Picky Eater Help: How to Expand and Diversify Kids’ Diets

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Having picky eaters is common. But that doesn’t make it any easier! Fortunately, there are ways you can help your kids accept a wider variety of foods and feel more positive during mealtimes. Read on to learn step-by-step strategies for overcoming picky eating, what habits to avoid, and when to call in professional help.

picky eater girl with her head down on the table because she doesn't want to eat

You’ve just set the table for dinner. It’s a simple meal of baked chicken, steamed veggies, and rolls. But before you can even sit down, one of your kids is crying. What’s going on?

Your picky eater is upset. And you’re not exactly surprised. She doesn’t see the food she likes to eat best, and she’s melting down.

So what do you do? You watch her sniffle and only eat the rolls. Or you cave and play the short-order cook, getting her a preferred food while the rest of the family eats the main meal.

Neither of these outcomes feels satisfying to anyone. And it’s likely to repeat tomorrow. But rest assured, you CAN move the needle on picky eating. We have some strategies that can help.

The first step is to step into your kids’ shoes for a minute…

toddler boy eating from a bowl of pasta looks like he doesn't enjoy his meal

What Your Picky Eater Might Be Feeling

We’re often so rooted in our perspective as parents that we can forget that picky eating is hard on our kids, too. But the better we can understand what they’re thinking and feeling, the better we can problem-solve and overcome picky eating as a family. Your picky eater might be thinking…

  • I don’t like the way that food tastes or feels in my mouth.
  • I don’t feel safe or comforted by this food.
  • I’ve never seen this food before and I have no idea what to expect.
  • This food looks like something else I know I don’t like.
  • I’m worried there’s nothing here that I can eat, and I’ll go hungry.
  • I’m embarrassed or ashamed that I can’t face the foods that others are eating.

Picky Eater Progress Plan, Step-by-Step

This plan can help you and your picky eater make incremental steps toward greater food acceptance skills. This kind of plan is often used to help coach kids’ with medically-significant feeding challenges to become more accepting of new foods. So it can really work! Try it at home. And as you move through this steps, remember the power of modeling eating well for your kids.

  1. Start small (so they can be successful.) If your child only eats meatballs and toast at dinnertime, then start with meatballs and toast. Enjoy family mealtime eating this food that comforts your child. Talk about what you and your child like about these preferred foods.
  2. Make slight changes to preferred foods. Serve preferred foods again, this time with slight changes. Serve turkey meatballs instead of beef meatballs. Try Parmesan toast instead of plain toast. The idea here is for your child to be aware of the changes and still accept the food. Use positive and encouraging words to remind them that these foods taste a lot like the foods they already like.
  3. Add in new foods. Add a new food to the table that you think your child might like. Let them see you enjoying this food and let them decide if they would like some on their plate to touch it, taste it, etc. Instead of just describing the new food as “yummy,” tell them what they can expect from eating it. Is it crunchy, chewy, sweet, salty, or similar to another food they might know?
  4. Stay in the habit. Progress takes time! Keep making slight changes to preferred foods, and adding in new foods regularly. Consistency helps your child know that new foods are part of your mealtime routine, and not something to fear.
  5. Share in your kids’ success. Tempted as you may by to jump for joy when your child eats something new, a little gentle positivity is probably best. Reminding them that “you learned to like apples this week!” can help them internalize their success and carry it on into the future.

Avoid Habits That Can Worsen Picky Eating

Sometimes our best efforts to manage picky eating can actually do more harm than good. Look out for these feeding pitfalls that can prolong picky eating and make it more deeply ingrained. (Don’t feel guilty if some of these apply to you!)

  • Making separate meals for your picky eater.
  • Pressuring your child to eat during meals (this can sound like “just one more bite.”)
  • Letting your child snacks continuously throughout the day, “grazing” on preferred foods instead of sitting down for planned meals.
  • Serving the same foods many days in a row.
  • Serving ONLY new foods at dinner, without a balance of “safe” or preferred foods.
  • Letting kids decide what’s for dinner.

