From Picky Eater to Omnivore: 10 Tips

March 22, 2012

Photo by CarbonNYC

I was eating dinner at a nice French restaurant recently, and overheard the conversation at the next table. It was a family with a young boy, perhaps 6 years old. The only thing the boy would eat was French fries. I was like a kid in a candy store – could hardly decide between the snails, frogs, sweetbreads, or bone marrow. And of course, there were more conventional menu items available as well. It seemed like such a pity that this child wasn’t taking advantage of this opportunity to experience all these different foods.

I don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t have kids, but is quick to judge parents. At the same time, I wonder if there isn’t more that parents can do to help their kids enjoy food, and get the nutrition they require.

I don’t buy into the concept of “kid-friendly” food. Food is food. Kids are human. They should be eating the same things as their parents. Sure, everyone is allowed to have food preferences. But there’s a vast difference between a food preference and being a picky eater. I was watching the documentary Tableland last night, and there was a little boy (5 years old?) who was helping his dad pick fresh vegetables from the garden, and devouring them, barely pausing long enough to shake off the dirt. I can’t help but think that kids’ food pickiness has more to do with how they’re raised than some inherent kid trait.

Why Should Parents Care?

Nutrition is of paramount importance when kids are growing and developing. It’s also when kids are most impressionable – the best time to teach them lifelong healthy eating habits. Many kids eventually outgrow being picky eaters, but some do not. This can be a detriment to both physical and emotional health. The clinical name for being a picky eater is Selective Eating Disorder (SED), which often results in stress and anxiety. It can also lead to malnutrition, and an unhealthy relationship with food. Adult picky eaters often complain how SED wreaks havoc on their social lives.

Why Are Kids Picky Eaters?

No one really knows why some kids are pickier than others. Some kids start out being picky, while others may have eaten adventurously in the past, only to abruptly become fussy. One theory is that some kids may be especially sensitive to certain tastes and textures. Picky eaters tend to prefer bland foods that are texturally uniform, easy to chew, and not colourful (typically white). Oftentimes, kids will refuse entire food groups – usually meat and vegetables. Most commonly preferred food items are chicken nuggets, bread, French fries, yoghurt, and pasta.

Best Approach to Picky Eating

Unsurprisingly, bribing, rewarding, and tricking are common approaches parents desperately use when feeding their children. Parents try to sneak in healthy foods or provide incentives for the kids to clean their plates. Although understandable, these are only short term solutions that in the long run may do more harm than good. I think that in their frustration, it’s easy for parents to forget their crucial and powerful role as the providers of food. When parents say that their kids will only eat chicken nuggets, the first question that pops into my mind is: who buys them those chicken nuggets? It’s the parents’ responsibility to provide healthy food options, regardless of the resistance it may cause. I like Ellyn Satter’s philosophy (author of several books on the topic of feeding):

Feeding demands a division of responsibility. Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding; Children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating…”

How do you put this kind of approach into practice?

10 Tips to Help With Picky Eaters

1. Cook a variety of foods for the entire family. Don’t cater only to the picky eater’s preferences.

2. Serve dinner in a family/buffet style manner, providing various nutritious options. Let the kids choose if/what they would like, allowing them to eat whatever they’d like as long as they’re not eating someone else’s share.

3. Allow kids the decision to not eat, but make sure they stay at the dinner table for the duration of the meal.

4. Don’t allow kids to graze between meals and snacks, which makes them less likely to be interested in food at mealtime.

5. Don’t nag or guilt kids into eating and don’t draw attention to their pickiness.

6. Set a good example by not being a fussy or picky eater yourself.

7. Having a varied diet before and during pregnancy has been said to help with acclimatizing the baby to various flavors.

8. Start introducing new foods early and be persistent. It can take 20 times for a baby (or anyone, really) to warm up to a new food. But don’t make a fuss about the food being new or unusual. And don’t make these exposure attempts consecutive – skip a few meals in-between.

9. Provide variety. Both adults and children will tire of eating the same foods. Mix things up.

10. Involve your kids in the shopping and cooking process. If they’re partially responsible for the input, they’ll be more excited and likely to eat the end product.

Picky Eating and the Paleo/Primal Diet

Picky eaters tend to favor both carbs and dairy – two items that aren’t major components of the paleo/primal diet. Is it really surprising that kids gravitate towards “white” foods? Those are typically the most refined, starchy, and sugary foods available. Not to mention the most addictive. And the most advertised. If adults didn’t know better, many would prefer to only eat those food items too (and many sadly do). So how can we expect children, who don’t know about nutrition, to behave any differently? Again, that’s where the parents come in. This may be less of an issue for a family who eats paleo/primal. It’s hard to get hooked on pizza and pasta, if you have no idea what they are. And it’s difficult to avoid the meat and vegetable food groups if they’re all you’ve ever known.

Know a picky eater? Share your approach/thoughts in the comments.

Shared with Real Food Wednesdays.

Leave a Comment


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Patricia March 22, 2012 at 3:53 PM

Every child is different. Most parents of “picky eaters” know all the tips and tricks. Some kids are great about eating, some not. Eventually they out grow each picky phase.


[email protected] March 28, 2012 at 2:03 PM

I agree that each child is different. But unfortunately some kids don’t outgrow their picky phases and instead turn into picky adults. That’s why I think it’s important to talk about it and share tips rather than ignoring the problem.


Joy at The Liberated Kitchen March 27, 2012 at 9:51 PM

Great post! My daughter was an extremely picky eater! I did do all the tips you shared (which are great, btw) and none of it made a difference for her. She just got pickier and pickier. She was down to pretty much just straight sugar, carbs, and cheese.

Our family transitioned to the GAPS diet, which is similar to Paleo. The GAPS diet heals gut dysbiosis. She did agree to try the diet with the rest of the family, and as she adjusted to it something miraculous happened… she started to love to eat!

Getting her and her formerly vegan dad on board to cooperate was a long process but completely worth it. You can read all about how we empower our kids with their special diets on our blog. When we slip with including stock and probiotic foods in all our meals, our kids get pickier again. I think there is more to it than the family culture and the way food is offered. Being physically out of balance leads to unhealthy cravings, increased sensory issues, and pickiness for some people. That was certainly the case for us.



[email protected] March 29, 2012 at 10:16 PM

Hi Joy, thanks for your insightful comment! I definitely agree that when you’re physically/chemically out of whack, you’re less likely to eat well – kind of a downward spiral. Your kids are lucky that your family made such a positive change and that your daughter’s pickiness was thus pretty much resolved.

BTW, From your post, “She had decided to be a vegetarian at age 4 and could detect (and reject) even the slightest hint of hidden broth.” <-- sounds like a paleo/primal parent's worst nightmare!


Erin April 25, 2012 at 10:45 AM

Came across your post while looking up options for myself. I am following Paleo/Primal but find myself stuck with only a subset of veggies that I like. Just trying to branch out and perhaps figure out ways to trick myself. We are due with our first child in July and would like to help her not be as picky as mom! I only learned that I like broccoli at the age of 25 (I am 29 now) but will still only eat it steamed, not a fan of the texture when it is raw. Similar story with carrots…I will eat them cooked but not raw, still not a fan of celery or cauliflower but I love cucumbers and tomatoes. Bell peppers are also on my do not like list. I have retried all of these foods now that I am older but they just aren’t good to me.

So far the best trick is to include veggies when I roast meat and then I at least get something from the broth.

Suggestions for a forever picky eater?


[email protected] April 27, 2012 at 9:51 AM

Hi Erin,

I guess it can be difficult to sneak veggies into your own food :p Adding them to a roast or broth is a great idea.. Another idea if you’re worried about not getting enough veggies in your diet would be green smoothies – maybe you could tweak the flavoring to make it tasty (eg almond butter, coconut, berries, cocoa).

As for enjoying more veggies, I’m pondering de-sensitization. What if you chose one vegetable that you currently don’t like, and tried to persistently introduce it into your diet. For example, raw carrots. What if you tried to eat raw carrots a few times a week for a couple of months? Maybe with different dips even to make them more appetizing? I’ve read it can take 20 times of trying a new food to grow to like it. And I recall being surprised to find out that friends/family now enjoy foods they previously didn’t like. And my theory is that perhaps they’ve just gotten used to them.

This might be a lot less fun while pregnant though… But if you try it or find some other ways, please share :)


jay December 12, 2012 at 8:49 PM

Highly Sensitive People (otherwise known as Sensory-Processing Sensitivity) are often labeled as “picky” — which is an unfortunate misunderstanding– because in actuality, their nervous systems are physically wired very differently than others, which causes over-stimulation in the five senses. Although I appreciate your attempt at offering these tips, simply “cooking a wide variety” of foods and “not being a picky eater yourself” isn’t an option for 20% of the population dealing with SPS. In fact, cooking a wide variety of foods including certain ethnic foods with strong odors can be very difficult for an HSP to process. I’d recommend looking into the scientific evidence behind sensory-processing sensitivities to understand that being “picky” isn’t a choice. http://www.hsperson.com/


[email protected] December 12, 2012 at 9:33 PM

Hi Jay. Thanks for your comment. I agree that some people may be wired differently. And perhaps for those people none of these tips will work. But I also believe there are a lot of people out there who are picky due to lack of exposure to different foods. These tips are geared towards them. But thanks for the reminder that there may be other underlying causes to the issue of “picky” eating. It’s a good reminder to stay sensitive to such issues.


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