Parenting

How NOT to raise a picky eater – 16 tips for parents

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Our toddler happily eats everything from Brussels sprouts to broccoli to green olives. If you’re trying to figure out how NOT to raise a picky eater, this article will provide proven tips to help you!


Picky eating is an historical anomaly 

Is there a particular food or cuisine you find disgusting?

I’ve never tried (or smelled) it, but hákarl seems like a strong candidate for a food I would not enjoy eating — at least on my first attempts. (For reference, hákarl is a pungent-smelling fermented shark meat and also the national dish of Iceland.) I also don’t find really spicy-hot foods appealing, so authentic southeast Asian and Latin American cuisines are a challenge for me.  

Nevertheless, toddlers and children growing up where these foods/flavors are the norm don’t tend to starve to death. Why? 

Because they’re exposed to these unique cultural flavors while in the womb, through breastmilk, and learning to eat solid foods. As for solid foods, most families around the world — and throughout human history — don’t make separate meals for their children.

The children are simply expected to eat what everyone else is eating when everyone else is eating it, without coercion or fanfare.

Children in Thailand aren’t given a 1-5 scale of how spicy they want their curry, they eat it at the same spiciness level as their family. Likewise, prehistoric Baby Ogg didn’t get a bowl of pureed, sweetened gruel while his family dined on mammoth, berries, and tubers. 

The implications? Despite what we modern American parents might think or fear, every child — even your currently picky eater — has the potential to eat a wide range of foods and a dazzling array of flavors and textures.

Sebastian's first meal out at around 21 months old. Here, he's enjoying a charcuterie board with his family. It's REALLY nice not having a picky eater when you're at a restaurant.

Sebastian’s first meal out at around 21 months old. Here, he’s enjoying a charcuterie board with his family. It’s REALLY nice not having a picky eater when you’re at a restaurant.

Preventing non-picky eating from the start is easier than changing established patterns, but you can do it!

Regardless of whether your kiddo isn’t born yet, hasn’t started on solid food, or has been eating solid food for months or years, there are strategies and steps you can employ to help them not be a picky eater. 

If you’ve currently got a picky eater, it’s likely due to some bad patterns. Don’t feel guilty and don’t expect your picky eater to turn more adventurous overnight.

Thoughtfully implementing new strategies will require parental patience. Behavior changes in your toddler’s eating habits WILL happen but it will likely take time to start noticing those changes.

After all, it’s pretty dang hard for us adults to unlearn bad behavior patterns even though we’ve been doing this human thing for decades. So you can’t expect your brand new toddler to be “fixed” before their next meal, right? 

How NOT to raise a picky eater – 16 tips for parents

Below are 16 things we’ve done to help our son NOT be a picky eater. These tips are based on patterns we’ve learned from our parents plus research we’ve dug into on this topic starting when we first learned we were pregnant. The more of these tips you can implement the better, but don’t let not being able to do them all stop you from making progress. 

Also note that we’re not here to brag about what great parents we are. Our parenting approaches often suck.

Case in point: dealing with toddler tantrums and meltdowns. When we find ourselves lacking, we do our best to learn and do better, which is why we’re currently taking the Big Little Feelings online course to try to better understand and address our son’s tantrums. 

However, when it comes to raising a non-picky eater, we were lucky to already have a lot of the how-to’s ingrained due to the way we were raised and the way we relate to food/eating as adults.

Regardless of where you or your baby are starting in this process, know that you can do it!  

1. Be a food explorer yourself. 

Context and environment matter. If you’re a picky eater, there’s a higher likelihood your children are going to pick up on those patterns and become picky eaters, too. 

Branch out little by little. Try Thai or Indian food this week (and next week). Buy that “weird” fruit or veggie at the grocery store. Don’t worry: the internet abounds with recipes for any ingredient you can find. 

Sebastian loves trying new foods, like this pineapple guava/feijoa. In this case, it's homegrown so he pulled it right off the plant. (More on the benefits of growing food for avoiding picky eating below.)

Sebastian loves trying new foods, like this pineapple guava/feijoa. In this case, it’s homegrown so he pulled it right off the plant. (More on the benefits of growing food for avoiding picky eating below.)

Don’t like something? Good news: you can change your seemingly established flavor preferences with repeat exposure and/or preparing the food or flavor you don’t like in new ways.

Examples:

  • You don’t like the taste or texture of watermelon, but you commit to eating a small piece any chance you get over the next year. By the end of the year (if not before), you’ll probably like watermelon.
  • You don’t like broccoli, so you finely dice broccoli and cook it into something you do like, such as tomato sauce. Suddenly, broccoli tastes good because it tastes like spaghetti sauce. 

2. Start early, mommas. Help out, dadas. 

Researchers have found that early life flavor preferences start developing in the womb based on what mom eats. That process continues during breastfeeding. This means it’s important for moms to eat a healthy, varied diet during these time windows to introduce lots of flavors to baby’s developing taste buds and brain.  

Dads aren’t off the hook here. Do whatever you can to make things easier for mom to eat a healthy varied diet, even if it means grocery shopping and making meals. 

