Picky eating is a common part of child development, particularly for toddlers and preschoolers, but it can be frustrating for parents.

Pediatric Nutrition Specialist Tok-Hui Yeap, who is a registered dietitian, often works with parents who struggle with their child’s pickiness to food.

“Kids are very smart. So, when the parent’s frustrated, they channel that type of frustration into them, and they feel like they are inadequate or that they are disappointing their parents,” she says.

If you have a picky eater, try introducing your child to new foods through books or videos and involving them in the meal planning process. “If they are not ready to interact with the food on the table at mealtime, then take them to the grocery store to see and interact with the food outside the home environment,” Tok-Hui says.

Here are some tips to help you get through the picky-eater stage:

  • Avoid snacks or milk right before a meal. This can decrease appetite and willingness to try new foods at mealtime.
  • Eat meals together as a family as much as possible and always include one or two foods you know your child will eat.
  • Instead of letting kids graze throughout the day, open the kitchen at certain times. Then close the kitchen when snack time or mealtime is over.
  • Kids need three meals and 0-3 snacks per day, depending on the child and the family. Serving kids meals and snacks routinely every 2-4 hours can go a long way for improving picky eating.
  • Allow young kids to explore, touch and play with new foods, within reason.
  • If you want your child to eat certain foods, offer it to them repeatedly—and in various ways. It can take 10-15 tries or more for a child to start eating a food they first refused.

Reversing picky eating takes time, so be patient and use positive language with your child. Tok-Hui encourages parents to avoid mealtime battles and not push or argue with their child.

“Always use the phrase ‘You can try it when you are ready’ so it gives them the sense of control that I’m not being forced, and I can interact with that food when I am ready,” Tok-Hui says.

As outlined on Tok-Hui’s website, there are types of issues that can affect picky eating. Some involve physical or psychological barriers. She finds that it’s a 50/50 split between children she sees who are picky due to a phase and children who have an underlying issue causing their pickiness.

Some children’s pickiness can seem extreme, Tok Hui says. “Extreme picky eating are children who have less than 25-30 types of foods that they will eat and they will omit a certain food group. So, for example, they will not eat vegetables at all or any type of meat or any type of protein at all.”

Pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw says if you are concerned that your child’s pickiness is extreme, talk with your doctor. “If your child is getting older than 4 or 5 years old and is very restrictive, that may be something to talk to your doctor about,” she says.

Sometimes, “pickiness” can be caused by an underlying medical issue or your child could benefit from a referral to a feeding specialist.

“Sometimes, kids just aren’t hungry and that’s OK,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “If they are routinely unable to eat or seem to be visibly losing weight or something medical seems to be happening, take them to your pediatrician.”

For additional information on this common issue, check out the following websites: