Persuading the Picky Eater – how to handle picky eating

In my last post, I described how I set the stage for healthy eating habits, but what if you already have a picky eater in the family? This post addresses persuading the picky eater with a number of different approaches I have found to be incredibly successful (if not silly at times).  Here are my top 6 tips when it comes to handling picky eating.

When my toddler looks apprehensive about trying a new food we employ a few different techniques which is an amalgamation of Triple P positive parenting and the French approach towards teaching children to eat well.

1. Food presentation makes an impact

When eating out, a big part of enjoying your meal at a restaurant is the presentation. Chicken breast gently resting over a bed of whipped potatoes swimming in a delicious au jus surrounded by a lovely and vibrant display of baby peas and carrots looks much more appetizing than simply spooning food onto the available space on your plate. Your food experience is heightened with this visual stimulation. You can do this at home too! I “plate” our dinners and I do the same for my kids. We are setting the food plate stage with beauty and it makes a difference. You deserve to enjoy a feast for the eyes!

When our dishes are placed on the table we talk about what we have on our plates to orient Esther to what we’re eating. Josh and I act like it’s the most amazing thing to have the same exact food on our plates as Esther’s plate. We act surprised (again, very animatedly) and say things like, “You have broccoli? Oh my gosh, I have broccoli on my plate too! What are the chances?! It’s amazing!” Toddlers want to be like their parents. They want to do what we’re doing; they want to be involved as equal participants. This is a perfect opportunity to capitalize on this natural tendency and encourage them to try the same foods you are eating.  

Esther the chef
Esther the chef
Esther "plating" her tuna in a chip with yellow pepper
Esther “plating” her tuna in a chip with yellow pepper

2.  Tasting new food is a party!

Two words: Tasting Party! I honestly do not recall where my husband and I got this concept, so if it’s copyrighted somewhere, I am sorry. In general, everything is more fun as a party (we also have toy clean-up parties). When I have a new dish for Esther to try (or she shows apprehension about eating a food she’s had before, we know she likes, but for some reason is nervous about trying) my husband and I pierce a piece of the food with our own forks from own plates and encourage Esther to do the same from her plate. We announce we’re having a tasting party, then very animatedly, we all “cheers” with our forks, and give our new food a teeny-tiny itsy-bitty little bite. My husband and I declare it is absolutely delicious. We talk about the color of the food, if it’s sweet, sour, salty, etc. and tell Esther it’s just so yummy. Peer pressure works. Esther sees we are eating the same exact food and encourage her to give it a try (if she bailed on the tasting party just moments before).

If she is still hesitant, we tell her to just “give it a lick.” We get SUPER animated and tell her to just give it a teeny-tiny itty-bitty eensy-weensy (you can see how we really get into this) lick and nothing more. She inevitably gives it a very small lick and we make the BIGGEST deal out her giving it a lick (this is Triple P-style positive reinforcement). “Whoa Esther! You did an amazing job giving your food a lick! How was it?! I’m so impressed!” We tell her she did such an amazing job giving it a lick, now can she give it a teeny-tiny itty-bitty eensy-weensy bite? She takes a bite and what do you know? She likes it!

Dr. Harvey Karp describes “gossiping” as an effective way to reinforce behavior because hearing someone talk about us makes a big impact. This is in addition to direct praise, but Josh and I will often talk about Esther as if she’s not there while she’s literally sitting between us. I’ll fake whisper very loudly, “Oh my gosh Daddy, did you see Esther take a bite of her chicken? I mean really, did you see it?!” Esther’s face is all smiles and full of glee as she stabs her fork into another piece of food to see what our “gossiping” reaction will be next. Then we break our roles and act all shocked Esther is sitting right there and ask (again very animatedly) if she heard what we were saying about her and how embarrassed we are she caught us talking about her. She thinks this is hilarious. We have been doing this for over two years and she never tires of it. It also works every time.

Again, we reinforce this with a lot of wonderfully positive attention. Again, we talk about the food with her – describe it, talk about how much I have on my plate, or how much I have already eaten because it’s so yummy… you get the picture, there’s a lot of discussion about food.

I think she is getting such a kick out of getting all this wonderful attention and watching mama and daddy put on such a show over her very little effort to eat a little bit of food, she wants to keep it going. We are building momentum for her to try to new foods. We make it fun, entertaining (we put on quite a show) and she’s getting a boatload of positive attention reinforcing her actions (eating new foods)! What’s not to like?

Now if you’re not the type of parent to “ham it up” (pun intended although I don’t eat ham because I’m Jewish), I’m sorry I have no other advice.

