Parenting Hacks for Feeding Picky Eaters

Peanut butter and jelly.  Peanut butter and jelly.  Milk.  Banana.  Peanut Butter and Jelly.  Cookie.

That’s pretty much what my 3-year-old is willing to eat in a day.  She’s what is classically referred to as a “picky eater,” a term that some thoughtful parents take issue with these days.  However you label it, my middle child is highly selective in what she will eat.

It can be stressful when your little one refuses to eat most foods or, sometimes, anything at all.  But speaking as a mom of four, who’s been at this motherhood thing for almost 12 years now, I’ve come to realize that for most kids, this is nothing to worry about.  And there are a few things you can do to help the situation, which I’m going to share with you!


The first thing that should ease your mind is Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding, an approach to feeding children that is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  This research-backed philosophy states that it is the parents’ job to decide when, where and what children eat.  It is the child’s job to decide whether and how much they eat.  So maybe you tell little Susie that she can eat bananas at the table at snack time.  But you don’t say, “Now Susie, you have to eat your bananas!” or “Come on, Susie, have one more piece of banana before you go play.”  Those things aren’t your job.

Not only are they not your job, but they are counterproductive, in several different ways, for helping Susie develop healthy eating habits.  When you overstep your responsibilities in feeding – which are to provide healthy foods and guidelines as to where and when they’re eaten – you’re getting in the way of your child learning important compotenents of a healthy diet, like what a full (or hungry) belly feels like, and what happens when you don’t eat enough during meal times (or eat too much).  Stay out of it!  If you’ve provided healthy foods, you’ve done your part.  Now you can relax!  (That’s very good news, in my world.)

This article from Slate summarizes and references several interesting studies done on this stuff, including some about the ill effects of pressuring kids to eat or not to eat certain foods.

Here are some great tips from Stanford’s Maya Adam:

And the last tip I want to leave you with is how you can use a fact from social psychology to your advantage.  Social psychology has identified something called the “familiarity principle”, also referred to as the “mere-exposure effect.”  This is a documented phenomenon in the human mind, whereby people come to favor things as they become familiar to them, sometimes for no other reason than that.  It happens with people’s faces, with product labels, with anything.  Including food.  So introducing a new flavor or texture multiple times may increase your kid’s liking it just for that reason.  Also, research suggests that we may need to try a new food 10 or 15 times before we know whether or not we’ll like it!

tasting time

The way I incorporate the mere-exposure effect into my strategy for feeding my “selective” 3-year-old is with a game we call “Tasting Time.”  Here’s how to play.

You will need:

  • one or more foods (simple, healthy, whole foods are preferable)
  • a sign symbolizing good tasting food (“Yum!”)
  • a different sign symbolizing bad tasting food (“Yuck!”)
  • a bell




First, have your child taste one of the foods you’ve chosen.  (I like to taste the foods with my daughter, and she reminds me to do this when I forget.)  Encourage your child to pay attention to how the food feels, smells, tastes, etc.




Then ask your child if they liked that food.  If they like the food, they can put the “Yum!” on the plate.



If they didn’t like it, they can put a “Yuck!” on it.





And if they say that they did like the food, and they want to take another bite, they get to ring the bell.

ring the bell



Then repeat with any additional foods you chose.  You can do it with just one or as many as you want.  And that’s it!  This is a fun, easy way to help familiarize your child with different foods.

A couple tips:

  1.  Include foods the kid already knows and likes in the Tasting Time foods.  If they’re always foods the kids doesn’t know or like, the game will start to get less fun.
  2. I laminated my signs, so it’s not a problem to put them right on the plate.
  3. Don’t worry about letting the kid label foods as “yucky.”  It feels a little counterintuitive, because it feels like you should be encouraging them to see all these healthy foods as yummy.  But really, what you’re doing when you let them call foods yucky is encouraging them to listen to their own bodies (which is essential to healthy eating habits), and you’re also giving them the sense of autonomy and power that kids are so often craving when they refuse to eat foods they know their parents want them to eat.  But this way, you’re giving it to them, so they don’t need to fight you for it.  And you’re still getting what you want, which is their trying new foods.
  4. Be positive and relaxed about whatever label your child picks for foods, and about the game in general.  Make it fun and stress-free.  That’s the feeling you want to come to mind for them the next time they taste those foods.


So these are all good ideas for ways to approach a picky eater.  But the most important thing to remember is that except in rare circumstances, your child’s dietary preferences are nothing to worry about, however restrictive or ridiculous they may seem.  This will pass, and your child will be fine.  And the more you believe that, the more true it becomes.

Bon appetit!



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