We no longer live in tight-knit communal villages with shared meals like our ancestors, so meal preparation usually falls on 1-2 people. Since that’s how our culture does things, do them the best you can within that framework. 

3. When ready, practice baby-led weaning with real food. 

Our son took a keen interest in real food when he was about 6 months old. Thus, we started him (or he started us) on the path to baby-led weaning. (He fully weaned around 24 months.) 

Baby-led weaning was actually the steepest part of our learning curve to raising a non-picky eater because we had to learn how to give him various foods in sizes and shapes that weren’t choking hazards. 

If you’re not familiar, you can read more about this process in our article Baby-led weaning: 10 helpful tips from two food-loving parents

4. Provide variety (and balance) at each meal.  

Our toddler’s plate always has a nice balance of fruits, veggies, proteins, and complex carbohydrates. This allows him to choose what he wants to eat and the order in which he wants to eat them.   

He almost always starts with his fruit. (If at all possible, use homegrown or certified organic fruit especially when serving the Dirty Dozen.) Exceptions are when he’s offered a favorite protein like grass-fed, grass-finished *steak, which he’ll eat before fruit. (*We cut his steak into small, bite-sized pieces so it’s not a choking hazard). 

He eventually works his way around to each item on his plate, and will at least try a little bit of everything offered. In addition to hunger, having food choices draws him into a meal and nutritional balance leaves him sated and well-nourished after a meal.    

5. Don’t force it. 

Don’t expect your child to eat a whole serving of a new food item. A taste is good enough. 

We’ve never forced or coerced our toddler to try a new food or to scrape his plate clean. We want him to develop his own internal desire for food exploration and to know to stop eating when he feels satisfied. 

In our house, dada gets what’s left on baby’s plate in order to prevent food waste – if mama doesn’t want it. 

You ever have a soup so good you smash it into your nose and pour it down your face? How to avoid raising a picky eater.

You ever have a soup so good you smash it into your nose and pour it down your face?

6. Chill with the snacking.

Americans are notorious for over-feeding and over-snacking their kids (and themselves). Too often, those snacks are also highly processed junk foods.

A kid who hasn’t been constantly grazing between meals is going to be a less picky eater at mealtime.    

There’s a longer, more nuanced conversation to be had about snacking here, but we’ll stop there for brevity’s sake. 

7. Create schedules and structure around mealtime. 

Babies thrive inside of schedules and structure because they know what to expect. Having set mealtimes (within reason) are ideal. 

There are plenty of nights we’re running late, but for the most part our son can rely on dinner being served around the same time (currently 6pm). That means he’s less likely to have a hangry meltdown because he knows food will be available soon. 

And when he arrives at the dinner table in a state of emotional equilibrium, he’s a better eater. 

8. Use a high chair. 

We’ve eaten with families who don’t use high chairs with their ~3+ year old toddlers during mealtime. Inevitably, their distractible toddlers leave the table multiple times to do something else, fail to eat much, and leave their parents frustrated. 

We can't recommend the Tripp Trapp high chair by Stokke enough. It's great for social mealtimes and baby-led weaning, plus it can be modified to fit any age - even turned into an adult chair!

18 month old Sebastian showing off his Tripp Trapp high chair which can be modified to fit any age – or even turned into an adult chair. 

We swear by our Tripp Trapp high chair by Stokke. It’s adjustable and will last for many years to come – and we certainly plan to have our toddler use it for years to come. Otherwise, his short attention span would have him running from the table at the first distraction. 

9. Make mealtimes family/social affairs.

Our son doesn’t eat alone or in front of a television. He eats with humans (his parents or caretakers).

Eating isn’t just about putting calories in, it’s a social/bonding activity. And mealtime isn’t over until the last person is done, which is typically our toddler.   

We do often share facetime meals with family since everyone lives hours away, but the technology is used to enhance the social aspects of mealtime, rather than diminish them. 

Everyone eating together means fewer distractions for baby, making the purpose (and focus) of mealtime crystal clear and ritualized. 

10. Be patient, don’t panic – how a meal starts isn’t necessarily how it will end.

There are plenty of times where it initially seems like our son is not going to eat most (or any) of the things on his plate. And that’s fine if it happens. 

However, we don’t stop eating our own meals or draw attention to his lack of food interest (a toddler loves negative attention just as much as positive attention). Instead, we just go about enjoying our own meals and conversing normally.

95% of the time, he joins back in and starts eating.  

11. Don’t give in to meal replacement demands. 

A few times when we’ve been exhausted and frazzled we’ve been tempted to give into shrieking demands for an alternative food other than what’s on our toddler’s plate. 

If your toddler knows they can get what they want by acting out and refusing to eat anything on their plate, mealtime is going to be a constant battle and source of misery. Hold absolutely steady on this one, even if it’s painful to undo an established pattern. 

12. “Seed” a questionable new meal with old favorite(s).  

Planning to introduce a totally new food or flavor? Great! Do that regularly.

