Cure for a picky eater:
Evidence-based tips for getting kids to eat good foods
© 2009-2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Got a picky eater?
Something happens to babies--even babies who are “good
eaters”--after the age of two. Kids who were once happy to eat all sorts
of things suddenly reject their old favorites. They also refuse to try
new foods (Nicklaus 2009).
Interestingly, this is roughly the same time that kids in
traditional cultures stop breastfeeding. Although societies vary widely
in the precise timing of weaning, most postpone it until after 24 months
Does the "picky eater phase" serve a protective function, one that deters newly-independent kids from sampling dangerous foods?
Maybe. But in a world of supermarkets, most kids aren't likely to
poison themselves by eating toxic leaves or berries.
The bigger problem
they face is getting a well-balanced diet.
Here are some research-based
tips for dealing with a picky eater.
1. Don’t try to feed a picky eater when he’s not hungry...but don’t starve him, either
This might seem obvious. But it isn’t always easy to get the timing
right. A child’s appetite can vary from week to week depending on the
timing of her growth spurts. And while you want to avoid feeding your
child when she’s not hungry, you don’t want to make her wait too long
between meals, either. When your child’s blood sugar levels dip, he
might start feeling ill or nauseated—and less interested in food.
More generally, there doesn't seem to be any evidence that
coercion works, and in fact most studies addressing the subject suggest
that heavy-handed approaches backfire (see tips #5 and #7).
2. Understand the biology of taste preferences and food neophobia
As you try to get your picky eater to try new foods, keep in mind
that his taste perceptions may differ from your own. For details, see
this article about
the biology of the picky eater.
3. Pair new foods with old favorites
If your picky eater is neophobic, or resistant to trying new
foods, you can try tricking his palate by pairing new foods with the
flavors he loves.
Researchers tested this idea by presenting kids with a choice of
two kinds of chips--one familiar, one new. In addition, some kids were
offered a familiar chip dip. Others were offered an unfamiliar chip dip.
The kids who had access to the familiar dip were more likely to try
tasting the new chips (Pliner and Stallberg-White 2000).
Along similar lines, studies show that kids are more likely to
accept a new food—even a bitter or sour food--if their first exposure
to it is paired with sweetness.
In one experiment, young children lost their aversion to bitter
grapefruit juice if it was initially mixed with extra sugar (Capaldi and
In another experiment, researchers gave kids sweetened vegetables
on a number of occasions, and then asked kids to taste and rate the
vegetables in their natural, unsweetened state. The kids reported an
increased liking for the unsweetened versions of the vegetables
(Havermans and Jansen 2007).
This suggests a way to get your picky eater to eat more greens: Serve steamed vegetables with your child's favorite condiment.
4. Expose your child to positive role models
Throughout the animal kingdom, social cues matter: Juveniles are more
likely to eat foods if they see another individual eating them.
Nonhuman animals are no exception to the rule.
In one experimental study, parents who increased their intake of
fruits and vegetables were more likely to succeed at increasing their
children’s intake (Haire-Joshu et al 2008).
Another study showed that kids were more likely to accept a new
food if they saw an adult eating it (Addessi et al 2005). And in recent
experiments on American preschoolers, kids were more likely to prefer
foods they saw other children eat. Adult role models were less
influential (Frazier et al 2012). The magic of peer influence has also
been documented for older school kids (Bevelander et al 2012).
So it seems that you can help your picky eater by providing him
with positive role models. And rational, authoritative, explanations
In an observational study, caregivers who explained the
virtues of healthful food and the consequences of an unhealthful diet
were more likely to get preschoolers to eat their vegetables (Hughes et al 2007).
5. Don’t pressure your child to eat
In general, people come to like a food less if they are forced to eat it.
For instance, one observational study has reported that kids who
were more pressured to eat actually consumed fewer fruits and vegetables
and more unhealthful snacks (Brown et al 2008).
Another retrospective study found that college students who
remembered being pressured as kids continued to dislike the foods that
their parents had forced them to eat. Given the choice, they would avoid
these foods today (Batsell et al 2002).
Moreover, even when pressuring seems to work, it’s likely
that other factors are involved. For instance, one study found a
positive correlation between parental pressure tactics and increased
fruit and vegetable consumption in kids. But the “high pressure” parents
in this study also happened to be better role models, eating more
fruits and vegetables themselves. In addition, their kids were more
neophobic about food. When the researchers controlled for parental
intake and children’s neophobia, the link between parental pressure and
children’s intake disappeared (Wardle et al 2005).
And if you’re feeling skeptical about the rest of these
correlations, consider this controlled experiment by Amy Galloway and
Galloway’s team gave kids soup and pressured some of them to finish.
The researchers found that the kids who weren’t pressured ate significantly more soup and made fewer negative comments.
And, get this: The more frequently kids were pressured at home, the more likely they were to resist eating the soup (Galloway et al 2006).
6. Keep exposing your picky eater to a variety of foods
One study has found a correlation between the number of different
fruits and vegetables that parents bring home and their preschoolers’
willingness to eat fruits and vegetables (Busick et al 2008).
Other studies have reported that kids increase their liking for
and consumption of vegetables after they are asked to taste them every
day for two weeks (Wardle et al 2003a; Wardle et al 2003b).