Seek Help for Extreme Picky Eating

If you’re concerned that your child’s picky eating is more than just a phase, or that it’s negatively impacting their nutritional status, it’s perfectly OK to seek help from your child’s pediatrician. She’ll be able to refer you to a feeding expert who can work with you and your child to help customize a program for overcoming these challenges as a family.

Progress Takes Time

The good news is, most kids do grow out of their pickiest phase. Becoming an adventurous eater is a multi-year process, even for “good” eaters. (Are there any foods you didn’t learn to like until you were a full-grown adult? Then you know it can really take time!)

As we tell our kids, we have to “practice our patience.” Keep offering a variety of healthy foods, some new and some familiar, and enjoy the journey as much as you’re able.

More Resources for Parents of Picky Eaters

21 Days of Things to Do with Picky Eaters
My Top Tip for Getting Picky Eaters to Eat
9 Veggies Kids Like that Might Surprise You

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29 Comments

Thank you so much I am stuggling with my two year old and it is so great to hear wonderful ideas, I think you plan is doable and not crazy stringent or over the top. I will have to try this and will post any improvements.

As Colton’s grandmother, I can witness that the difference is profound! It’s important to know that he is never coerced or punished if he does not eat the required bites. He simply does not get the “reward” he was working for. My daughter used to have to supervise each bite, but he is now much more independent at meal time.

I am also the mother of picky spectrum kids. I am thankful to not be alone in being determined to help them expand their diet. I refuse to allow them to be handicapped by their food issues. My oldest is a lot more severe than the others, and a new food is actually traumatic for him. He’s 8 now, and still panics at new foods…but, he is LIGHTYEARS from where we began.

I’m struggling with the same thing, my 4 years old son, who has been diagnose with PDD, would only eat cream of wheat, toast and crackers, and he would not eat at all in school. I’m worry because he leave to school at 8 am and come back at 4 pm. He won’t eat the food I pack him either. Don’t know what else to do 🙁

Using tokens is a great idea! I don’t have kids yet but I see so many picky eaters out there, it makes me nervous for when I have kids. Thanks for the advice.

What a wonderful effort you are making and then helping others with similar difficulties. It is so important the family isn’t isolated and that these difficulties are openly shared and respected. It is so right to communicate. Fantastic, just fantastic.
Aunt Cherri

Me and my wife are struggling from our 5 year-old boy. I know how you feel and as a parent I want my child to be healthy as possible despite his autism. Thank you very much for this post.

Me and my wife are struggling from our 5 year-old boy. I know how you feel and as a parent I want my child to be healthy as possible despite his autism. Thank you very much for this post.

Although our daughter does not have autism..she struggles a lot with food. She started out eating everything and slowly was down to baby oatmeal in the morning and crackers the rest of the day. Nutrition is a passion of mine so watching my 2 year old eat this way was devastating. Thanks to your words my husband and I followed your advice. We are taking it super slow but she is now accepting changes in flavor in her oatmeal (yay for fruits and veggies!) and she is even eating a peanut butter sandwich and I’m currently watching her eat French toast. I realize this is long but I can’t thank you enough for this post! We were in tears as we watched our daughter eat a sandwich…your words were such a blessing to us!

Thank you for sharing your story!! It makes us so happy to know that parents like you are care so much about your child’s health and eating behavior! Good luck in your journey and keep us updated~

My 4 year old son will only eat goldfish and crackers now. He has phased out any other foods that he used to eat and we have been working for months to get him introduced to those foods but with no success 🙁

Hi Sue,
I know this is frustrating. But the best advice we have is to be patient. Kids will only eat what is available. If you do not have any crackers, then they can’t eat them. I know this sounds harsh, however, in the long run, it will be a great solution. My son used to eat hot dogs, until the day I stopped buying them. He was about 4 also. For an entire year, he begged me every day for a hot dog! I thought he would never stop asking! But eventually, he did- although it took an entire year! This isn’t the solution for everyone, but it’s definitely worth a try!

