How to End the Picky Eating Struggle

Last week, your child pushed away that plate of veggies. Today, he refuses to taste a bite of your casserole. Sound familiar? “With young children, a certain level of pickiness is normal,” says Angela Lemond, a dietitian in Plano, TX. “After all, they’re experiencing new foods and flavors for the first time.”

Research shows that about 20% of parents say their 2- to 5-year-olds are picky eaters. Most will eventually outgrow it, but what’s a parent to do in the meantime? The first step is to understand why kids can be fussy when it comes to food.

1. It really tastes yucky. “In general, children are hardwired to like sweeter flavors,” Lemond says. “Because they’re growing so quickly, they naturally want higher-calorie foods.” Plus, 1 in 4 people are born with a gene that makes them more sensitive to bitter tastes. That may explain why your kid shuns Brussels sprouts or cauliflower.

How to handle it: Don’t write broccoli off the menu for good. Keep serving it in different forms, Lemond suggests. “Try it as a soup, in a salad, or as a puree.” Research shows that kids may need to get a food on their plates five to 10 times before they eat more of it. You can also try mixing a new item with a tried-and-true favorite. “If your child likes iceberg salads, add in a few leaves of romaine,” Lemond says. A dip on the side can up your chances of success, too: In one study, kids were three times more likely to eat raw veggies when they came with a favorite dip.

2. He isn’t hungry. After around age 2, kids’ growth slows down. “So it could be that your child doesn’t have much of an appetite on a particular day,” says Maryann Jacobsen, RD, a San Diego-based dietitian. As long as his weight and height are on track at doctor’s visits, don’t worry when picky eating pops up every now and then. Kids also may not want meals if they get snacks and drinks too often, Jacobsen says. “If children are eating crackers and juice an hour before dinner, they’re not going to be hungry.”

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