7 Ways to Win Over Picky Eaters (No Bribes, No Tears)

July 11, 2018

No one hands you a comprehensive guide to being a parent. Which is unfortunate, especially if your kid's a picky eater. Thankfully, Mandy Sacher, pediatric nutritionist and mother of two, knows exactly how to win over the fussiest diners. In her latest book, Wholesome Child, she outlines concrete, creative ideas to making kids look forward to what you cook. Here, she shares 7 of her best tips.

Photo by Mandy Sacher

The fussy eating period of 2 to 6 years old coincides with an important time in a child’s development. No matter how much they beg, we don’t want to abandon them to a diet of only refined carbohydrates. The strategies we implement to deal with food refusal, along with the foods we offer during this stage, can have a huge impact on how willing they are to try new dishes and how their eating habits are ultimately shaped.

Change does not happen overnight. We need to recognize that it can be a slow process, and praising small changes along the way is of utmost importance. Here are my top strategies for dealing with fussy eaters:

1. Embrace the senses.

Encourage your little ones to touch, smell, and engage with their food. This starts with shopping for groceries. Can they help take items off the shelves? Encourage them to pick up a carrot, an apple, or a zucchini, and place it in the basket or shopping cart themselves—this begins the engagement with the new food. Can they put the dish or new veggie on the table for the family? Don’t be disappointed if they don’t eat the new food the first time it’s offered—stay positive, freeze what is not eaten, and offer it again.

2. Consistency is key.

A child won't approach a stranger the first time they meet. However, after just a few visits, the child generally feels more comfortable. The same goes for new foods. You can make new foods familiar by repeatedly offering them in a calm, familial environment. Repeated exposure aids the process of engaging with new tastes and flavors. You can also try offering these same foods in different ways—cut into fun shapes, laid out in color patterns, steamed vegetables rather than raw.

3. Let them make a mess.

Allow your baby to reach for his food and feed himself. If your baby is being spoon-fed, offer him his own spoon to attempt to feed himself. Alternatively, bring two spoons to meal times, one for you and one for your child. If your child refuses spoons, try offering finger foods they can eat with their hands. You can make porridge thicker so it can be picked up in globs once it has cooled down, or even try Bolognese sauce.

Six months is an ideal age to start finger-feeding with safe and appropriate choices. Be creative and remember that enjoying food is a sensory experience. Children who are allowed to get messy and explore their foods are often less fussy.

4. Work with the textures they like.

We need to teach children that food can change shape but still taste the same. If you really want your child to eat homemade French fries or sweet potato fries and you know they love crunchy food, it’s best not to make huge, fat wedge-shaped chips. Rather, using a peeler, grate the potatoes really finely and bake them for 25 to 30 minutes (to avoid burning them). They will come out crispy and delicious. Once your child is happy to eat these, offer it in a different form, maybe as a larger chip or as mashed potato. It’s important to show them how the potato can change shape—one potato can be thin and crispy, another thicker and softer.

One way to enjoy cauliflower...

5. Offer choice at mealtimes.

Children like to feel they have some control when it comes to food, but many mums do not want to become short order cooks or fall into the habit of making five different meals each evening. However, it is particularly important for fussy children to be given a choice between two healthy options. For example: “We can have fish fingers or lamb kofta for dinner—which would you like?”

You can offer choices to kids of any age. Ask toddlers where they sit and which plate they'd like. Give younger children a choice between two foods that you have already prepared, while older children can help you decide ingredients at the grocery store.

6. Play with the plate.

Serve a small portion of food on a larger plate so your child won’t feel overwhelmed. If your child simply refuses to eat a particular food, do not let them see your frustration. Simply remove the food and continue to try another day.

You can also make mealtimes fun with songs or making pictures out of vegetable sticks and dips. Young children should enjoy the whole sensorial experience, even if it means sticking their fingers into everything with their hands.

7. Praise your child for eating new foods.

Children love praise. If both parents praise a child for eating well it can have a long-lasting effect.

What are some tricks you've (or your parents) used to get kids to clean their plate?



Ttrockwood July 24, 2018
I don’t see my nephew often, and when he was about six i took him to the grocery store and he helped me choose veggies for a lentil soup. I had him help me in the kitchen cooking, he snapped the ends of the green beans, poured the lentils into the measuring cup, saw me eating a chunk of celery and wanted some. <br />When my sister came home late that evening she was flabbergasted- “he doesn’t like green beans! The soup didn’t have any meat in it??” Apparently the next day he told her allllll about how much fun we had and how delicious the soup was. <br />Ever since he “helps” in the kitchen and really enjoys it. I think that early experience helped him feel he was participating and also taught my sister not to assume he really didnt like certain veggies. <br /><br />Now he is ten years old and helps with dinner every night- he makes the salad!
witloof July 23, 2018
There is a wonderful book called It's Not About the Broccoli that outlines strategies for picky eaters. One tip I thought was really smart: if you go to a restaurant and ask the waiter to describe the special, you wouldn't appreciate it if the answer was, "Mmmm, it's yummy!" You would want concrete information. Similarly when presented with new food and the child asks what it's like, be as specific as possible. "It's crunchy and sweet like an apple. "It's soft like an avocado." "It's salty and a little sour, like a pickle." Another great strategy is to serve the healthiest, most nutritious food first while the child is hungriest.
Catherine R. July 23, 2018
Wow I have so much to say about this. From my experience, picky kids are usually raised by picky eaters. They have no other frame of reference. So if the parent/guardian is not enjoying their food, whether it's eating it or making it, the child likely will not either. If the adult doesn't eat their veggies and make it seem like a pleasurable experience, the kid will pick up on that and will have even less incentive to try it, or will have a preconceived notion that they won't like it. I agree that the language used around food is really important - rather than telling the child, "Eat this, it's good for you." I think saying "Look at how colorful the food is! It's like eating the rainbow!" or "This is so crunchy and fun to eat, want to try it?" is far more effective - it has been for me, anyway. 1) It doesn't make you sound like you're telling the kid what to do, so 2) it makes it more fun and piques their curiosity and natural inclination towards colors and textures. My 5 year old niece swore to me that she hated both broccoli and curry...but when I was making a curry that contained broccoli and looked like I was having so much looking at all the rich and colorful spices, smelling all the aromas during the cooking process, and of course tasting everything she eventually came up to me - without any prodding or prompting from me - and asked to try the food. She now asks me to make that same dish regularly. Sometimes it also helps to meet the child halfway - I knew that my niece didn't like curry and broccoli, but she loves coconut and quinoa, so I included those in the curry.
rainbow G. July 11, 2018
I've also found that praising the trait that you want to encourage (You're so adventurous!) means they start to believe that they are adventurous. Being critical of a trait (You're so picky!) helps to ingrain that trait, even though you are disparaging it. At least with younger kids! My teen sees through this, of course. So, any advice for older kids?
Author Comment
Mandy S. July 11, 2018
For older children, it's important to help them explore the reasons why eating nourishing food is beneficial. Ask them questions, allow them to reason and find out the benefits - e.g. helps with concentration, can promote the ' feel good' feelings. I always encourage parents to speak about what food can do for their children - run faster, grow healthy muscles, rather than focusing on weight gain or weight loss. For older children, getting them involved in the planning process e.g. menu planning - Mondays they get to choose what's for dinner; offering choices such as bolognaise or meatballs and letting them make the final decision; helping with grocery shopping; getting involved with food prep for the family and finally viewing mealtimes as a chance to connect and enjoy quality time together.