Picky no more!

Squelching the food squabbles at every age

Squelching the food squabbles at every age

“He’s a great eater!” bright-eyed new parents gush as they beam at their bouncing newborn. Fast-forward several years, and the one-time “great eater” shuns vegetables, milk, and anything resembling protein, choosing instead to subsist on a diet of goldfish crackers and juice. Sound anything like your child?

If so, you’re not alone — most young children are somewhat picky about food, says pediatric nutrition specialist and registered dietitian Allison Lachowitz. But you don’t have to turn into a short-order chef to please your picky child. Read of for age-by-age tips on helping a picky eater expand her palate.

Read more: Ensure your preschooler is getting proper nutrition

PRESCHOOL YEARS 1-5: Veggie wars

According to Linda Piette, author of Just Two More Bites! Helping Picky Eaters Say Yes to Food, the toddler and preschooler years are a prime time for picky eating habits to surface: tots and young children are naturally inclined to test limits.

In cases of extreme pickiness, she encourages parents to consider having a child evaluated for underlying causes like swallowing difficulties, digestion problems, or food allergies, which can impact a child’s willingness to eat.

For otherwise healthy children who simply prefer pasta to vegetables, Lachowitz tells parents to tone down the veggie-pressure.

“If a child skips vegetables at one meal or refuses to eat them for a few days, it's not the end of the world,” she says. Instead of forcing veggie-hating kids to choke down peas and carrots, encourage a variety of fresh fruits, which offer many of the same nutritional benefits as vegetables.

Presentation matters, too: arrange vegetables on the plate in a fun way, and provide a rainbow of colors to ensure a balance of vitamins and antioxidants.

Read more: Expert answers common questions about picky eaters 


During the chaotic, busy school years, parents of picky eaters may be tempted to head off battles by fixing each child a separate meal. But morphing into a short-order chef at mealtimes won’t solve the problem, and just creates more work (and eventually, resentment) for parents. Instead of falling into this common trap, involve school-age children in shopping and meal planning. “When you work with a selective eater, instead of against him, you will be more successful,” Lachowitz notes.

Try to include one to two items in each meal that everyone will enjoy, and then prepare the rest of the meal normally without making excessive accommodations for a picky eater. Encourage a child to try the main course without forcing him to eat (nearly always a losing battle). And never use food as a reward, even for finishing another food (“If eat your salad, you can have some ice cream!”). You don’t want your child to view vegetables as their ticket to dessert, says Lachowitz.

Read more: How feeding our kids has changed over the years

TEEN YEARS 13-18: Good health to go

Many children leave fussy eating behind in early childhood. But for some, eating habits become more problematic during the tween and teenage years, as busy schedules, after-school jobs, and socializing enable picky eaters to consume more of their meals away from parents’ watchful eyes—which can make for a few nutritional nightmares, like lunching on nothing but French fries and nacho cheese, or worse, skipping meals altogether.

Despite the challenge of an on-the-go schedule, parents shouldn’t throw in the towel when it comes to teen eating habits: teens’ growing bodies and developing brains still require hearty nutrition. Together with your teen, glance at the week’s calendar and develop a “game plan” for quick meals: teens can toss a wrap, salad, or sandwich, which can be made in advance, in a bag along with dried fruit, nuts, and sparking water. Learning to make a few fast, healthy meals is a skill that will serve teens well in college and beyond, notes Lachowitz. “Hopefully, they’ll continue these good habits for a lifetime.”

Malia Jacobson is a nationally published health and parenting journalist and mom of three.