Picky Eaters: Expert Tips + the Psychology Behind It

So, you’ve got a picky eater on your hands. While frustrating, you’re not alone. In fact, picky eating was reported as high as 50% in children aged 19-24 months. 

To help us wrap our heads around this common issue, we’ve tapped the expert mind of Registered Dietitian Jessica Garay, Ph.D., RDN and FAND. In our interview, we dive into why kids are picky eaters, the psychology behind it, how to deal with picky eaters and so much more.

What is the Psychology of Picky Eaters? 

Childhood is a time when we’re exposed to a lot of new and unfamiliar things, including food. There are a variety of different textures and flavors that kids have never tried before. It is very normal for children to develop habits when it comes to eating—often known as a food “rut”. 

They may want to eat the same foods every day for lunch (PB & J anyone?). As a result, introducing new foods can be a challenge. On top of that, some children really prefer a narrow range of food items or flavors. This may be especially true for children with autism or related disorders.

Is There a Way to Keep a Child From Becoming a Picky Eater? 

The best way to encourage healthy eating habits for a child is to offer a wide range of food items throughout the day. The second most important consideration is to model healthy eating as a parent. If your child sees (or hears) you being picky about food, they will mimic you.

I like to embrace the advice from child feeding expert Ellyn Satter, who says that adults are responsible for the what, when, and where of mealtimes, but the child is responsible for the how much and whether to eat at those mealtimes.

How Should Parents "Deal" With Picky Eaters?

To deal with picky eaters, a good rule of thumb is to expose your child to a new food item at least seven times before they have really formed an opinion about whether to like it or not. When offering the new food, encourage the child to try it, and remind them that they need to try it in order to decide if they like it or not. 

To get them to eat new foods, try to introduce a new food by pairing it with familiar food that your child likes. Depending on the food, you can also offer a sauce or other condiment to go along with it.

Tips for Picky Eaters By Age 

When it comes to 4-5 year old picky eaters, they are naturally curious, so capitalize on that in the kitchen. Invite them to help you make a recipe or prep food for a meal. Chances are, they will be proud of the contribution they made, which may make them more interested in eating the food. 

For older children (8-10 year old picky eaters), providing them with some autonomy may be helpful. Asking them to help make a grocery list or plan a menu can allow them to have some control and make choices for foods they know they like. 

You can also come up with different options for meals and allow them to choose from your list. This is also an age where competition starts to appear in their daily lives. So you can use the idea of a food “challenge” to help give them the motivation and courage to try new foods.

What to Feed Picky Eaters: 6 Snack Options

Mom making a healthy lunch with her daughter

When it comes to feeding your selective little one, Dr. Garay recommends starting with the below picky eater recipes. 

  • Trail mix is great because you can create it yourself with the items you know your child will enjoy. Go to a store that sells ingredients in bulk, then ask your child to help you pick out 5-6 different ingredients to make the trail mix. 
  • A fruit and yogurt smoothie is another quick and simple way to not only eat healthy foods, but also get some hydration. You could even sneak some spinach in for a dose of vegetables. 
  • Other good snack options include: 
    • An apple with string cheese
    • Banana with peanut butter
    • Popcorn
    • Hard-boiled egg with a small portion of crackers

FAQ

Still have questions? So did we. Dr. Garay addresses some common questions and scenarios you may encounter with your picky eater. Plus, the best way to handle them.

Is There a Correlation Between Food Preferences and Food Allergies/Sensitivities?

To my knowledge, there is no research that has suggested a correlation between picky eating and food allergies. We do know that research on food allergies has led to changes in the way we try to prevent food allergies. For a long time, we thought pregnant women should avoid common allergen foods like nuts so that their child wouldn’t develop a nut allergy. The latest thinking about this is to actually ingest nut products during pregnancy to provide early exposure to the potential allergen.

What Should I Do If They Throw Their Food on the Floor?

If they are still in a high chair, then it’s a normal part of their food exploration to do things like that. But you can talk sternly (not yell) to the child and say “We don’t throw food on the floor”. 

For older children who are doing this, they should be reminded that if they don’t like something on their plate, they need to leave it on their plate. At these older ages, the child can be told to pick up the food from the floor to throw it away.

My Nannie Keeps Feeding My 1 yr old Junk Food. Other Than Hiring a New Nanny, is There Any Hope of Correcting This Bad Habit?

I really believe in the value of good food role modeling. When you are with your child at other meals, it is important to not only eat the same healthy foods you are trying to get your child to eat, but also to talk with your child about why you are eating these foods. 

What Are Some Strategies for Getting My Kids to Eat More Veggies? 

A fun strategy that may resonate with children is to have a rainbow challenge, where you try to eat vegetables that are different colors from the rainbow. This can occur over a few days or weeks, depending on how adventurous you (and they) are. 

As far as actually incorporating the vegetables into meals, you can sneak them by hiding them in plain sight. What I mean by that is finding meals that you know your child likes, and adding some vegetables to them.

Some simple examples are: 

  • Adding peas to macaroni and cheese or pasta; 
  • adding corn to taco meat; 
  • adding lettuce, tomato and avocado to a hamburger. 

These may not add up to a huge amount of vegetable servings, but it eases your child into eating vegetables, and let’s face it, every little bit helps. 

Kids throw a lot of challenges at us. Picky eating is just one of those challenges. At GoodBuy Gear, we like to be there to help with life’s most challenging and messy moments as a parent. 

When it comes to picky eating, we’ve got you covered. Shop our feeding products for every age and stage of your picky eater’s journey.

 

Registered Dietitian Jessica Garay, Ph.D., RDN and FAND

Jessica Garay is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at Syracuse University. She has a PhD in Exercise Science from Syracuse University, a MS in Exercise Science from George Washington University, and a BS in Nutritional Sciences from Cornell University. Her main areas of expertise include sports nutrition, dietary supplements, and pre/postnatal health. Jessica offers group presentations and individual nutrition counseling through her private practice, and is a Tot Squad Trusted Provider.

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