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 (Sellen 2001).

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 Privitera 2008).

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 work, too:

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 her colleagues.

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 foods.

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 were out.

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 Beans.”

Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

References: How to cope with a picky eater

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Content of "Your picky eater" last modified 3/13

image of boy eating spinach @ 2009 by Francisco Romero /