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QUESTION: My three-year-old is a very picky eater. I have a hard time getting him to eat any green vegetable at all. How can I introduce him to healthy foods when I can’t persuade him to even taste them?

ANSWER: Taking in nutrition is something every living creature must do. So why does this simple act of survival get so complex when there are children involved? Picky eaters can turn peaceful mealtimes into intense battles of will.

Converting a picky eater does not happen overnight. The goal is that they come to see the value in trying and eating a variety of foods, not that they eat a huge helping of each food tonight.

Here are some tips you can follow to lessen mealtime stress and support your child’s long-term attitude around eating.

  1. Give children choices When preparing a meal, lay out the vegetables you have available and let your child pick which one gets served tonight. They can even help you pick out vegetables at the store or decide which ones gets added to the shopping list.
  2. Serve family style When you serve meals family-style (passing around the food so each person can put some on their plates), children can also choose how much of something to serve. When children feel like they have some choice, they are more likely to try a little of everything.
  3. Involve children in preparing food Children love to help. Put that natural inclination to work for you in the kitchen! Children can tear lettuce for a salad, peel carrots, open packages of frozen vegetables, and/or take peas out of a pod. They are much more likely to eat something they had a hand in making. Better yet, establish a small garden. Children are fascinated by the growth process and are usually very excited to eat something they helped grow.
  4. Create leisurely mealtimes Sit down to eat as a family. Did you know that children who eat with their families (be it a family of two or a family of eight) are more likely to avoid risky behaviors as teenagers? When mealtimes are more about sharing, laughing, and relating – children are less likely to focus on the food that is in front of them.

Family meals also allow you to model what you want to see at mealtimes. From saying “please” and “thank you” to eating the foods that are on your plate. But, little eyes are always watching and little ears are always listening. Make sure you are making healthy choices and showing how much you enjoy them.

  1. Avoid power struggles Ultimatums such as “you cannot leave this table until you eat everything on your plate” back you into a corner that is hard to get out of without lots of tears (sometimes on both sides of the equation). If a child refuses to eat you can say, “Ok, that is what is for dinner. I am not making anything else. If you are done, you might be hungry later.” If a child still does not want to eat, simply clear their plate and let them leave the table. You can save the food and reserve it if they’re hungry later. Or, remind them they made a choice to not eat and make sure there is a big breakfast waiting for them in the morning.

If you are worried your child isn’t getting adequate nutrition, consult your doctor. He or she can make sure your child is on track and maybe provide a vitamin to ensure all dietary needs are being met.

  1. Provide variety Even the pickiest of eaters have foods they like. When preparing meals include some of these foods – especially if you are serving a food you know may be problematic. Establish the rule that a little of everything must go on the plate and be tried, but at least you and your child know there is something they like for each meal.

Children have very small stomachs. An appropriate serving size is generally a tablespoon per year of age. To ensure a healthy diet, make sure you are offering healthy choices so your child doesn’t fill up on empty calories. Remember, along with most tricky parenting phases, this too shall pass. Take a deep breath and focus on the fact that in a few years you’ll have a teenager that will always complain that there is nothing at all to eat in the house.