The Psychology of Picky Eaters: 5 Strategies to Help

helping picky eaters

There’s no need to sugarcoat this one:  Raising a picky eater is no easy task.

It causes stress for both the child, who barely eats, and for the exhausted parent who makes multiple meals a day and has tried everything from positive reinforcement to begging to bribery. 

The judgment from others doesn’t help either.  You give in too much.  You created this by making extra meals.  You’re letting her win.  People love to comment on the potential causes of picky eating and share their “tricks” for an instant cure.  If you actually have a picky eater on your hands, however, you already know that sticking some broccoli into the brownies doesn’t actually work…

The truth is that picky eating occurs for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it can be traced back to a terrible stomach flu or an issue with extreme constipation.  Kids do internalize negative associations with food.

Sometimes it’s a matter of control.  Kids don’t have a lot of control over their lives.  You know what they can control?  What they eat and when they poop.

And sometimes, it’s about fear.  Some kids stick to what they like because they are afraid to try new things.  While I know that sounds silly, anxiety is no laughing matter.  Anxiety manifests in a variety of ways, and refusal to try new textures or flavors can stem from genuine fear. 

{ MORE: When 'Having it All' Makes You Exhausted }

So what’s a mom to do? Here are 5 strategies to help with your picky eaters:

1. Remain calm.

Children pick up on and internalize parental stress.  If mealtime causes anxiety and stress for you, your child will also experience anxiety and stress.

Relaxation breathing (take a slow breath in, hold for a count of three, release slowly) can help frazzled moms find their center when confronted with parental stress.  Try to remember that picky eating isn’t a life sentence.  It takes time and patience to correct, but it can be corrected.

2. Give up some control.

Parenting is busy.  Some days it feels like there isn’t a single moment to just sit down.  Many parents look to regimented schedules to cope with the busywork. 

While schedules and consistency can be helpful for bedtime, getting out the door on time, and making sure that meals get to the table on time, we have to give a little when it comes to helping a picky eater try new things.  Whether it’s allowing your child to choose the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, getting him involved in the cooking, or letting him choose one meal a week, handing over a little control helps kids feel confident and responsible.

3. Address the anxiety.

When young children experience anxiety, they tend to create a script in their minds.  For instance, a child who fears trying new foods might think, “If I try that food it might make me sick.”  Anxious thoughts are generally not grounded in reality.

Try a little cognitive restructuring to confront irrational thoughts.  Help your child come up with an alternate script to rely on when anxious about food.  A simple mantra can go a long way.  “If I try this food and I don’t like it I can always spit it out,” might be the difference between trying the oatmeal and having a meltdown. 

{ MORE: How to Talk to Little Kids About Anxiety }

4. Talk about it.

The best time to talk about difficult topics is when kids are calm.  Try making a food collage together.  Have your child fill a paper plate with pictures of foods that he does like.  Talk about why he likes those foods so much and what might make him nervous about different foods.  Make a second plate of foods your child might be willing to try, and talk about how those foods might be similar to the foods he already likes. By talking about food in this way, your child may become more open to new foods.

5. Ditch the label.

Some kids hear themselves described as “picky” and use it as an excuse.  Others internalize it and it affects their self-esteem.  Either way it’s best to avoid labeling your child and just come up with a simple response if your child’s eating is questioned – one that doesn't have a negative connotation. 

{ MORE: Delicious Toddler Food -- It's Possible! Two Yummy Recipes }

What helps your child try new foods?

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The Psychology of Picky Eaters: 5 Strategies to Help

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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5 comments

  1. Profile photo of royce royce says:

    I despised brussel sprouts and beats until I was an adult and tried them cooked in a different fashion and now love them both. I wished I had not wasted all those years thinking I hated something when it was just the way it was prepared that I hated. Food for thought! LOL!

  2. Profile photo of Grace Grace says:

    growing up my brother was a picky eater, only on some days are my children picky…. some days it feels like most days-

  3. Profile photo of mommymormor mommymormor says:

    I’m so gonna try this with my 3 year old! It’s almost impossible to get her to eat anything.

  4. Profile photo of LadyTitan LadyTitan says:

    These are all good tips. When I was a kid, I was a picky eater. My parents knew I only wanted the meat off my hamburgers and sweets. No vegetables for me! The only thing I ate that was close to a vegetable was corn! And my parents just gave me vitamins to supplement the nutrients I was not getting, and they just kinda let me grow out of it. I was picky until I reached my late 20’s and then I started to eat vegetables like crazy! Now, that’s all I want! I crave vegetables and fruits, instead of junk food! Junk food makes me sick, even before my pregnancy!

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