Empowering Your Child to Overcome Picky Eating & Foster Healthy Habits: 11 Effective Ways

It was a bit overwhelming for me to have my first child. I’ve been a health freak for many years. But I was confident that my background in OT, my health knowledge, and my passion for cooking would make it all work.

I was going to have the “best-eating-child-known-to-man.” (Cue the first time parent over-confidence chuckle.)

Truthfully, I did. My son ate everything I put in his face. When we were on the playground, my sister would laugh and he’d eat his salmon and sweet potato snack when the other children were eating Oreos. Don’t judge, but I did go a bit overboard.

My son was three when he refused to eat any food that looked like a vegetable. The more I tried to get him to eat a particular food, the more he refused it. It drove me crazy.

I’ve learned a lot about what works for my children in terms of ensuring they eat healthy food while respecting their autonomy.

Every mother experiences a roller coaster of emotions, especially when it comes food.

I am happy to report that I have finally found the right balance between letting go and encouraging healthy eating through education and fun, and not through coercion. Now I can enjoy my mealtimes with my family instead of dreading the nightly food fights.

It is important to note that I do not have kids who will eat any vegetable. No matter how many broccoli dishes I’ve cooked, I know that my kids would not care if it was never served again.

However, there are a few things which give me peace in regards to food:
My children know that I choose the meals.
I try to offer healthy choices.
If they do not eat the food offered, they have to wait for the next meal.
It is up to them whether they accept healthy or new foods.
Recently, I took a great feeding course called AEIOU: An Integrative Approach to pediatric Feeding by Nina Ayd Johanson. This course taught me so much and helped me to connect the dots for my kids and my practice as an OT.

After a deeper dive into the training I received in the pediatric feeding field, I reached a startling conclusion about my son’s eating habits. Unknowingly, I created a stressful environment for my son when it came to mealtime and eating. I became more worried about my son’s eating habits, and he began to reject the foods that I offered.

My son only started eating again after I let go of my control and created a joyful atmosphere around the dinner table.

I would love to help you get rid of the nightly food fights and replace them with a mealtime routine that is peaceful for your family! This is why I have decided to compile all the information I’ve learned in my OT office over the years about how to overcome picky eaters.

Consider that there is an enormous difference between typical picky-eating behaviors that begin to develop at around 2-3 years of age and a serious eating disorder which severely affects nutritional intake and needs extensive therapy. Today, I will only be discussing typical picky eating habits.

You can find peace in the knowledge that picky eaters are a common phase for toddlers. To help them get through this phase and prevent it from snowballing into a larger problem, a nurturing and accepting caregiver will be key. Accept that if what you are doing isn’t helping, you will need to try a new approach.

Here are some of my best tips for helping kids to overcome picky eaters and enjoy a greater variety of food:

  1. Every weeknight, eat dinner together with your family (if you can).

The most important factor in overcoming picky eaters is to sit down and eat with your children as often as possible.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of studies that prove the positive correlation between family meals and an increase in vocabulary, academic performance, and even increased consumption of fruit, vegetables, and micronutrients by children.

To learn to eat different foods, kids need to see you do it. By modeling, children learn to chew and eat a variety of food textures and types. They also learn to use utensils.

If you eat together, everyone will have the same meal. No short order chefs. The kids eat the same healthy, balanced meal as their parent. You should have a shared sense of control over the mealtime. Some nights, you can cook your favorite adult meals and some nights, you can ask your kids what they want. They’ll know that while you are in charge, they have a voice in what they eat.

  1. Stick to a schedule for your meals

Stick to a schedule for snacks and meals. This will help regulate children’s appetites, and create a calm rhythm around mealtimes.

Children like to be prepared.

Set a timer for when the mealtime ends and all food has been consumed. It works wonders with kids who can take hours to finish a single serving of peas. Set a clock (it can be visible for you, or you and your kids), and tell them when the meal is over. The food will also finish, but don’t force it on them.

The ideal time to eat is between 20-30 minutes. It is not necessary for a meal to last hours (I’ve been there!) Mealtimes usually last around 30 minutes in many social situations.

  1. The key is to expose yourself to different foods.

It is important to expose your child to many different tastes and textures of foods, especially in the first year. If you want your child to eat more food and accept new foods, what other way can you think of to achieve this goal?

Try to introduce them to new foods, vegetables or textures every day.

Think of textures as finely chopped or fork-mashed foods, soft table food, meltable solids, crispy foods, and mixed textures (more that one texture combined).

Mixing textures, such as tacos or lasagna can be overwhelming for toddlers (this is the reason why they will find onions in anything). Try breaking down these meals.

Spices too

You need to take into account ALL the sensory aspects of food presented if you want to increase acceptance.

Does the food look appealing? How can you make the food more visually appealing if it is not?

Think about the tactile component. Does the food have an interesting texture? Is your child comfortable with it being touched? If your child won’t touch it and explore it, it’s unlikely that they will put it in their mouth.

Then, consider the smell. Does it smell good? Spices are not to be feared! Spice cabinets can be a great way for kids to explore their sense of smell. The olfactory (smell system) is closely linked to gustation. If a child likes the smell of something, they will be more inclined to take a bite. Help them to determine their preferred scents.

If your child has already accepted the other sensory elements of food, they will be more ready to try it.

Around 15 attempts are needed for a toddler’s acceptance of a new meal. Parents often assume that their child does not like a particular food because it was rejected the first or second try and don’t offer it again. Keep presenting it and patiently wait for them to accept it.