However, when you do introduce novel foods, make sure there’s at least one steady favorite on the plate at the same time. Oddly, our son LOVES any kind of olive (including kalamata and those weird big green olives you have to be Greek to pronounce) along with more normal things like strawberries.

Those favorite foods are a sure way to get him started happily eating and he’ll eventually try the mystery food(s) once he’s had an immediate positive meal association. 

13. Regularly eat whole foods. Irregularly eat sweetened and/or processed foods. 

Do your best to avoid highly processed junk foods and sweets. These are generally not nourishing, they’re arguably addictive, and they warp your brain’s flavor perceptions/preferences. The occasional sweet treat is ok, but moderation is key here. 

Also, don’t be tricked by certified organic junk food. If the first ingredient is organic white flour or organic cane sugar, you might not have synthetic pesticide residues to worry about, but you’re still serving junk food. 

14. Curb your enthusiasm: don’t over-compliment or over-reward. 

Eating is natural and eating is its own reward.

Imagine if everyone at the table started cheering when you ate a bite of salad. For starters, that would be a little odd, right? 

Would you then expect cheers at each future bite of salad? Would you stop eating or be upset if those cheers didn’t come? Perhaps throw a tantrum and refuse to eat? If you’re a toddler, the answer to these questions is YES. 

If you’re happy that your toddler took a bite of something new, saying something like, “I really admire the way you’re trying new foods” in a measured voice is a great way to reward and encourage the process forward. 

15. Messy is ok and cleaning can wait. 

What a difference a year makes! One-year old (left) vs two-year old (right) Sebastian after finishing a meal. It's good to look back at old pictures and videos to note how much gradual improvements add up. Tips for how NOT to raise a picky eater.

What a difference a year makes! One-year old (left) vs two-year old (right) Sebastian after finishing a meal. It’s good to look back at old pictures and videos to note how much gradual improvements add up.

Thankfully, our toddler becomes a less-messy eater day by day. However, at certain meals he’s coated with food. 

Unless it’s in his eyes and/or causing physical discomfort, we don’t stop to clean him. We don’t want him to be afraid to explore certain foods for fear of being cleaned. And we want him to continue to learn to be a tidier eater, which he won’t do if someone else is constantly cleaning him. 

Instead, cleanup happens when mealtime is all done. 

16. If possible, grow some of your own food – and let your child help in the kitchen.

It’s difficult to fathom how much of an historical abnormality it is for kids not to see and know where their food comes from. Nope, we no longer live in agrarian, hunter-gatherer, or pastoral societies, but we can still provide small points of ecological connection. 

Our toddler harvesting some root veggies from the winter garden.

Our toddler harvesting some root veggies from the winter garden.

We grow and forage a lot of our own food, but not everyone can do that. Even if you can’t garden or forage, perhaps you could grow a few edible plants in a pot on your windowsill, involving your little one(s) in the process. (See: How to start a garden today: top 10 tips)

Back in the kitchen, we also let our son “help” make meals if he expresses a desire to do so. This might mean dumping a cup of flour into a bowl, stirring batter, or flipping an egg (with assistance). Each time he helps, he lights up with pride and delight. 

Our son also has a cardboard box that’s been fashioned into his own “oven” so he can bake us his favorite imaginary meals while we cook. His invisible muffins with mustard are to die for

Children want to be helpful and involved in what their family is doing. And when they get to help grow and make the family’s food, they are going to be far likelier to eat or at least try it.


Picky eating wrap-up

Just to reiterate: don’t feel like you have to implement every tip above in order to ensure your baby, toddler, or child-to-be doesn’t become a picky eater. Do what you can and be patient — with yourself and your toddler. And if you’re working on a toddler who is already a picky eater, focus on improvement, not perfection.  

Lastly, let me know if you or your toddler try hákarl. I’ve been too much of a baby to taste it!

KIGI,

Tyrantfarms

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    MJ
    February 23, 2022 at 2:51 pm

    So many great tips, and you’ve inspired me to look back at Mason’s messier eating days… I suppose he has made progress, lol. Question: how do you respond when Sebastian eats all of a particular food from his plate and wants more of it (but hasn’t yet touched the other items in front of him)? We tend to ask Mason to try all his other food before getting more of what he finished, but I don’t know if there’s a better way to handle that.

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      February 23, 2022 at 3:56 pm

      Glad that this article inspired you to reflect on Mason’s eating cleanliness improvements! It’s nice that both our toddlers no longer bathe in their meals. 😛

      As for your question: the answer somewhat depends on where Sebastian is in his meal. If he’s already done a good job of trying everything on his plate and he’s already eaten a decent, well-balanced meal, we’ll give him a little bit more of a favorite requested item. He usually doesn’t ask for more of anything because that’s not something we typically do, therefore it’s not top of mind for him. If he hasn’t yet tried everything and had a decent meal when making such a request, we encourage him to try other things on his plate while we do our best not to draw attention (negative or positive) to his request or eating behaviors. He almost always goes back to what’s on his plate and forgets about his prior request.

      Our best guess: if a toddler knows they can easily request and get more of something, they’re going to do that at every opportunity. If that option isn’t on the proverbial menu, they don’t think to order it.

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