Many parents will face a picky eater at one point or another: their child refuses to eat some — or many — foods. Mealtimes can become distressing tugs of war full of pressuring, bribing, rewarding, not to mention fighting back on the part of the child. Parents become frustrated, mealtimes become anything but relaxing, and children can become increasingly anxious and distressed. This is not the type of relationship we want with food or each other. The good news is there are useful tricks we can use to help create positive eating environments. Over time, these practices can encourage children to try different foods that will ultimately get them eating the wide variety of foods their bodies and minds need to grow and thrive.

Just a phase, or a bigger problem?

Some see picky eating as a normal phase in the development of toddlers or young children. It is true that children at some point begin to desire more control, and refusing food is an easy way to exert autonomy. While this may be normal, it is not necessarily healthy. If the child only frowns on a few select foods, but otherwise eats family meals without issue, it likely is not a problem. But if the eating is extremely restrictive, and especially if the behavior goes on for many months or even years, it is something worth addressing. A good example of this is the “all white diet”: potatoes, white bread, pasta, crackers, chips, and cheese. This type of diet cuts out many food groups and will lack adequate nutrients needed for proper physical and mental growth that is so critical at this age. But before deciding what to do, it is important to rule out any underlying medical issues that could be contributing to the restrictive eating; picky eating is not always a behavioral issue. Examples include acid reflux, colon impaction, chewing or swallowing issues, or an irritant, like a food sensitivity.

How would you know?

Some signs of a medical issue include pale or pasty looking skin; itchy skin, hives, or rashes; bowel issues, especially constipation, or frequent diarrhea; being sick all the time; and very strong cravings for dairy or wheat-based foods. If your child has any of these symptoms, you may wish to see a doctor. If your child seems to have chewing or swallowing issues, he may benefit from seeing a speech therapist. Dietitians can help find possible food irritants, often using elimination diets. Dairy is the most common, followed by sugar and gluten. They can also assess a child’s diet to see if they are low or missing in certain nutrients. Interestingly, a deficiency of the mineral zinc can actually contribute to a child being repelled by the taste or smell of certain foods.

Offer new foods

While it seems obvious, your child will never try new foods if they are not offered. Try presenting a new food over and over again on a plate alongside foods that your child already likes. Use a small amount to not overwhelm her; it can be the size of a paper clip to start. Make sure this happens at a time of day when she is hungry. Some suggest snack time, but mealtimes can work, too. Try a food that has a similar taste, texture, or shape to one your child already likes. The goal for the first days or weeks is to have your child at least smelling or touching the food. Hopefully, after some time, he will put the food in his mouth and chew and swallow.

Don’t give up

Kids sometimes need to be presented with a new food 10 to 15 (or more) times before they will even try it. Just because your child does not like sweet potatos today does not mean he won’t like them a week from now. Be patient and stay calm around food and mealtimes. If this is the first new food introduced, it will take the longest time. Subsequent new foods should be easier to introduce.

Be a healthy role model

Children learn more by what you do than by what you say. For example, if you are trying to get your child to eat more vegetables, make sure to eat them yourself at mealtimes. If you do not enjoy them, explore new ones until you find ones you do like. You can also try different preparation methods. Baking or sauteing versus boiling, for example, can bring out delicious flavors and aromas in foods. Adding butter or some melted parmesan to steamed broccoli, for example, can greatly enhance its appeal.

Involve your children

Involve your children in food-related activities. This includes food shopping (at the store or farmer’s market), growing your own foods such as vegetables or herbs, meal planning, cooking, and baking. Children are more likely to try new foods if they have been involved in any of these food-related activities.

Kid’s Night

Have a “Kid’s Night!” Once a week, or once a month (or however often you wish), have your child choose the menu for one meal. You can set the parameters for what types of foods the meal should contain (such as vegetables, protein, healthy fats, and starch), but your child gets to choose the foods. This can be very exciting for kids and lead to new family favorites. You can even name them after your kids, such as “Maia’s Special Spicy Beans.”

Make food fun

Lastly, it is important to not take food too seriously. Make  healthy eating fun by creating funny faces or creatures out of foods. Here is a recipe for Burrito Faces: Use a whole-grain tortilla as your canvas and refried beans as the base paint. Add shredded cheese (for hair), olives or grape tomatoes (for eyes or a nose), sliced peppers (for eyebrows), and a row of beans for a mouth. Pop in the microwave or toaster oven. Serve with salsa or guacamole on the side. Two orange wedges or avocado wedges can be placed on either side of the face for ears. Enjoy!

The information provided in this article is intended for general use only and is not to be used in place of medical advice from a licensed health professional.