Mom Hacks: Tips for Picky Eaters


Parents, we know mealtimes can be challenging, even when your child isn’t a picky eater. But when your kids refuse foods they previously ate in spades or refuse even to try new foods, it can begin to wear on you. 

Naturally, you may begin to worry if they’re getting enough nutrients and even wonder if it’s something you’re doing wrong.

However, there are innumerable reasons why your child might be a picky eater and even more ways to help even the most discerning tiny palettes eat healthy and make meal time a breeze.

In this article, we’ll cover some of the reasons why your child might be a picky eater and some of the best tips for picky eaters.

What is “Picky Eating”?

This might seem like a silly question since picky eating is widespread among young children. However, experts in early childhood development don’t yet have an exact, universally agreed-upon definition. 

However, the most commonly accepted definition is that picky eaters “consume an inadequate variety of foods through the rejection of a substantial amount of foods that are familiar (as well as unfamiliar) to them.”1

This differs from food neophobia, which is the “reluctance to eat, or the avoidance of, new foods,” and the more severe, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), which is a clinically diagnosed eating disorder.2 

Picky or “fussy” eating is far more common, not nearly as severe, and can be “treated” by parents without expert intervention. And thankfully, it is usually a phase that children grow out of.

Potential Risks of Picky Eating

Although common, picky eating does present risks to child health.

Childhood is a critical time for mental and physical development. During this time, children need specific nutrients to develop healthy brains and bodies.

If a child develops picky eating behaviors that are not addressed, their diet might lack variety, leading to imbalanced nutrition.

Picky eating can lead to low levels of iron and zinc because of insufficient meat, fruit, and vegetable consumption. It can also cause low fiber intake, which may result in constipation.

While picky eating can sometimes cause developmental issues, it usually doesn’t significantly affect a child’s growth. However, without some intervention, a small number of kids might continue being picky eaters into adolescence. This could make them more likely to be underweight or develop eating disorders. 

Identifying warning signs of picky eating early on can help parents devise a game plan and get the support their children need. 

But what are the signs of picky eating, and when should you be worried?

Signs Your Child May Be a Picky Eater

Not all signs of picky eating are cause for alarm. Some picky eating behaviors are natural in young children and will eventually pass.

However, there are some symptoms that parents should keep an eye out for.

Mild Symptoms of Picky Eating:

  • Preferring only a few specific foods and rejecting others
  • Avoiding certain textures or colors of food
  • Frequently refusing new foods but sometimes trying them with encouragement

Moderate Symptoms of Picky Eating:

  • Eating a limited variety of foods, often sticking to the same few meals
  • Consistently rejecting entire food groups, such as vegetables or proteins
  • Showing signs of distress or anxiety when presented with new or disliked foods

Severe Symptoms of Picky Eating

  • Severe diet restriction to only a handful of foods that impacts nutritional intake
  • Strong emotional reactions, such as tantrums or crying, at mealtime or when new foods are introduced
  • Noticeable weight loss or poor growth
  • Persistent picky eating that continues beyond the toddler years

If your child appears to be developing more severe habits leading to weight loss or slowed development, you should consult your pediatrician.

Reasons Why Your Child Might be a Picky Eater

There are many reasons why a child might be or even spontaneously become a picky eater (seemingly) overnight.

Reasons why your child might be a picky eater

Some reasons are related to developmental changes, environmental changes, modeling behavior from other children or caregivers, and even medical issues.

Our in-house medical reviewer and pediatrician, Dr. Hughes, M.D, also has this to say:

“Parents have just watched their little babies triple in size from birth to 15 months, which requires tons of feeding. However, as their growth slows, so does their appetite. It’s natural for parents to get very concerned when they have a voracious eater who now eats what is perceived as ‘almost nothing.’ But if you look at the weight and height growth curve, most parents are pleasantly surprised but reassured that they are growing at the right rate. So, most of my picky eater consults are about adjusting parent expectations and supporting them with reassurance and support to stay calm!”

With that said, some children genuinely are picky or fussy eaters. Here are the most common reasons why:

  • New Developmental Phases. As children enter the toddler stage, they can develop a mild fear of trying new foods. This is a symptom of humans’ built-in mechanism for being wary of possible poisonous foods. It’s a natural part of human development. Toddlers may also do this as a way to begin asserting independence by being more choosey with what they eat.
  • Sensory Sensitivities. Some children can develop sensory issues with certain foods’ texture, taste, and smell.
  • Negative Associations. Negative experiences like choking, allergic reactions, and even feeling pressured to eat by caregivers can create a negative association with food.
  • Medical Issues. Allergies, intolerances, and motor issues that make it difficult to chew and swallow can associate discomfort and even pain with certain foods, leading to aversions.
  • Parental and Family Influences. Parents’ and siblings’ behaviors and eating habits can influence children’s eating patterns.
  • Developmental Disorders. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are often associated with restricted eating patterns.
  • Cultural and Social Factors. Food choices can be shaped or influenced by cultural practices and social dynamics.

We would hate to be yet another source of anxiety for moms and dads out there, so we want to emphasize that, in most cases, picky eating will resolve on its own. Forcing the matter can have the opposite effect, making their picky eating worse.

If the habit gets worse, you should only be concerned if your child begins to fall behind in growth rate compared to their peers. This is when you should speak to a pediatrician.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you should just go along with your toddler picky eater’s preferred diet of dino nuggets and goldfish. 

You can use a few strategies to help your toddler get enough of the right macro and micronutrients to keep up with their physical and cognitive development while minimizing fussiness.

