How to Handle Picky Eaters
One of the most common concerns for a parent is having a picky eater. It is normal – more than 60% of children are described, at some time, as picky, starting usually after 9 months. It is so frequent you can find more than 2000 books on Amazon now if you search for “picky eater,” and most promise a quick fix or a few simple tricks to end the problem. Everyone wants their child to eat a broad, healthy diet, but the problem is a fussy 2 year old cannot be forced to eat something he or she does not like.
Why are kids picky eaters?
Some are just growth related. After 4-5 months, growth rates begin to slow down, and for some children you go from gaining 250 grams a week as an infant to 150 grams a month as an 18 month old. One big meal during the day might mean no appetite later, and that is okay.
Children have very strong taste buds
Children also have very strong taste buds compared to adults, so some foods that seem fine to an adult will be very bitter to a child – infants have more than 30,000 taste buds, while adults typically have less than 10,000. Just start by assuming your child is an expert taster compared to you, and if something does not taste good, they are right.
When should you worry about picky eaters?
Multiple studies from Britain to China to the USA all show that the vast majority of picky eaters get enough calories and grow well, with no nutritional problems or vitamin deficiencies. Nearly all grow out of it, but it can take years.
When should you worry? Severe restrictions with only 1-2 foods, like plain white rice or cow’s milk. If your child has poor growth or chronic health issues, especially gut issues, then some testing or referral to a dietician may be necessary.
You do not have to worry for a healthy and thriving child.
Tips to broaden a fussy eater’s appetite
So how do you broaden a child’s appetite? A simple advice is to not give up. Try new foods again and again, maybe in different ways – sometimes it takes more than 10, or 15, or 20 tries before your child will like a food, or not at all. “Hiding” foods may help, like the classic spinach brownies or vegetables mixed into a fruit smoothie.
The tricks are endless:
- Engage your child in cooking
- Make foods look fun and bright
- Model good eating and eat as a family
- Start having “no pressure” meals without urging “one more bite” or using guilt or threats to encourage eating
- Allow children to eat when they are ready or offer an option to return to eat at the next mealtime
- Make mealtimes fun with child-friendly dishes or utensils.
Balance food tastes – many vegetables taste bitter, which pairs with salty – a little salt to make a vegetable taste better, just not so much that “salty” is the primary flavor. Sour pairs with sweet. Salt is okay for flavoring, just not so much that the sweet flavor is the main taste.
Simply do not give up and offer too sweet or salty foods, and do not offer a special sweet as a reward. What does not help is old advice of threats and negativity. It is fine to say you will not get a snack later if you don’t finish dinner, but trying to force a child to stay at the table until they eat all their vegetables does not change their diet in the long term.
Most importantly, do not worry. Nothing may work for months or years, but if you as a family eat together and have heathy habits, it will eventually work out well for nearly everyone.
This article is written by Dr Leo Hamilton, who is a US board-certified Paediatrician since 2003. Dr Leo relocated to Singapore in 2011, caring for expat and Singaporean children from newborns at delivery to teenagers. Beyond his background in Hematology/Oncology, he has an interest in asthma, behavioural issues (primarily ADHD), teen health, and modern management of routine childhood illnesses such as ear infections, bronchiolitis, and pneumonia.