Even if they don’t eat the food, the mere act of interacting (by touch, sight or smell) with the food will increase their exposure. Perhaps a few more exposures will lead to them taking a bite.

  1. Enjoy the joy of dining together

Make mealtimes a positive and fun experience. Some children can find mealtime stressful, especially if they see something new on their plate.

Do you feel overwhelmed or stressed while eating? Smile and take a deep breathe! Enjoy your kids and meal. This is a great time to talk and connect with your family. This will make everyone more relaxed, calm and perhaps even look forward to mealtime with your child.

Turn off all electronic devices so that you can focus on family conversations and make eye contact.

Here are some playful and fun mealtime icebreakers.

Paint with purees. Grab some baby food and let your kids paint on any surface. (High chair toppers, paper plates, etc.) This will help them to become more tolerant of mushy textures. They might even try a few bites to experience new tastes.
Discussing the colors on the table: “It is important to eat all the colors of rainbow in order to keep our bodies healthy.” What colors are on your plate today?”
Asking: How was everyone’s day on a scale from 0-10 (take turns).
Food math + counting
Use a dip tray to encourage vegetable consumption. It is a great way to model a healthy behavior that you can all enjoy together. Dip crackers, apple slices, or carrots in ranch dressing, or celery in hummus.
Train your child with chopsticks
Bento forks are great for trying out new foods
Singing silly songs or saying a quick blessing as a family. It’s simple, easy and fun. Kids love it. This is what my son uses at school, and at home too. It’s adorable! Thank you for a world full of sweetness, for food, for birds singing, and for everything else.
Telling them the truth about what they eat is my favorite. Tell them what the food is and how it benefits their body. Tell them where it comes from and what it does for the body (i.e.

  1. What’s on your plate? Describe it: color, texture, size, flavor and temperature.

Descriptive words can be very helpful for children who are reluctant to try new foods. Think about how she might be afraid to try sweet potatoes because she isn’t sure what to expect.

Unknowns can be scary to children and cause anxiety. Perhaps the last time she ate sweet potatoes it surprised her to see how soft they were.

You can use more descriptive words instead of “These sweet potatoes are delicious!” You could say “These sweet potatoes look orange like the sun!” You don’t need to chew sweet potatoes very much, because they are mushy. You can watch me eat them. You can say “I like carrots” or “This carrot is crunchy!” Instead of saying “I love carrots!” You can see me making a loud, crunchy noise when I eat the carrot!

  1. Cooking with your children is a great way to get them involved.

It helps them prepare for the meal and removes the element of surprise. You can have them help you mix and chop the bananas in the yogurt, so they are not surprised by the chunky texture.

It can be challenging but also a lot fun to cook with children. Remember the concept of shared control. If they help assemble the item, they are more likely to try it. He helped me sprinkle hemp hearts on my son’s peanut butter toast.

Allowing them to touch the food before they eat it will increase the chances that they will put it in their mouth because now, they know the texture.

Take a deep breathe, accept the mess and mishaps that will happen and break it down into simple steps.

  1. Always include one safe option in your three- or four-choice menu

It is best to give your child 3-4 options to allow them to explore new textures and foods. This will also help to balance out the meal.

It can be helpful to have a favorite food or a choice that is safe on the table. This will help reduce tension and make your child feel more comfortable and confident about eating. Imagine it as “bait” on the plate. If you make a vegetable broth, sprinkle some favorite noodles over the top to visually be the first thing your child sees.

Spreads, sauces and dips are another type of bait for food, particularly vegetables. I do not like eating a dried sweet potato, so I would not expect my children to. Examples include roasted vegetables in olive oil, potatoes with butter, cucumbers with cream cheese, or carrots with ranch dip.

  1. Take out the words “try it” and “eat” from your dinner vocabulary

Children are naturally resistant to persuasion, and reducing the coercion can help reduce their anxiety.

You probably remember a time when you were trying to get your child to eat a certain food and they refused to eat it the harder you tried. This made my son refuse to eat any pizza for three years. He finally gave in and tried it on his terms.

Mama, you can now move on!

  1. Keep a bowl of water in a safe place

Give them a chance to try new foods in a safe environment and if they do not like it, give them spit-out options. If they know that they can spit out the food, they are more likely to try it. It is beneficial to give children some control by placing a bowl near their plate so they can remove any items they don’t enjoy.

How to use a shaver.

Keep a small bowl or plate next to your child’s dinner plate. Encourage your child to try new foods by setting an example. If they don’t enjoy the taste or texture, or don’t feel comfortable touching it, then they can place it in a safe bowl or spit it out.

  1. Allow them to be autonomous (but help if needed or requested)

As an occupational therapist my goal is to help children develop skills that will lead them to independence. I therefore have some personal issues with spoon-feeding. We are again back at the control issue. All children (and humans in general) want to be in control of the things they eat.

Certain foods, however, require more assistance. Sometimes your baby or toddler will simply ask for help. That’s fine too. Allow your child to feed himself or herself as much as possible so that they feel in charge of their eating experience.

Let your child experiment with textures and tastes. You might learn some new skills with utensils along the way.

  1. Accept your child’s current level of food acceptance and move forward.

It is the most difficult thing for parents to do, including myself.

Accept your child where they are on their journey in order to allow them to eat a variety of food. You can’t force your child to go anywhere on this journey they don’t want to. You can help them on their journey to explore and enjoy food.

That’s all, Mamas! I hope that you will enjoy mealtimes with your kids again using these silly, simple steps (and your children may even learn to eat healthy foods).