How to Get Your Picker Eater to Eat

If you have spent too much time unsuccessfully trying to get your toddler to try new food, it might be time to switch up your strategies.

An infographic listing out tips for getting picky eaters to eat their food.

Here is our list of pediatrician-approved hacks to help your picky eater get the nutrients they need:

1. Hide Healthy Foods in Their Favorite Meals

What do you feed picky eaters? Parents should try to incorporate healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and nutrient boosters into their diets. But this can be tricky to sneak into a picky eater’s daily meals. 

Luckily, we’ve got some easy (and pretty sneaky) ways to get fresh whole foods into your toddler’s diet. 

Do this by pureeing vegetables and mixing them into sauces for pasta or pizza, soups, and dips. 

If your child likes fruit smoothies, add some pureed carrots or cooked sweet potato and a protein source such as milk or yogurt. If they aren’t too turned off by the color green, you could also try adding a small handful of spinach or even avocado.

If your child likes meatballs or burgers, add some vegetables to the ground meat for added nutrients.

Finally, add small nutrient boosters like flaxseed, chia seeds, or wheat germ to their cereals, yogurts, or baked goods.

2. Make Mealtimes More Fun & Positive Experiences

Sometimes all it takes is just making mealtimes a bit more kid-friendly. 

Cut veggies, fruits, and sandwiches into fun shapes with small cookie cutters (or skillful knife work if you feel fancy).

You can make this even more fun for your little one by creating their own “tasting tray” using an ice cube tray. Just add all the fun, colorful foods to the tray with some dips, too. The beauty of the tray? You can refill it or pop it back in the fridge if they didn’t finish it all.3

You could also involve your child in the cooking process by having them watch you from their high chair or, if they’re old enough, help you meal prep with child-safe kitchen tools.

Overall, try to ensure mealtimes are as relaxed as possible and that you remain positive. 

You shouldn’t give in to your child’s demands, but you also shouldn’t make them feel forced to eat or that they’re “bad” for not eating. 

Also, avoid bribing your kids. This can lead to poor eating habits and relationships with food. It’s better to offer them the choice of taking a bite or not but let them know this is what is available to them.

Lastly, model good eating habits by eating the fruits and veggies on your plate. Turning off the TV and putting away tablets and phones during mealtimes can also help ensure that your little one is paying attention to you and how you’re eating.

3. Try Different Cooking Methods

If your child doesn’t like food in one form, try cooking it a different way to see if the issue is with the texture or flavor.

For example, if they don’t like steamed broccoli or carrots, maybe they would enjoy them roasted. Or if they don’t like eating diced and roasted sweet potatoes, you can try serving in mashed up.

Trying new ways of cooking food can help your kids figure out their likes and dislikes, try foods in new forms, and get them to (hopefully) eat more variety of foods.

You can also try freezing fruits and yogurt into popsicles, making them feel like they’re getting a bit of dessert while still getting a good dose of healthy micronutrients, fats, and protein!

4. Offer Choices & Be Consistent

Giving your child a sense of control over their eating can make mealtimes smoother and more enjoyable. 

Offer them two or three healthy options, allowing them to choose which one they prefer. This empowers them to make decisions and can make them more willing to try new foods.

For example, you can ask, “Would you like apple slices or carrot sticks with your lunch?” or “Do you want broccoli or green beans for dinner?” This allows them to feel like they have some autonomy, but are still required to pick a healthier option.

Make sure to stick to your guns, though. We know how hard this can be when you’ve got a headstrong child. However, remember that it’s sometimes just a battle, not a war – it could just be that they aren’t hungry (or hungry enough to try a new food), or they could just be very against eating this particular food on this day.

Let them know that they can take a bite whenever they’re ready. If they refuse, you can end mealtime after waiting for a bit and try to come back to it the next meal or the next day.

This may mean they go hungry for an hour or two, but consistency is key. Don’t give up! You never know the difference one bite can make.


At what age do toddlers stop being picky eaters?

​​Picky eating is common among toddlers and peaks between two and four. Many children naturally grow out of this phase by the time they start school. However, some may continue fussy eating behaviors into their later childhood years. This can vary from child to child, but consistent exposure to a variety of foods and a positive mealtime environment can help encourage more adventurous eating over time.

Are picky eaters born or made?

Picky eating is largely influenced by the environment children grow up in and the behavior modeled by caregivers. Parental feeding practices, mealtime environment, and early experiences with food also play a significant role. However, picky eating can result from genetics if there is a physical or cognitive issue that makes eating certain foods uncomfortable or even painful. Some children are genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to tastes, textures, and smells.

Should you force a picky eater to eat?

No, you should never force a picky eater to eat. This can create a negative association with certain foods or even mealtimes altogether, leading to a power struggle between parent and child and resulting in even more complex eating behaviors as they age. Instead, it’s best to have set mealtimes but always offer a variety of foods and allow them to choose what and how much they want to eat. Positive encouragement with low pressure will make meals a more relaxed experience and foster a healthier relationship with food.

  1. Dovey, T. M., Staples, P. A., Gibson, E. L., & Halford, J. C. (2008). Food neophobia and ‘picky/fussy’ eating in children: A review. Appetite, 50(2–3), 181–193.
  2. Tucker, B. (2022, February 24). Understanding Avoidant/Restrictive food intake disorder and food neophobia. Array Behavioral Care. 
  3. Christine. (2020, October 18). Toddler approved Ice Cube Tray Colorful buffet. Colorful Recipes. 


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