Repeated exposure works on babies, too. One experiment found that
infants who were exposed to a different vegetable for eight days in a
row were more likely to eat yet another veggie—green beans—when they
were tested (Mennella et al 2008).
But there are three caveats regarding this effect.
First, success is more likely if kids actually taste the foods.
While one study reports that merely looking at pictures of new foods
had a positive effect on toddlers (Heath et al 2011), other research
suggests kids need to taste food to change their behavior patterns
(Birch et al 1987).
Second, you don’t want to force kids to taste foods (see point #5 above). Rather, you are trying to encourage them by describing the foods positively and eating them yourself.
Third, you might want to avoid presenting your picky eater with more than one new food at a time--at least until she’s older.
One study presented kids with four palatable new foods in a row. While this experience made 10- to 12-year-olds more
interested in trying other new foods, it made younger kids (aged 7-9
years) less interested (Loewen and Pliner 1999). Researchers Loewen and
Pliner speculate that the younger kids wanted to take a break from the
uncertainty of testing new foods.
7. Serve fresh fruit instead of juice, cookies, candy, and other sweets…but avoid stringent anti-junk food rules
Too many sugary, starchy “junk” foods can spoil the appetite for more
healthful foods and put kids at risk for obesity. So it makes sense to
save the sugary drinks and snacks for the occasional treat.
But it’s probably better to take a positive approach—offering fresh fruit substitutes--rather than act like a food cop.
Switching your child’s attention to fruit will help her get more fiber and vitamins in her diet.
It might also prevent your picky eater from developing an obsessive interest in “forbidden” foods.
That’s because research suggests that heavy-handed, restrictive approaches to junk food can backfire.
In experiments by Jennifer Fisher and Leann Birch, kids (aged 3
to 6 years) were introduced to two similar, palatable foods—apple and
peach fruit bar cookies. Tests indicated that the kids liked both types,
although they weren’t highly preferred foods.
Next, the researchers restricted access to one of the two cookie
types. Kids were randomly assigned to receive either apple cookies only
or peach cookies only for 5 weeks.
You might think that kids would have developed a preference for the familiar cookie, but the opposite seems to have occurred.
When given the chance, kids were much more likely to ask for and try to eat the restricted cookie type (Fisher and Birch 1999).
8. Watch out for special problems and avoid new foods when your child isn’t feeling well
Humans are wired with a very ancient, very primitive, and very rapid
form of learning. Feed a person a new food, make him feel ill shortly
thereafter, and he’ll develop an aversion for the odor and flavor of
that food (Rozin 1976).
It doesn’t matter if the food was the cause of the illness or
not. The primitive wiring makes the assumption that any new food
ingested immediately before the onset of illness is bad news.
If your picky eater says he hates a food, it’s not a bad idea to
screen him for symptoms of illness. Food allergies aren’t uncommon, but
there are other possibilities. Some kids have problems with acid reflux
or heartburn. Other kids might have migraines, which can be triggered by
It also makes sense to avoid serving new foods when you’re child
is likely to feel sick or nauseated—e.g., before a car trip or plane
ride, or when your child is fighting off a virus.
9. Get kids involved in the growing and preparation of food
Getting your picky eater to participate “behind the scenes” might
help her become more familiar—and less wary—of the food you make. So
bring your kids into the kitchen and ask them to help out. And try
gardening, too. Studies suggest that kids eat more fruits and vegetables
when the produce is home-grown (Nanney et al 2007).
10. Offer purists a simple alternative to fancy meals
Some kids aren’t picky eaters so much as they are purists: They’ll
eat all sorts of food as long as it’s plain and simply prepared. They
just don’t trust all those rich sauces, gravies, and mystery casseroles.
I’ll confess I was like this myself, happy to eat plain tuna fish
and toast. But if you mixed the tuna with mayonnaise,
I was turned off. Same thing with fruits and vegetables: Raw or
plainly cooked, they were good. Add complications--like cheese on my
potatoes or marshmallows in my fruit cup--and the foods became
unpleasant. Basically, I was opposed to any liquids or
mixtures, particularly dairy- or meat-based ones, that made it difficult
to identify the components of my food.
Interestingly, Ishi, the last survivor of the Native American
Yahi tribe, had similar preferences. When he was compelled to live with
19th-century Anglo-Americans, he refused to eat foods that were drenched
in opaque sauces (Heizer and Kroeber 1981). Broths were okay. Bisques
I don’t know how many kids are like this, but if you take an
anthropological view, the preference for “transparent” food isn’t all
that strange. After all, many cultures lack heavy sauces and elaborately
processed foods. A kid with “purist” tastes wouldn’t attract any notice
in Japan. In France, he might have more trouble!
11. Try giving foods new, fun names
In recent experimental studies, Brian Wansink and his colleagues
(2012) tested the effect of re-labeling familiar foods. The researchers
found that American elementary school students ate more carrots,
broccoli, and green beans when cafeteria menus called these vegetables
X-Ray vision carrots,” “Power Punch Broccoli,” and “Silly Dilly Green
References: How to cope with a picky eater
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Batsell WR, Brown AS, Ansfield AE, and Paschall GY. 2002. “You
Will Eat All of That!”: A retrospective analysis of forced consumption
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Content of "Your picky eater" last modified 3/13
image of boy eating spinach @ 2009 by Francisco Romero /istockphoto.com