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5 Meal Time Changes to Encourage Picky Eaters to Eat

5 Meal Time Changes to Encourage Picky Eaters to Eat

Written by: Rachel Rothman, pediatric dietitian. She specializes in childhood and family feeding, helping families develop a healthy relationship with food. To find out more about Rachel, gain her favorite feeding tips and child approved recipes, visit her website at, or find her on Facebook or Instagram.

Feeding picky eaters can be challenging. In a perfect world, our children would eat the all of the food we offer. If you’ve ever fed a child, however, especially one that is more selective with their eating, we know that this is rarely the case. As much as we want to control what our children eat, ultimately, they have control over what they put into their body.

To manage this in my household, we follow Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility. Satter states that, as parents and caregivers, we provide the:

  • What (food)
  • When (timing of the meal)
  • Where (where the food is presented). 

 Our children control the how much and whether of eating.

Following the division of responsibility allows us to trust our children in feeding, and honor their hunger and satiety signals, and help them self-regulate when they eat.  Self-regulation has been shown to help children develop a healthy relationship with food. That healthy relationship can help them better choices throughout their lives.

Still, this can leave you feeling defeated at meal time. If you’re at a loss for what to do next, don’t despair. Use my five mealtime tips to encourage your picky eaters to eat.

Stick to a daily schedule, with planned meals and snacks

Children thrive on predictability and routine. Most toddlers and preschoolers do best when they are offered food every 2 to 3.5 hours, and 3 to 4 hours for older children. When you set times for your children so they know when food will be available, you help create a routine throughout the day, and maximize their hunger and satiety.

Think of eating like a gas tank: if we’re constantly filling up or topping off that gas tank (I.E. grazing throughout the day), we aren’t allowing it to empty (digest our food) and then fill up (feel hungry) again. 

Provide mostly familiar food, with some new foods

My rule of thumb is to offer 75 percent preferred food and 25 percent non-preferred food at most meals and snacks. Children may become fearful when presented with new or non-preferred foods, so include these new items with foods they already like to minimize that fear and maximize the chances of them trying it the new food.

If they don’t eat that new food, at least you know you’re offering most of the foods they prefer. Remember to offer these new foods without any pressure: it might take up to 10, 20, or even 30 exposures of a new food before a child will begin to eat it.

When you can, enjoy a meal together

Sitting with your children to eat together can offer a lot of benefits. Children learn by example, so what better way to encourage them to try a new food than showing rather than telling. Family meals doesn’t mean sitting together for 3 meals each and every day of the week. It means figuring out what works best for your family. Is dinner time a good time to be together? Breakfast? Or maybe afternoon snacktime? The point is to do what works for you and show your picky eaters that new foods aren’t scary.

Think about HOW you talk about food

Instead of saying, “Try your broccoli, I know you will like it”—or worse, “Eat your broccoli, it’s good for you”—try, “How does the broccoli feel when you pick it up? It feels bumpy when I hold it, how does it feel to you?”

How we talk about food can be so important to little ears. When we pressure children to try something new, they to back off. When we encourage them to be curious about it, they may be more willing to try.

Minimize short order cook syndrome

This can be very tricky, especially when you have a very selective child who may only eat a few foods. You want your kids to eat, but if you follow tip #2, you’ll always be offering something your child will eat. Don’t forget that if you also follow tip #1, your children will have another opportunity to eat a couple hours later.

To make this work in your household, instead of: “What would you like for dinner?” try: “We are having spaghetti and meatballs for dinner.  Would you like broccoli or carrots with that?” By offering limited choices, we are still giving our children autonomy to make a decision, but it’s not free reign of any food in the kitchen.

Remember: eating is not the only goal

For kids that are more selective, eating a new food can be really challenging. Instead of jumping right into eating, try touching, smelling, kissing, licking, biting as an initial interaction with foods and celebrate these small steps.

These are ways to work toward eating, so don’t forget to relax! It’s very normal for a child’s intake to vary significantly from day to day, and it is really about the overall eating pattern that matters most.

Mealtime With Picky Eaters Doesn’t Have to be Stressful

 Use these tips to take the pressure off you and your picky eaters. Find ways to introduce new foods in a way that’s less stressful and more playful. Don’t forget to consider your language and how that affects their reaction to the new food—simply offering two options or having a conversation about a new food can make all the difference. Try these new tactics and celebrate the little wins along the way.