Dietician Explains the Top 3 Mistakes Parents of Picky Eaters Make

Picky eating is very common during childhood but that doesn’t make it any easier for parents. Some may find themselves dreading meal times because they know their child will kick up a fuss.

Research has revealed 35 percent of 1,251 parents said they have a child who is a picky eater, according to a national poll by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan. And more than half of parents (58 percent) agree that it is hard to get their child to eat a balanced diet.

Jennifer Anderson
Jennifer Anderson, a registered dietitian has shared three top tips on how to stop children from being picky eaters.
Jennifer Anderson

Some children may favor sweet treats over fruit and vegetables but bribing them to eat all their dinners to get a dessert is just one of three common mistakes made, according to Jennifer Anderson.

Anderson, a registered dietitian, from Maryland, has shared her top tips on how to prevent children from being picky eaters.

Some parents may find themselves trying to negotiate a deal with their youngsters who aren’t willing to try new food and often stick to their “safe foods”. More often than not, their safe food of choice isn’t healthy which can be frustrating for parents.

Anderson describes three common tactics for dealing with children who are picky eaters that she insists aren’t sustainable, but then shares her three top tips that may go against the grain but are effective.

1. Using Dessert As A Bribe To Eat Other Foods

A stock image of a child eating chocolate spread from the jar. A registered dietitian has advised parents against bribing their children with dessert.
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Anderson said: “When a parent uses dessert to bribe a child to try something, their child’s brain hears, “Broccoli is bad. It’s so bad that you need a bribe to eat it.”

“The more a child hears this, the more the child believes broccoli is bad and dessert is good,” said Anderson, the founder of an online resource that helps families feed their children called Kids Eat in Color.

“Once a child thinks they need a bribe to eat broccoli if dessert is not available, they are less likely to eat broccoli. Dessert is now on a pedestal and is the thing they want all the time,” she added.

2. Pressuring Kids to Eat

Pressuring kid to eat
A stock image of a young boy who doesn’t want to eat his dinner. Anderson told Newsweek parents shouldn’t add pressure to meal times.
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The hashtag “picky eater” has 1.4 billion views on TikTok and there are thousands of videos on TikTok offering solutions for picky eaters. But nobody films the moment parents ask their child to have a couple more bites or refuse to let them leave the table until their plate is empty.

“When a child feels pressure to eat, their body becomes anxious. Anxiety causes their digestion to slow, their throat to tighten, and their saliva to decrease. All of these things make it physically difficult to eat. Plus, anxiety makes their senses more sensitive. A smell they don’t like now is a much stronger smell,” said Anderson.

Anderson urges parents to avoid adding pressure to meal times as this can often worsen the picky eating problem.

3. Giving Up Too Soon

Stressed parent
A stock image of a stressed mom feeding her daughter. Anderson urges parents to persevere when introducing new foods to their kids’ diet.
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The CDC advises parents to introduce a new food at least 10 times, but they should wait a couple of days between each serving.

Anderson pointed out some parents stop serving food after it is rejected “once or twice”.

She told Newsweek: “Children generally need to see or try foods many times before they are willing to eat them. Parents might hear it takes 21 exposures or eight tastes before a child will like a new food. The number of exposures or tastes needed will be different for every child. All children need to see foods regularly to feel comfortable with them and to eat them.”

Tips for Parents of Fussy Eaters

Anderson has shared three strategies that may surprise parents. The mom-of-two bends the rules and encourages parents to serve food in different ways to find out what their child likes.

1. “You Can Eat It When You’re Ready”

To avoid mealtime battles, Anderson encourages parents to be flexible.

She said: “When a child says, ‘I don’t want to eat that!’ the parent can say, ‘Okay, you can eat the other things on the table.’

“When a child feels less pressure, they are often more willing to eat something that they don’t love yet. This doesn’t mean a parent should get up and make a child a special meal. It’s important for the parent to decide what they are putting on the table and for the child to choose from what is part of the meal.”

2. Serve Dinner and Dessert—On the Same Plate

Anderson has shared this tactic with the internet a number of times. Previously, an Instagram video shared to racked up 946,000 views and over 14,800 likes.

Anderson can be seen serving a plate of cookies at the same time as dinner.

Anderson told Newsweek: “If a child is obsessed with dessert, they may be pickier during a meal because they can’t stop thinking about dessert. Dessert becomes a big deal, and parents can easily fall into the bribing trap.

“Instead, when a parent serves their child’s meal, they can put a child-sized portion of dessert on the plate with the rest of the food and say, ‘Here’s your dinner.’ There’s no need to draw attention to the dessert.”

This tactic is to teach children that dessert is just another food. Anderson states the aim is to show kids that a pudding isn’t “worth obsessing over”.

“There’s no reason to skip dinner to get dessert because dessert is already there. If a child is initially very obsessed with dessert, it can take several weeks for a child to adjust to the new mealtime norm,” said Anderson.

3. Make Mealtime Fun

Fussy eating Stock Image
A stock photo showing mother and child exploring eating food. Anderson encourages parents of picky eaters to allow their kids to play with their food.
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Most people will tell their children not to play with their food, but for picky eaters, Anderson states that playing with food is a tactic that could work.

She said: “Adding fun to mealtime can make all the difference in helping a picky child learn to try new foods.

“Rather than telling a child to try their vegetables, a parent can invite them to have a fun experience with their food. This may mean having them ‘hop’ the peas they don’t want to eat onto their parent’s plate. It could be telling a story with the steamed carrots as ‘characters.’ It could be singing into a piece of broccoli like a microphone.

“Activities like these may seem silly and pointless, but they can go a long way in helping young children try new foods. These activities shouldn’t cause a lot of food waste. Make sure that there is still a way to eat the foods after the ‘activity.’

“With a few small tweaks, parents can take stressful mealtimes and turn them into learning opportunities for their children. Picky eating can take time to resolve, but it is possible to do so with less stress and more connection.”