How to Prevent Picky Eating
If you could dial back the clock and prevent picky eating, what would you do differently?
Would you be more adventurous with food and offer exotic flavors and challenging textures to your child?
Would you have stayed more ‘even’ emotionally when your little toddler rejected food? Or, would you have brought your baby to the meal table earlier?
One thing that keeps coming up in my conversations with parents is regret. Not the “oh I screwed up” regret. Instead, it’s the “I wish I would have known that” regret.
Maybe you feel that, too, on some level.
If you had known xyz, things today might be different. Right?If you could dial back the clock and prevent picky eating, what would you do differently? Click To Tweet
You’re not alone. So often in the realm of childhood nutrition, you find out helpful information after the fact. We simply don’t have a good system to front-load parents with the nutrition information they need to prevent picky eating.
It’s a catch-as-catch-can situation.
Find a great book like Fearless Feeding (yes, I know, it’s a shameless plug but it really does front-load you with the information you need for every stage of childhood!), or a great blog, or a great pediatrician who keeps you on track, and you’re ahead of the game.
I’ve compiled a list that will help you prevent picky eating.
I’ve included links to more information throughout the list so you can get more background, but these are what I see as the top tier items that set young children up for trying new foods, while minimizing picky eating.
12 Things You Can Do to Prevent Picky Eating
There are many, many things you can do to encourage your child to try new food. When your toddler won’t eat, the answer may not be healthy food for picky eaters.
#1: Introduce Finger Foods on Time
Most babies are ready to use their fingers to eat at around 8 months old. At this time, they are moving from scraping or raking food off the tray with their whole hand to using their pincer grasp (when the pointer finger and the thumb come together and can pick up a single item of food).
If your baby is showing desire to eat independently, follow his lead and let him dig in. Quite a bit of learning and food exploration happens at this time. And it’s fun!
#2: Avoid sweets (as much as possible) until age 2 years.
Sweets are everywhere! You’ll have to be alert and protective of your baby to be able to avoid too much sugar in his diet.
I know this isn’t easy, but sweets early in life can crowd out nutrition and food variety. Not only that, young children can develop a preference for them if they are too prevalent in the diet.
Translated: Young children can latch on to sweets and show picky eating behavior towards other foods in their diet.
If you do allow sweet treats, make sure it’s on an infrequent basis.
#3: Keep milk drinking in check
I made this big mistake when my first-born was a toddler. She was a picky eater and I relied too heavily on whole milk in her diet.
I used milk to compensate for picky eating and low food intake. While I consider milk to be a healthy food for picky eaters, too much of a good thing can turn out badly.
That’s what happened to my girl. She became anemic.
When young kids get too much milk, the calcium in milk can interfere with iron absorption, leaving them lacking in this nutrient.
To prevent this scenario, keep milk intake to a daily maximum or 16 ounces (2 cups) per day for toddlers.
#4: Follow responsive feeding practices from the start.
Responsive feeding is the foundation of future success with feeding your child. Not only does it set the foundation for mindful eating, it helps you anticipate your child’s hunger and fullness.
Rather than worrying about how to get your picky eater to eat, set your attention on being the most in-tuned, attentive feeder you can be.
Why? When kids don’t experience responsive feeding, they themselves can become detached from their appetite, and have a hard time regulating it.
#5: Offer challenging food early and often
When my third child was born, I had little fear about what to allow her to eat. I knew which foods to avoid and the dangers of offering them too early. For example, I steered clear of raw fish and sushi, as well as honey.
However, I opened the gates on barbeque sauce, Tabasco, and mustard. Spicy foods like Thai cuisine and Mexican fare were all on the table, literally.
New foods to try can include small tastes so your child is exposed to a variety of flavors, spices and cuisines.
You can begin as soon as your child is eating solids, or around 8-9 months.
#6: Keep offering food even if your child rejects it
It’s pretty normal for a child to turn up his nose when a new food comes to the table, especially if he’s in the picky eating stage. Don’t let that discourage you. Many kids need to see new food several times before they warm up to it.
In other words, don’t give up on rejected foods.
Are you a picky eater? If so, it will be harder to offer your child foods you don’t like.
Remember, your job here is to expose your child to a variety of foods, whether they’re your favorites or not.
Just because you don’t like a food doesn’t mean your child will follow in your footsteps.
#7: Aim for 50-75 different foods by age 12-15 months
The more foods in your child’s diet at this age, the easier it will be when he drops foods if he succumbs to the picky eating stage.
You can do this by targeting 10-15 different foods from each food group.
Start by making a list of healthy foods from each food group. Foods you’d like to see your child eating. Set those as the goal foods to introduce to your child.
Why the specific number? Having a foundation of foods from each food group will give your child variety within and between food groups. This is key to a wide palate and accumulating additional food options down the road.
#8: Transition to the family table by one year
Pull your little one up to the table for healthy meals and snacks as often as possible. There, she will commune with family and absorb the valuable lessons that naturally come at the table: manners, communication skills, eating skills, and more.
Additionally, he will see what constitutes healthy meals and watch others eat.
#9: Keep the meal environment distraction-free.
More and more, I am hearing of children who cannot eat unless they have a TV on, a toy at the table or some other distraction tactic. This will never help your child tune in to his appetite and regulate his eating. In fact, it will work in an opposite manner, and potentially encourage him to be more rigid about his table environment and food preferences.
No toys, no TV.
Just good old-fashioned person-to-person talking and interaction.
#10: Honor food preferences but don’t cater
Research tells us that catering to a child’s food preferences strengthens them. In other words, it keeps kids stuck in picky eating. To prevent picky eating, you must avoid falling prey to this strategy. In the end, being a short-order cook makes it harder on you and your child.
#11: Don’t react to picky eating
If you get upset, yell, threaten punishment or any other emotional reaction to your picky eater, you will be adding fuel to the fire…or potentially damaging you and your child’s relationship.
Your best reaction: no reaction at all.
I know this is hard, but it’s the truth.
The worst case scenario: You start to push or pressure your child to eat, or reward your child for eating something new. These feeding tactics don’t work well and complicate the picture, making many kids more reluctant to eat or try new foods.
#12: Enjoy food and feeding
Showing your child a love of food and connecting with her during meals conveys a positive vibe. This can go a long way towards reducing struggle and strife with your picky eater.
While feeding your child may not be your all time favorite thing to do, the reality is, you must do it. So why not make it as enjoyable as possible for all?
If you were to give some advice about how to prevent picky eating, what would you tell a new mom?
P.S. Every new mom could use this type of information—don’t be shy—forward this to a new mom you know!
Need More Picky Eating Resources?
Grab my Picky Eater Do’s and Don’ts Guide—it’s FREE—and is a good reminder to keep handy.
And…if you’re dealing with a picky eater, or starting to see the emerging signs in your little one, get my book, Try New Food: Help New Eaters, Picky Eaters, and Extreme Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Food. It will help you navigate this tricky stage (and avoid making it worse!)
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: July 13, 2016
Updated on: September 20, 2019