little girl picky eater eating fruit

Do’s and Don’ts for Parents of Picky Eaters

Why won’t you eat the apple? You love applesauce!

 Try the roasted chicken! It’s the same thing as the chicken nuggets you love.

 Taste the tomato! It’s what spaghetti sauce is made of and you like that. 

When it comes to children and picky eating, logic can go right down the garbage disposal. A quarter of all children experience minor feeding problems, and many parents fret about their kids’ eating habits.

The good news is that most children outgrow fussy eating habits. In the meantime though, Dr. Mitchell Katz, a pediatric gastroenterologist and medical director of CHOC Children’s Multidisciplinary Feeding Program, has some Do’s and Don’ts for parents of picky eaters.

  • Don’t try to trick children into putting food in their mouths. This tactic doesn’t help them learn about the new food. Exploring foods by touching, licking, smelling, poking and rolling are important ways that children can learn about food before they put it in their mouths and eat it.
  • Do consider how food looks. Like on cooking shows, plating and presentation matter for picky eaters. Try making food look like fun shapes, play up colors, or create scenes to help capture kids’ interest in new or unappealing foods.
  • Don’t worry about fluctuating eating habits. Just like adults eat more on some days than others, it’s normal for children to be inconsistent with how much and what foods they eat.
  • Do focus more on variety than quantity. It’s more important for children to eat a small amount of food from a broader number of food groups than to eat a large quantity at one meal.

While many children will outgrow the habit, some kids’ picky eating can be a sign of a more serious problem. Dr. Katz offers some warning signs that parents should look for when evaluating their children’s eating habits:

  • A child is delayed in meeting feeding milestones but not in other milestones. Children’s eating skills should mirror their other physical and cognitive developmental skills, like sitting, walking, talking and paying attention.
  • The child cannot transition or advance to the next level of eating. Are children progressing from bottle to sippy cup, from smooth purees to lumpy foods, or from familiar to new foods?
  • The child eats only a certain brand or type of preparation for all or most of their food.
  • The child has minimal intake or outright refuses to eat for several days, unrelated to an illness.
  • Extreme measures are taken to nourish a child. Force feeding, feeding when children are asleep or distracted, or abiding by intense routines are cause for concern.

Parents who recognize these signs in their children should seek medical attention, Dr. Katz says.

A severe feeding issue – like what Dr. Katz and his team treat at CHOC – involves physical, psychological, behavioral, nutritional, and familial obstacles to eating.

Addressing all a child’s medical problems is important to start to make positive associations with food and eating, which may require the help of multiple specialists.

Learn more about CHOC's feeding program

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