How to have a happy meal

Strategic tips for dealing with a 'picky eater'

Young boy doesn't want to eat offered food.

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, March / April 2017

Mealtimes provide an ideal opportunity for families to spend quality time together.

But they can also be difficult and stressful – especially if there is a child involved who fits the profile of the “picky eater.”

Many young children go through phases of picky eating. In fact, statistics show that as many as 50 per cent of children between the ages of two and six years are picky eaters.

Generally speaking, picky eaters are defined as those who are less open to trying new foods, fixated on a few favourites or who refuse to eat foods necessary for a healthy diet simply because they don’t like the taste. They may eat something one day, but not the next. Today they may eat a lot of food and then tomorrow hardly eat a thing. They may only ever eat a few favourite foods, make a scene at mealtimes and refuse unfamiliar foods. If this sounds like your situation, understanding what makes a child a picky eater can help ease mealtime tension.

Researchers believe a child’s eating preferences can be affected by a variety of factors, especially their senses.

For example, children have more tastebuds than adults, making them sensitive to some compounds in food, especially the bitter ones found in vegetables. In addition, studies show that how food feels in the mouth differs from child to child. Some sensory-sensitive children may even gag, spit or vomit food when certain textures are fed to them.

Another factor affecting picky eating is a child’s appetite. After the first 12 months, a child’s growth rate slows down and they have less of a desire to eat than they did during infancy.

Parents and caregivers need to realize that children adjust the amount of food they eat based on how hungry they feel. For example, a child may eat a big breakfast and then not eat much at lunch or dinner. Children are better than adults at following their internal hunger and fullness cues. Parents and caregivers will find that trying to get their child to eat more will not work and may backfire. Even subtle things like saying “please eat a little more” can interfere with children’s internal food regulation and cause problems later on.

Personality can also affect picky eating. As children grow, they want more independence and a say in things. What and how much they eat are easy ways to show their control, as frustrating as that can be for parents and caregivers. A strong-willed child may want to exert their independence with eating more than a child who wants to please their parent.

Why do parents and caregivers get frustrated?

Often they are worried their child is not getting enough to eat, may be lacking in nutrients or might leave the table hungry. They may also feel neglectful or a loss of control over their child. In addition, there is the time and effort that has gone into preparing a meal.

This may lead to behaviours that try to “get the child to eat.” This includes short-order cooking, limiting menus to foods they know the child will readily eat, giving in to the child who whines for food and drinks between meals, keeping little dishes of food out so the child can eat whenever they want, and waiting to feed the child until the child says they’re hungry. Some parents talk about nagging, threatening, pleading, bargaining, rewarding or even getting forceful to get their child to eat. They refuse to believe the child when they show they’ve had enough, and try to get them to eat more.

Parents probably don’t feel good doing these things. And as far as the child is concerned, studies show that all of these behaviours can disturb their developing relationship with food. Parents and caregivers may feel mealtimes have become a “battle” and everybody begins to dread coming to the table to eat.

So, what can parents and caregivers do instead? Here are a few tips:

  • The first thing is to accept that many children go through phases of picky eating. Consider it part of the normal growth and development process.
  • Don’t focus on the problem. Although it will almost certainly get better with time, the more focus there is on it, the more of a problem it becomes. Try to accept the child’s limited diet for now and not let it get to you. Keep a smile on your face!
  • Consider a long-term approach to increasing the quality of a picky eater’s diet. It will not take place overnight. A child may add only one or two new food items to his menu every few months. Make new foods consistently available (for example on a nearby plate during meals), but do not force. Even “good eaters” often need several exposures to new foods before being willing to try them. Less adventurous eaters need to feel free to explore without pressure. The more they are coerced, the less they will experiment.
  • Start with small portions of new foods,  and let the child ask for more. Research shows that parents offer adult-size portions to children, which can be overwhelming,  especially for the picky eater. It can cause them to shut down and not want to eat anything. A reasonable guide is to offer one tablespoon of food per one year of age for each of the four food groups. So, for example, if your child is one, offer one tablespoon each of pasta, yogurt and blueberries. If they are still hungry offer more when they are finished.
  • Try to prepare foods that are simple and colourful. This will help make it easy for a child to know what the food is.
  • Make foods taste better by adding spices and herbs. Taste and appearance are two factors that help children want to eat.
  • Keep children wanting to come to the table by creating a happy and judgment-free place at mealtime. Remember to avoid pressure because it is guaranteed to backfire. Children will shut down, stop eating or overeat to please.
  • If the child refuses to eat, don’t rescue them by offering them a different meal. This will result in short-order cooking for years to come. Trust that they will make up for the lost meal another time.
  • •Be a good role model. Children learn their nutrition cues from their parents, so it’s vital to set a good example. Parents and caregivers can be good role models by teaching children how to grocery shop, involving them in preparing healthy meals, and eating the foods they hope their children will eat.

Following these guidelines can help ease mealtime tension and make meals pleasurable again. Research shows that if children establish healthy eating habits at an early age, it will contribute to the development of lifelong healthy eating habits. This is a gift that can last a lifetime.

Cheryl Ogaranko is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Roles and responsibilities at mealtime

Childhood nutrition expert Ellyn Satter says everyone has a different role to play when it comes to mealtime. The parent or caregiver is responsible for feeding, while the child is responsible for eating. The box below outlines these responsibilities in detail.

For more information about picky eating, check out these websites:

March is Nutrition Month
To mark the occasion, the Dietitians of Canada have pulled together a number of healthy eating resources and made them available on the website. To learn more, visit

Wave: January / February, 2017

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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