Do Something New: The Sane Approach to Solving Your Child’s Picky Eating Problem

Photo: PBS

This is a guest blog post by Dr. Dina R. Rose

If you want your children to change how they eat, you’re going to have to change how you interact with them around food.

That might sound like the most obvious statement you’ve ever heard, but I can’t tell you how many parents I meet who are stuck in a routine that’s not working.  (You might say they’ve fallen and they can’t get up!)

It doesn’t matter whether you want your kids to:

  • Try new food.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  • Tolerate different foods on their plates.
  • Eat more food at meals.
  • Behave better at the table.
  • Change how they eat in any way.

To get something new, you’ve got to do something new.

You can’t keep using the same parenting strategies and expect different results.

That’s the definition of insanity.

  • Constantly saying two more bites?
  • Still bribing your kids with brownies to get them to eat broccoli?
  • Forever fixing your kids’ favorites but hoping they’ll try something new?

When parenting techniques succeed, they become obsolete.  You can stop using them because children perform the desired behavior on their own.

In other words, if trading peas for pie were a successful strategy, it would sell your peanut on the pleasure of eating peas. You wouldn’t have to continually remind her (i.e. bribe her) to eat them.

Some parenting strategies obviously crash and burn.

You ask your children to eat their peas and they don’t.

Other tactics tank more subtly: When you bribe your kids with pie to get them to eat their peas, they eat them. When you don’t, they won’t.

Even when these tactics seem to work—brownies can get your kids to eat their broccoli, I’m not disputing that—they don’t get you any closer to your ultimate goal: producing a voluntary (and happy) veggie-eater. Indeed, sometimes these tactics send you farther afield. Research shows that kids develop a negative association with foods they’ve been forced to eat.

So what should you do?

1) Identify your goal.  Think BIG.

Move beyond the immediate meal and think about the lessons you want your children to learn for a lifetime of healthy eating.  Then, ask yourself if your short-term strategies are helping you attain those long-term goals. They might just be getting in your way.

For instance, if you always prepare foods you know your child will eat, you’re not doing her any favors. Serving the same preferred foods repeatedly won’t teach your child to eat new foods. It will reinforce her limited palate instead.  Read House Building 101 to get out of this rut.

2) Break the task into small, doable steps.

Want your kids to try new foods?  Maximize your chances for success by thinking SMALL.  That’s the idea behindThe Happy Bite.

Recognize that the road to eating new foods might begin with a touch, a sniff, and then a very small taste. It might mean introducing your kids to familiar foods presented in a new ways:  nuggets cut into new shapes, pasta in varied colors, and different flavored cookies.

For ideas read:

3) Celebrate small successes.

Instead of being disappointed that your child only tasted the tortollini—you were hoping to get a whole meal out of the deal—remember to reward and reinforce each step until you have built up to the bigger accomplishment. After all, back when your kids were crawlers you didn’t wait until they could walk on their own before you began cooing and congratulating them.  No. You praised each small, wobbly step along the way.  Beginning eaters need encouragement too.

Every time you feed your kids you’re shaping their habits.

The only question that remains is this: what are you going to teach them?  And if your kids don’t eat the way you want them to, you may be teaching the wrong lessons.  Read Conscious Parenting.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Dr. Dina Rose is a sociologist, foodie and mom. In It’s NOT About Nutrition: The Art & Science of Teaching Kids to Eat Right, Dina combines her professional expertise on socialization, her knowledge about nutrition, parenting and food psychology research, with the practical skills she has gained from talking to, interviewing and coaching hundreds of parents.


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  • Casey

    Well, It might be wrong, but I forced my kids to eat right, even if they complained.  That was the only way.  They would sit until they were gone.  Vegetables fuel your body so it can be healthy.  Now we are on the way of life, they actually like salads and veggies.  You can’t fill your child with corn syrup all day then expect them to like veggies.  Carrots and certain veggies are actually sweet when you don’t eat nasty food all day.  My body actually craves salad when I don’t eat it all the time.  it used to crave ice cream and coke, but not anymore!!!  

  • jen in MN

    during brief periods of time when my kids had eating challenges, our home was brownie free. Unless they’ve been abused or have a brain disorder they will NOT starve themselves to death. A grilled chicken breast, steamed broccoli, and a side of PLAIN yogurt w/ fresh berries is not punishment requiring a chocolate apology. It’s a healthy meal they’re blessed to have. I think that if kids have eating issues you need to go back to basics and look to the past. When they were 7 months old, 15 months old, 18 months old did they eat mush and sugar and fries, etc? You’ve trained their palates/minds to like what they like now. If you raised them on crickets they’d eat crickets. If you were negligent and they had to eat dog food to survive, they’d crave dog food. If Mcdonalds and sugar laden cereal was on the menu then guess what? Serving veggies to them years later is going to be a real problem. Good luck with that.

  • Melinda Sweetness

    Here at the Food Policing Institute we have developed an expedited fool-proof method of training children to eat vegetables. Waiting them out is time consuming and annoying. We find that pepper-spraying the little SOBs helps speed the training. They won’t eat immediately after they’ve been educated with the spray but by the time the spray wears off in 12 hours or so they often profess a hunger, even for vegetables. A second therapeutic dose of pepper spray is advisable for children who exhibit too little enthusiasm for mom’s vegan philosophies. In no case has a child in our program failed to respond favorably after a third pepper spraying — 36 hours without food with their smartassed little eyes burning out of their belligerent little heads works wonders. Simply works wonders. The pepper spray works wonderfully to prevent them whining and teasing for meat, too. Hurrah for the food police!! GO VEGAN!!!!

    • Melinda

      Forgot to mention you should use only an all-natural 100% organic pepper spray. Wouldn’t want to poison the little miscreants.

  • Gypsydoc

    Gotta throw in my two cents. When my kids were small, they could each have two things they didn’t have to eat. They could swap out those items every few months (not every meal!!!) What that meant was that if I used those items in my meals, they could pick them out (like onions or peppers) and wouldn’t have to eat them. Everything else, they had to eat. If they didn’t choose to eat much of a meal, my conclusion was that they must not be very hungry. Together we could look forward to the next meal. They’d have to wait that long and not eat anything. That meant no snacks – and certainly, no dessert -  to hold them over. This took the fight out of it.

    Today, they eat everything.. My daughter still balks at a couple things – (she’s 35), but meal time was an adventure. When we went to the grocery store, I’d buy things none of us had ever tried and together we’d figure out how to prepare it. Sometimes it was a good choice, other times, we didn’t like it.

    Food and eating should be a fun, family time. However, as parents, you have a responsibility to provide the best nutrition for your kids (and yourselves) as possible. Their young palettes don’t get much of a vote. They can be trained and so can your’s.

  • Rachel Assuncao

    I’m grateful for tips like these.  My daughter has always been served healthy, nutritious, mostly whole foods at home, and has been pretty good a being willing to try new things.  The more time she spends at school, the more she discovers what other kids like, what they eat that’s different, and is starting to ‘not like’ foods that she used to love based on her friends reactions and ask for things that I simply won’t feed her.  The tips Dina Rose shares help me to think creatively about how to approach it all so that over the long-term we are cultivating a happy and healthy eater. Thanks!

    • Steel Magnolia Mama

      Spare the rod, spoil the child. Corruption and root rot from socialization flourishes in the too-permissive home environment.

  • Sara

    sounds like advice given by someone who never had a picky eater, especially one – make that two – in the 10th percentile of height and weight.

  • Julie1987

    I have found Ellen Satter’s philosophy “division of responsibility” to be both logical and effective. It is the approach supported by the Regional Health Authorities in my province. Check out