How To Turn Yuck Into Yum for Picky Eaters

Armen Hareyan's picture

Five-year old Matthew McCormack doesn't like the taste of fruit. He doesn't like to eat vegetables either, or any other piece of food that "looks or sounds gross," he says.

His mother, Bridget McCormack, has tried everything to get her youngest of three children to eat nutritious, healthy foods, including bribing him with ice cream to clean his plate. But nothing seems to work.

"Matt is judgment proof," she says. "There's nothing you can do to get that kid to eat his dinner. It doesn't matter if you're holding Disney World in front of him. It's constantly a battle of wills to get Matt to eat fruit and vegetables."

Sound familiar? Many parents like Bridget have faced off across a dinner table with a picky eater at one time or another.

Fortunately, there are ways to help reduce your children's picky eating habits and ensure they are getting the vitamins and minerals they need for a healthy, well-balanced diet, says Julie Lumeng, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician with the University of Michigan Health System.

The first signs of picky eating habits typically emerge as a child enters toddlerhood. The habits tend to diminish between the ages of 4 and 5, although certain studies suggest that if children are still picky by age 9, they're likely to remain picky into young adulthood.

Believe it or not, children don't develop picky eating habits just to annoy and frustrate their parents. Picky eating is actually believed to be rooted in our natural evolution as humans, says Lumeng.

As children learned to walk in a natural environment populated with fruits and vegetation, it is thought that humans developed a relative aversion to fruits and vegetables to protect the young from eating poisonous berries off trees or other dangerous leafy temptations.

Unfortunately, says Lumeng, it takes tens of thousands of years for a human trait to change, which is why parents are still coping with picky eaters today.


In the meantime, there are a number of things parents can do to meet their picky eater's nutritional needs.

"For the parent who's struggling with the picky eater in toddlerhood, it's absolutely fine to give him a multi-vitamin to cover the major vitamins and nutrients as he develops a taste for fruits and vegetables," advises Lumeng.

Picky eaters also may take a liking to a restricted range of foods, which commonly lack the fiber necessary to keep them regular. To avoid constipation, Lumeng suggests buying bran cereal, which is high in fiber, crushing it up and sprinkling it on top of your child's food.

If you're hoping to expand your toddler's food horizons during this picky stage in their life, though, be prepared to expend some time and energy on your efforts.

To start, Lumeng recommends that parents set a positive "eating" example for their child. It's important for parents to model eating the various items on the table, and make a point to show the child they are enjoying the foods.

Another tip is for parents to offer a wide variety of foods at the dinner table. For example, instead of just making one vegetable at dinner, offer two or three. While it will create extra work for the cook in the family, your child is sure to find something at the table palatable when there's variety, says Lumeng.

And don't forget to add a dash of patience to your dinner-time efforts with your picky eater. Although it may be frustrating, Lumeng says it typically takes about 10 exposures to a particular item of food over several meals, before a child will accept it.

"The more exposure a child has to a certain food, the more familiar it becomes to them, and the more they grow to like it," advises Lumeng. "Also, don't be afraid to add a small amount of oil, butter, cheese or gravy to your child's vegetables if this makes them more tempting to the child."

But be sure not to let temptation lead to bribery at the dinner table, warns Lumeng. Using incentives, such as offering ice cream for eating vegetables, may get your child to eat vegetables and fruit at dinner that night, but will have long-term implications on their eating habits.

"Studies have shown that rewarding your child for eating a particular food will actually lead to a greater dislike of that food over time," says Lumeng. "The key is not to reward your child for eating. A more positive use of food as an incentive would be rewarding them with healthier snacks like crackers