Helping Break the Picky Eating Cycle

By Taren Swindle, PhD, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
Wendy Ward, PhD, Arkansas Children's Hospital and University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences
Leanne Whiteside-Mansell, EdD, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

All parents agree that healthy eating is an important goal for their children. However, despite our best efforts, our children do not always want to eat the foods we know they need for their health. Here are a few strategies to help your children feel comfortable around new foods:

  • Show your children you enjoy new foods. If parents try new foods, children can learn it's safe for them to try, too. Adults can help by smiling and showing their enjoyment. Make comments about the taste, smell and texture of new foods. Family meal times with children and adults eating the same foods are crucial.
  • Involve your children in the selection and cooking of healthy foods. Children are more likely to try a food they helped prepare. They can select the produce at the grocery store and help measure or stir in the kitchen.
  • Allow your child to explore foods with all their senses. Children need to use their senses to explore. They may need to lick, smell and mush new foods! In this case, playing with their food is a good thing!
  • Hang in there! Children sometimes need 15 tries to begin to like a new food. Emphasize trying, not liking new foods and offering the food in new ways (for instance, raw apples, cooked apples, applesauce, etc.).

Finally, here are some commonly-heard suggestions that are actually NOT effective for building healthy eating habits:

  • Do not hide healthy foods. Children need to learn they like vegetables and fruits at a young age. They can't do this if they don't know they are eating them!
  • Do not overemphasize the special powers of foods. A recent study showed that saying nothing about the food served resulted in more intake than repeatedly telling children the food was good for them.
  • Do not praise a child for cleaning their plate. This is sometimes called "making a happy plate." Instead, help children to listen to their belly's signals of hungry and full. Keep in mind that children eat less than adults.

Visit these websites for more tools, tips and recipes for eating healthy with your children: