How can I improve picky eating habits?

A stage of choosing and refusing foods is quite normal for some children, but there are some things you can do to make it shorter or easier.

This page offers some ideas that often help.

Positive messages about food

  • Set a good example by eating a healthy and varied diet. It might not feel like you are doing much, but in the end, most children will eventually develop an interest in the foods they see the rest of the family eating most often.
  • Where possible, reduce their exposure to food and drink marketing through TV and online. These foods and drinks marketed through these routes  are usually not as nutritious as the food you would like them to eat.

Sharing control

  • You decide what a child has to choose from. They decide whether to eat it and if so, how much. Allow your child to decide when they have finished. This is better, in the long run, than persuading them to eat “three more spoonfuls” when they’ve said they’ve had enough. You might want to ask them to stay at the table until everyone else is finished though.
  • Providing a choice between two foods can help. This still allows a child to feel that they are in control. At the same time, you got to decide which two foods the child had to choose from!
  • Try a buffet style service. Children often choose something new when its not placed on their plate but in serving dishes. Each person puts what they want on their own plate so that it is genuinely their choice.
  • Involve them in food preparation. Simple tasks life picking, choosing, stirring and serving can help a child become more confident with new ingredients before they appear in a meal.
  • Limit access to the most strongly preferred but least nourishing foods. Some foods are marketed heavily at children directly, or at parents, to give to their children. Some children will prefer highly processed foods of simple texture, often with a high level of added salt or sugar.
  • Limit access to nutritious foods if they are being consumed obsessively. For example, some children might like milk and cereal so much, that they refuse to eat or drink anything else. This is especially the case with young children who drink more than a pint (600mls) of milk a day.

Manage meals calmly and realistically

  • Try to appear not to care what your child eats. This “low pressure” approach is especially important if your child is already a picky eater. By all means, talk to your children at mealtimes, but if you have a picky eater, the less said about the food, the better!
  • Make realistic changes. A child who is used to chicken nuggets and micro chips might not want to switch immediately to liver and sprouts! Think about the look, texture, taste etc. Try to change just one of these at a time.
  • Be wary of rewarding food refusal with extra dessert or snacks. Try to reflect on the meal you offered. Was it realistic? If it was, then still allow the “normal size dessert or snacks later. However, if you give extra to compensate for a poorly eaten meal, the child may learn from this that food refusal gets rewarded. On the other hand, if the meal you gave was genuinely new, then it might be fine to offer a larger portion of an acceptable alternative (sandwich, toast etc). It might be best not to provide their favourite food as the alternative though.
  • Try to avoid banning certain foods and drinks. If a child is aware of certain foods due to marketing or their peers, banning it completely could make it more valuable!