitement. Mixing things up can make meals more interesting, and it might even encourage your child to try something new without feeling stuck with the same old choices.

8. Kids feel safer with accepted foods

Every kid has a list of foods they're willing to eat. Usually, this includes yogurt, pasta, crackers, and chicken nuggets (if you’re lucky!). These foods make it on the list because they enjoy them, which makes them feel comfortable and safe. When kids completely reject a meal, it's usually because they don't see any familiar foods on the table. 

Try to include accepted foods at each meal to make mealtime more successful. If you serve Mexican casserole alongside their favorite cheese quesadilla, dinner is less likely to turn into a tantrum showdown. Who knows, a kid in a good mood might be more willing to try something new!

9. Encourage food play

To make foods less intimidating, try introducing new foods without expecting your kids to eat them. Take them grocery shopping, start a vegetable garden, or visit a farm. Get creative with food arts and crafts—make a rainbow grazing board, fruit and veggie kabobs, or build towers with zucchini and cucumber slices. This relaxed approach allows kids to explore new foods without feeling pressured to eat them.

10. Try smaller portions 

Sometimes, kids get overwhelmed by the amount of food in front of them. They arrive at the table and find their plate packed to the brim with everything on the menu. This visual overload can be alarming and might lead to rejection. To avoid this, try offering super small portions to start—kids can always ask for seconds. Another option is to serve meals family-style. Plate food on large platters in the center of the table, letting kids serve themselves. You never know, the extra autonomy might encourage them to try something new.