Good luck to you!
Amy

Sue, that is so frustrating. I had a child who only ate noodles. (Now he’s an adult who’ll eat anything.) I have a couple of ideas. Does he drink milk or juice? You could try introducing new flavors by making smoothies, just adding a new ingredient a little at a time. You can also try having him dip his crackers in something, like peanut butter and honey. My other idea is to have some incentive for eating something other than the crackers. Start with rewards for trying, say, a piece of fruit or cheese Maybe it’s a toy or a treat or a privilege. He doesn’t get it if he doesn’t eat it. Eventually the rewards can get simpler, and you’ll be able to raise the expectations and lower the frequency of the rewards. It takes a lot of time. Also, let him get hungry before a meal, instead of snacking beforehand.

I’m wondering what would happen if in order to get a goldfish, he had to eat so many bites of something, and gradually increase the number of bites to get a goldfish?

Thank you so much for your suggestions!! He will not drink milk but does drink apple juice. We have tried switching it up a bit but if he notices even a slight difference, he puts the cup down and won’t touch it. We did however get him to finally drink out of a different cup which was another issue we were having so this was a huge step! On a positive note, he ate some cheeseburger last night which was one of the foods he had phased out!! Instead of giving him crackers when he asked for them, we waited a bit until we knew he was hungry! Baby steps 🙂

My daughter will be 3 years old in July.The only foods she will eat are chicken nuggets, french fries, dry cereal, yougurt, and crackers. I’ve tried adding 1 new food to the plate that has 2 items on it that she eats. She will eat all but the new food. I’ve tried not giving her anything to drink or snack on in between meals and she still won’t eat anything new. I took her to a food clinic and the dietician says its behavior. I know that some parents can be in denial when it comes to their kids, but i don’t believe that its 100% behavioral. In her defense at the time of her appointment it was her nap time so she was EXTREMELY tired. They wanted to observe her eating. She pushed the plate away and refused to eat any of it. Based on that it was said behavior is why she wont try new things. On her plate were both foods she liked and new foods. It took her a long while to transition to table food. those items are the only things i could ever get her to eat. She won’t eat any fruits, veggies, rice, pasta, ice cream, jello, cookies, cakes, etc. The items i listed above are litterally all she will eat. Any suggestions?

I have the same problem Nicole. My 4 year old son eats the same foods you describe and that is it. I have tried for years with no success to get him to widen his horizons. My family and I are very healthy and eats lots of fresh produce so for my son to be struggling so much with food really makes me sad. If I try to give him two bites of a new food that I know he would love if he would just try it he has a tantrum and ends up going to bed hungry. I am going to try this incentive system mentioned above and see if that helps. I know hard this is. I hope you are starting to have some success. If this doesn’t work I don’t know what I am going to do.

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Nicole, my son is the same way. He eats/doesn’t eat those same things. It’s so frustrating. I’m looking for suggestions too.

Thank you so much for this. My 5 (almost 6) year old HFA (high functioning autistic) son has become so much more picky now that he entered kindergarten. The foods he used to eat are now being pushed away. He is even taking the crust off his bread which he has never done before. His lunches have to be the exact same each and every day, though he did finally let me switch between a few different kinds of chips (sweet potato, goldfish, etc). I will have to try this method.

This is what dieticians have been saying for ever, this is not a new idea! When my son was first diagnosed 8 years ago we were told to try this, he now eats well but still will not have is food mixed together and prefers it cold.
It’s just like everything on the spectrum some things work for some and others things for others.

Hi Mom,

Great post and excellent job! As a fellow of mom of a child on the autistic spectrum I can relate to this letter for letter! I too believe a ton in positive reinforcement for all children, our neuro-typical guy too.

One of the other things I found useful was putting my son– toddler then–on a GAPS diet for 16 months. Recommended by Dr.Campbell-McBride for only 18 months it is severely researched and restricted and promised to improve gut health. It surely did my son’s thank the Lord, and his diet today continues to expand.

While the autism bell or vaccine bell or both bells can never be unrung, there is no greater joy in experiencing the infinite potential and ever-growing abilities of our little ones on the Spectrum. They are truly special and I think we’re the Needy parents waiting on them hand and foot to bloom. No rush there! Pure joy.

Your post teared me up. Thank you for sharing.

Best.