6 Tips to Help Manage Picky Eating in Children


Read time: 5 minutes

What to know about picky eating in young children

  • Picky eating is common among toddlers and young children

  • Getting children involved in meal prep will help increase their exposure to new foods

  • Avoid bribing or coercing your little one to eat

If mealtimes are a struggle, your child eats only specific foods or they turn their nose up at new or unfamiliar foods, you may have a picky eater. And while picky eating is common among toddlers and young children, it’s never too late to work on having balanced and more manageable mealtimes.

While it may seem easier to wait it out and hope picky eating will pass, the attention and consistency you put into combatting picky eating now will help your little one grow into a lifelong competent eater.

Is your little one a picky eater? We can help! Chat with our team of registered dietitian nutritionists, fellow moms, and lactation specialists, available from Monday – Friday 8 am – 6 pm (ET). Chat now!

What causes picky eating?

There are many reasons why a toddler may exhibit picky eating behaviors,1 including:

1. Food neophobia

It’s normal for toddlers to be wary of new food. In fact, between the age of 18-30 months, food neophobia tends to kick in, which is the unwillingness to try new foods.

It is thought that humans are genetically hardwired with this evolutionary defense against the possibility of eating harmful foods.2,3

2. How they feel

A toddler may seem like a picky eater if they’re tired, nervous, feeling unwell, or if they’ve filled up on snacks or drinks between meals.4

3. Lower calorie needs

Toddlers grow at a slower rate when compared to newborns, making their calorie needs lower. As a result, they may not seem as hungry, or get full easily.5

All these things considered; it is still possible to help your child develop over time into a more adventurous eater.

Note that it may not be necessary to be overly concerned with your child’s eating behaviors if they’re growing well according to the pediatrician. Check with your child’s healthcare provider if you are concerned.

Learn about:

Helping Prevent Picky Eating in Babies and Toddlers

Helping Your Child Build a Taste for Healthy Foods

How does the Division of Responsibility help?

Feeding and eating are some of the few things your little one has complete control over; only they know how food tastes to them or how hungry or satisfied they are. And we want them to have this control and awareness of their body’s needs.

Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility states that “Parents should take leadership with the what, when, and where of feeding and let your child determine how much and whether to eat of what you provide.”6

When you follow the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR), your child can become more confident, and often more adventurous, with eating.

Giving your child the control to choose what they want to eat, from the healthy meal and snack choices you’ve provided, as well as the power to decide how much they need to feel satisfied, helps them tune into their own hunger and satiety cues and become a more capable and confident eater.7

Learn more: The Division of Responsibility: Helping Avoid Picky Eating

6 Tips for Managing Picky Eating in Young Children

While we can’t expect to combat picky eating overnight, with a few consistent approaches your child will learn to be more adventurous with meals.

The goal is to raise a lifelong, well-rounded, confident eater – so don’t get frustrated if it feels like you’re not making any progress right away, or if your little one doesn’t eat a veggie at every meal!

Over time you’ll start to see positive change with persistence and patience.

Tip #1: Get kids in the kitchen

Kids as young as 18 months can start helping in the kitchen. Simple tasks such as washing produce in a bucket of water, ripping lettuce, and stirring or mixing food are great for little ones.

Older toddlers and young children can mix and pour ingredients, mash and stir, knead dough, and even cut soft foods, such as a banana or mushrooms, with a dull, child-friendly knife.8

Kids are more likely to try the foods they played a role in preparing.9

Even if your child doesn’t eat it, exposure to different foods by touching, washing, cutting, mixing, and stirring, is a great way for kids to build positive associations with those foods.10

Try it: Fun Food Activities To Do With Toddlers

Tip #2: Provide interactive meals

These are meals your child gets to build themself. In this meal, you offer nutritious foods, and your child chooses from the options you’ve provided.

A build-your-own baked potato bar or pasta bowl, for example, with a variety of meat, beans, veggies, cheese, and sauces to mix in may help your child discover new ways they enjoy foods.

Let your child serve themself as a way to build confidence and have a sense of responsibility.11

Try it:

Picky Eater Meal Plan: Recipe and Snack Ideas

Family Dinner Ideas: Fun and Easy Interactive Meals to Make with Your Child

Tip #3: Enjoy family meals

Eating together is one of the best ways to role model healthful eating to your little one. In fact, children are more likely to try the foods that they see you eating and enjoying.12

Mealtimes should be social and enjoyable! Showing your little one what it looks like to sit down for an enjoyable, shared meal is a positive experience they’ll likely want to take part in.13,14

Have family meals that are free of distractions from screens so that your child can focus on the food they’re eating and how they’re feeling.15

Try it: Family Meals: Developing Healthy Habits

Tip #4: Avoid pressure, bribing, and coercing

We want our little ones to be eating because they enjoy satisfying foods – not because mom or dad is pushing for one more bite or bribing them to eat more with the reward of dessert or screen time.

Avoid focusing too much on how much of each food your child is eating. This can create mealtime battles and cause your little one to lose touch with their internal hunger and satiety cues.4,14

Learn more: Understanding your Baby’s Hunger and Fullness Cues

Tip #5: Keep meal and snack times consistent

If your child is constantly grazing on snacks and beverages between meals, especially with less nutritious “filler foods,” they’re less likely to arrive at mealtime hungry or willing to try their meals.

By creating a structure with consistent meal and snack times, and no grazing between them, your child will learn when to expect their next eating opportunity and will arrive ready to eat.16

Learn more:

Nutritious Snacks for Babies and Toddlers

Meal Plan for your 12 Month Old Toddler

Meal Plan for 18-24 Month Old Toddlers

Tip #6: Make sure your child is comfortable at the table

An uncomfortable child might exhibit picky eating behavior only because they’re having a hard time sitting still at the table. Maybe their chair is too large, too low, or too far away from the table. Or perhaps your child’s feet are just dangling and not supported.

Positioning your child so that their stomach is level with the table helps provide the basis for a comfortable position.17

Rather than letting their feet dangle, make sure they can rest them on a stool, step, or floor. This will help them feel more secure and ready to eat.18

A high chair, booster seat, or specially designed dining seats for little ones may help your child sit more comfortably at the table, thus giving them greater opportunity to enjoy mealtime.18

When should I be concerned about my child’s picky eating?

Occasionally a child may need more assistance with overcoming serious picky eating habits.

Your child’s pediatrician can help refer you to appropriate feeding specialists to help target your child’s specific food fears and aversions.

Learn more: When it’s more than Picky Eating

Let's Chat!

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Our Happy Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too! They’re here to offer personalized support on our free, one-on-one, live chat platform Monday - Friday 8am-6pm (ET). No appointment needed, no email or sign-up required. Chat Now!

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Picky Eating Guide

The Division of Responsibility: Helping Avoid Picky Eating

Picky Eater Meal Plan: Recipe and Snack Ideas