3.  What I do if my toddler tries something and doesn’t like it

We do not force the issue. We give Esther tons and tons of praise for just trying it. “Good job trying the green beans! I’m really proud of you for giving it a taste.”

For some reason, toddlers (at least mine) like to remove the offensive food from her plate. If she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t want it on her plate. We tell her she does not need to eat any more of it, but it needs to stay on her plate. Chances are, throughout the course of the meal, she’ll give it another taste just because it’s sitting there. This makes sense to me, because how often do you get another scoop of food (second helpings) or take another bite from your plate just because it’s sitting in front of you?

The goal is to help Esther feel great about trying something new, see she’s eating the same foods as mama and daddy, and discover it tastes good too! Food is a fun adventure and we all get to participate!

4.  Keep offering the new food

I will not undermine my daughters’ taste buds. I consider food preferences constantly malleable and research supports we need to try a new food 10 or more times before we accept it. This is not 10 bites of the same carrot dish in one meal, but 10 separate meal opportunities to try the food.

I take this a step further and consider how the food is prepared. For example, I know my toddler is not a fan of raw carrots. She thinks they are too hard, but she loves steamed carrots (softer and steaming brings out the sweetness). Knowing she’s not a fan of the crunchy texture, I have offered roasted carrots (not as much a fan) as well as shredded carrot salad (big fan, but very messy to eat). I do not count how many times I expose Esther to carrots, but I just keep offering different versions of the food until I find one she enjoys. In contrast, Esther loves raw peppers (she’ll eat a whole yellow pepper in one sitting), but passes on roasted or sautéed peppers (stir fry is OK). She has her pepper preparation preference and it’s OK (alliteration anyone?).

5.  Troubleshooting adult picky eaters – aka “If I don’t like it, how do I get my toddler to try it?”

I internally cringe when we are with friends or family members who make blanket statements like, “I hate peppers” or “I never eat tomatoes. They are gross.” These statements do not encourage the eating attitude I want my kids to be exposed to. What to do?

My husband is a reformed picky eater.  He will try just about anything at least once, but he does not enjoy cucumbers. He’s tried them in many different forms and they are just not for him. I respect this. Yet, Esther loves cucumbers and will often try to share cucumber slices with her daddy. His response does not admonish cucumbers and potentially set up a negative eating experience, he simply states, “No thanks, the cucumbers are for you to eat. I am good.” He doesn’t make a big deal out of not liking cucumbers. In fact, he’s never said he doesn’t like them to Esther (again, he’s an awesome dad and husband).

Getting your kids involved in preparing the meal gets them excited to taste it too!
Getting your kids involved in preparing the meal gets them excited to taste it too!

If we are with someone who makes a big deal out of not eating something, I go back to remembering I am my girls #1 role model (Josh is too). I counteract the negative food statement with something akin to (again very animatedly), “Well, I really love peppers. They are sweet and crunchy, and I like all the different colors… red, yellow, and green. Esther what color pepper do you like best?” I am not putting down the adult for their personal food preferences, but I am creating a positive food environment for my toddler with my response. Learn how parents influence their child’s eating behavior here.

6.  Allow picky eaters to feel hunger

Let your kids get hungry and you’ll see how willing they are to try something new. If Esther doesn’t want to eat her meal plate, I simply say, “I guess you’re not hungry enough” and I do not offer another food. If she doesn’t eat now, she’ll eat later. Our children are not starving.

I will not panic and turn into a short order cook trying to guess what will please my toddler’s palate. I am responsible for providing a healthy meal. My child does not get to choose what is on the menu because (reality check) she is 3 years old. Even so, I see so many moms prepare food for themselves and a completely different meal for their kids hoping their kid will eat what they made (which usually consists of something marketed specifically to kids and most likely found in the freezer section). What are we telling our kids by doing this? Who is in charge here? If Esther is hungry enough, she will eat my freshly prepared meal. She will discover it’s actually delicious, and then ask for more. Win-win!

In any eating situation, I do not want to be punitive. I do not use food as a bribe like eat your vegetables and you’ll get dessert. Or, if you don’t eat your vegetables you will not get dessert. I do not force her to take a certain number of bites in order to be excused from the table. These eating habits foster negativity around food and I think our society already has a lot of negativity around food. I want Esther to enjoy food and eating. If she is not hungry for dinner, then she must not be hungry for dessert. It’s no big deal. She can get dessert another time.

We can stop the meal time battles and help deal with picky eating by being a bit more logical about it. Make eating more fun, model what you want to see, and your child will follow suit.


Esther after trick-or-treating chooses to eat Daddy's pomegranate seeds instead of candy.
Esther, after trick-or-treating, chooses to eat Daddy’s pomegranate seeds instead of candy.
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