Sorry parents, you're probably encouraging your picky eaters

May 2, 2016 at 1:00 p.m. ET
Image: Thebang/getty Images

Feeding a young child can be hard. Feeding a picky eater is even harder, and most kids go through a picky phase — or picky years — at some point in early childhood. If you’re struggling with a picky eater, you may have tried anything and everything to get your child to eat. Unfortunately, some tactics may work in the short run but make picky eating even worse long term. Below are some common mistakes parents make and what to do instead.

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1. Short-order cooking

Your toddler doesn’t want what you’re serving? No problem! Mac and cheese, PB&J or insert their favorite food here to the rescue! Your child may eat, but he will also catch on to the fact that he doesn’t need to try anything you’re serving because you’ll always make a special separate meal for him.

Adopt the mantra, “You provide, child decides.” You provide healthy, tasty foods at regular meal and snack times, and let your child decide how much to eat, if anything. Always offer something familiar such as bread or fruit so he can fill up on that if needed. If he doesn’t eat, he will make up for it at another meal or snack.

2. Serving only what you know they will eat

If you always serve your kiddo cereal, milk and a banana for breakfast, she will only learn how to eat cereal, milk and a banana for breakfast. We often make picky eating worse by offering a very limited variety of food. The less exposure your child has to different foods, the less likely she will be to eat them. Start by alternating meals — such as serving toast with peanut butter and smashed raspberries every other breakfast — until you and your child feel comfortable with even more variety.

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3. Offering foods the same way every time

Children love novelty and things that require them to learn and explore their world. Adding interest to mealtime can be monumental in changing picky eating habits. In fact, most feeding therapists use play-based approaches to get kids eating again. Surprise your child at the dinner table by serving diced chicken sausage with rounded toothpicks, letting them serve broccoli onto everyone’s plates using kid-size tongs, or offering small bits of food in each opening of an ice cube tray. The more your child can play and learn at a meal, the more interested he will be in eating.

4. Letting your child fill up on milk

If you offer milk, serve it at the end of a meal, and offer water in between meals. Most pediatricians recommend giving no more than 16 to 24 ounces of milk per day to children over 1 year old. If your child fills up on milk, she won’t have an appetite for foods.

Remember that reversing picky eating and fostering good mealtime habits for life takes time. Keep your eye on the prize, and reach out to your pediatrician if you are concerned about your child’s eating habits.

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Need more help with your picky eater? Head to to learn about our online toddler-feeding course, which has helped thousands of parents take back mealtime. Megan McNamee is an MPH and RDN, and Judy Delaware is an OTR/L.