Avoiding Food Hassles With Kids

Last Updated April 2022 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Beth Oller, MD

We all know one—the picky eater. They eat the same few foods every day. They usually only like unhealthy choices, such as chips, sweets, and soda. They refuse to try anything new. It becomes a battle for parents at home and school.

For a young child (preschool age), this is normal. Most children outgrow their picky eating habits. However, children who have a developmental disability, such as autism, may be picky eaters for a longer time. It might even be a lifetime.

As a parent, it’s your job to provide healthy meals. Also, parents should set regular times for meals and snacks. While you can adjust this schedule, you should keep it as regular as possible.

Path to improved health

If your picky eater is growing normally, is active and healthy, they are probably getting what’s needed. Continue to offer a healthy mix at mealtime. Serve a protein (meat, eggs, beans, or cheese), vegetables (fresh, frozen, or canned), and a small portion of a healthy carbohydrate (whole wheat pasta, sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, or pure oats).

If you’re dealing with a super-picky eater, these things can help:

  • Be a good example. Fill your plate with healthy items. Watch your portion sizes.
  • Invite your child to plan the meal and prepare it. Young children can tear lettuce, pour ingredients, and stir.
  • Eat meals together as a family at the table. It’s a good time to talk to each other. It takes the focus off picky eating.
  • Avoid mealtime distractions. This means no TV, cell phones, or other electronic devices.
  • Add color to your menu. Choose colorful foods to make it look interesting. Broccoli, beets, sweet potatoes, yellow squash, red apples, and oranges are all good choices.
  • Offer options. Don’t ask your child if he or she wants cauliflower. Ask if they would rather have cauliflower or broccoli. Ask them how he or she would like it prepared. With cauliflower, for example, there are many choices: steamed, roasted, mashed, or cut into small sizes for dipping.
  • Be creative. Serve your food in shapes or on fun plates. Add a fun table decoration to show that mealtimes are fun, family times.
  • Dip it. Children love to dip their food. Cut green, red, or yellow peppers, celery, or apples into strips for dipping. Make sure the dip is healthy, too.
  • Work with your child to invent new snacks. Look on the internet to jumpstart ideas.
  • Name your foods to make it fun. For example, try serving “dad’s perfect peas” or “mom’s excellent eggs.”
  • Get active/get hungry. The more active your child is, the hungrier he or she will be. Encourage your child to be active for 30 minutes before sitting down to a meal.

Remember, be patient. Trying new foods takes time. Don’t be surprised if you have to serve something 12 different times before your child makes the tiniest bit of progress.

Things to consider

Don’t think of picky eating as a battle. If you do, your child will sense your anger and frustration. That will make the problem worse. Be calm and patient. See how you can improve the situation. For example:

  • Serve small portions. A small helping on a big plate will make it look as if there’s hardly anything there.
  • Introduce your child to new foods in the grocery store. It can be fun to look at different selections and colors. Talk about how you could prepare them.
  • Improve snack time. Consider healthy ways to serve peanut butter or vegetable shapes. Don’t let your child “graze” outside of scheduled snack and meal times.
  • Don’t serve juice as a fruit replacement. In fact, there’s so much sugar in juice it’s best not to serve it at all.
  • Don’t cater to individual meal requests each night. Your job is to serve one healthy meal, not special items for each family member.
  • Don’t force your child to eat. This makes it a battle. Your child has the energy to wait out the battle.
  • Don’t bribe your child. Bribing becomes a habit and your child will never try new foods without a reward.
  • Don’t forbid certain foods. It just makes the battle worse. Instead, limit them.
  • Don’t use dessert as a reward or punishment. If you serve dessert, make it part of the meal.
  • Don’t forget to teach mealtime behavior. If your child doesn’t like something, teach him or her to politely decline it. Honor his or her opinion after one or two reasonable attempts to introduce new foods.
  • Don’t stress if your child isn’t eating enough of a healthy food. Your child will decide how much he or she can handle.

Lunch at school

Most private and public schools in the U.S. offer a variety of healthy items to meet different likes and dislikes. Some schools provide lunchtime suggestions on which items go together. This helps students avoid picking all carbohydrates or all fruits.

If your child is buying lunch at school, ask your school’s teachers or lunchroom staff what’s offered. Set rules with your child on buying “extras,” such as sweets and chips (usually only an option at the high school level). Find out if your school can put a “block” on your student’s lunch account to keep them from buying unhealthy items or second helpings.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) believes that sound nutrition is a cornerstone of health and should be reflected in all dietary options in schools. Items of little or no nutritional value should be replaced with healthy alternatives.

If you are making your child’s lunch, pack healthy foods. Make it fun with cookie cutter sandwiches, vegetable shapes, and more. Try introducing a “sample size” new food. Add a loving note to encourage your child to try it.

Questions for your doctor

  • Does having food allergies make a child more likely to be a picky eater?
  • What other developmental disabilities are related to picky eaters?
  • If I’ve made mealtime a battle, how can I “undo” the damage?
  • What if I’m a picky eater and can’t model appropriate choices?
  • Will younger siblings learn picky eating habits from older siblings?


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