Tips for a Picky Eating Phase

Tips for a Picky Eating Phase


Making peace with food


Feeding young children can be a challenge and parents have a lot of questions. The nutrition experts at WIC put together advice to help your child try new foods.  Download a copy of Tips for Trying New Foods or continue reading below. 

Make New Foods Fun

Try these kid-approved ways to have fun with food:

  1. Make a game out of trying new foods. Try taste-testing new foods when your child has friends over.
  2. Let your child choose a new fruit or vegetable at the grocery store.
  3. Let your child help you cook meals and snacks. Check out our kid-friendly recipes.
  4. Cut foods into fun shapes with cookie cutters.
  5. Use fruit and vegetable slices to make silly food faces.
  6. Make fun names for food. Name a dish after your child, like “Sasha’s Super Squash” or “Aiden’s Apple Bread.” Broccoli can be “baby trees” and you can encourage your little dinosaur to munch on trees.
  7. Every now and then, make breakfast for dinner, or have dinner for breakfast for fun and variety.
  8. Talk about the shapes, colors and smells of food. Help your child learn about where food comes from and how it is grown. Children love gardening activities
  9. Children love to dip! Try yogurt, avocado, cheese and other dips as a fun way to encourage your child to eat fruits and vegetables.


Tips for Trying New Foods

Help your child try new foods by having fun, avoiding pressure and building independence during mealtimes. It’s normal for children to eat more at some meals and less at others. Most children get the nutrients they need over the course of the week. If your child is energetic and growing well, they are most likely getting enough nutrients. 

Look through the tips below for ideas to help your child try new foods. Even if your child does not want to eat new foods, simply putting them on their plate and having them touch or smell the new food is a big step in the right direction. With time, your child may begin to try the foods on their plate. 

Try, try again

Did you know it can take up to 15 times for a child to try a new food? Stay positive and serve foods in different ways over time to see what your child might enjoy best.

Some children might prefer cooked vegetables over raw ones. Trying new preparations is a great way to increase exposure while learning what your child might like! Take your time and don’t give up—learning to try something new is hard work for children. 

Offer new foods with foods your child likes 

There’s nothing scarier for a child than a plate full of food they don’t like! Help your child try something new by including at least one or two foods they like with one new food during mealtimes. Try not to make a big deal out of new foods—let your child decide if and how much they want to eat. 

You might think that hiding fruits or vegetables can help “sneak in” important nutrients for your child, but it can make them afraid to try new things and not trust what is being served during mealtimes.   

Be sure you always let your child know what’s in their meal to avoid surprises and help them build trust. Let your child see fruits and vegetables in their whole form. If you want to get creative with muffins, sauces or smoothies, let your child help chop and add ingredients. Even if they do not want to taste it, helping to prepare the food is a great way to have a positive experience with something new.

Use positive language

How you talk about your child’s eating habits can help them build confidence. Avoid calling your child a “picky eater” and try these positive phrases instead: 

  • Exploring new foods. 
  • Learning to eat new foods.

Learning to try new foods is a developmental journey and children will go at their own pace. Give support to your child while they are learning to eat just as you do while they learn new skills like talking, walking or reading. A small change in words can make a big difference!  

Give your child choices 

Children are more likely to try new things when they have choices. 

  • Use colorful plates or utensils and let your child pick their favorite. 
  • Serve meals family-style and let your child put their food on their plate.
  • Let your child choose toppings or offer two food options to pick from.

Go beyond the plate 

Explore ways you can learn about food beyond the plate! Fun food activities offer a low-pressure way to expose your child to different things. Try coloring activities, reading books or watching fun videos that talk about foods with your child. Let your child explore, play and get messy with food.

Common Questions

  • plus sign minus sign I am frustrated that my child won’t eat fruits or vegetables. Why does my child refuse to try new things?

    Picky eating behaviors are a normal part of development. Children often develop a fear of new foods around 2 years of age, as they are growing more independent, using more words and testing boundaries. The formal word for this fear is “neophobia” and long ago, it helped keep children safe from poisonous foods in their environment. While this was helpful to humans in ancient times, it can be confusing for modern day families.

    Expert Advice:

    • Children naturally fear things that look or feel different. While it can be frustrating, try and understand your child’s feelings. 
    • During this phase, many children prefer “safe” foods that look, feel and taste the same every time. Favorites often include ready-to-eat or prepackaged foods like crackers, snacks, noodles or chicken nuggets. 
    • Fruits and vegetables can be difficult for children because they are not always the same texture and taste. Think of a box of blueberries – some might be soft and sweet, while others are hard and bitter. Produce can taste different based on the time of year and how it is prepared. Even the same fruit can vary bite after bite! These small differences can be overwhelming to a child’s developing senses. 
    • Do not be discouraged and keep trying the tips on this page. The good news is that most children will outgrow picky eating around age 5. 
  • plus sign minus sign Before my baby turned 2, he ate well, but now he doesn’t eat very much at all! Why does my child eat less than he used to?

    Picky eating is very common in young children and preschoolers. As a parent, it probably feels like your once adventurous eater started hating everything overnight. 

    Expert Advice:

    • This change in eating is very normal! It is a developmental stage for many children and often happens when growth slows. 
    • Children have small stomachs and need to eat often. Offer them three meals and one or two snacks each day. Offer water between meal and snack times. 
    • Keep meals pleasant. Do not bribe or threaten your child, and turn off distractions like TVs, phones and tablets while eating. 
    • Offer foods similar in color, flavor and texture to foods your child already enjoys. Bold and bitter flavors may taste stronger to a child.
    • Give food choices. Let your child help you plan snacks and meals for the week. Young children respond well to being asked to pick between two options.
  • plus sign minus sign What should I do when my child won’t eat?

    Try not to worry. We know that is easier said than done.

    Expert Advice:

    • Offer new foods together with foods that your child already likes, but do not cook a different meal for your child. Cooking a separate meal may encourage picky eating. 
    • Avoid pressure and don’t force your child to eat because this can make things worse. Instead, offer healthy foods at regular times and allow your child to decide if and how much to eat. 
    • If your child does not eat, resist the urge to immediately give them a snack. Let them know when the next meal or snack time is and stick to it. Most children will make up for it at their next meal. 
    • Children like to have some control. Serve foods family-style and let your child choose what they want to eat. 
    • Make family meals important. Children learn by watching others, so set a good example by eating healthy food in front of them. 
    • Make mealtime fun! Tell stories, share silly jokes or talk about your child’s favorite things. 
  • plus sign minus sign My child doesn’t like meat. Doesn’t he need nutrients like protein and iron?

    This is very common with young children! Protein foods are important, but many foods besides meat contain protein. There are plenty of ways to work protein into your child’s diet.

    Expert Advice:

    • Offer non-meat foods with protein like beans, lentils, peas, nuts and nut butters, eggs, yogurt, cheese, tofu and milk.
    • Try meatless meals like breakfast tacos with eggs, whole wheat pasta dishes, quesadillas with beans, kid-friendly tofu bites, or toast topped with nut butter, hummus or avocado. 
    • Prepare meats like beef, pork, chicken, turkey and fish in different ways. Try ground, shredded or stewed meat or meat softened with gravy or sauce.
    • Cut meat and fish into small pieces and serve with your child’s favorite dips. Add bite-size pieces of meat to pizza, spaghetti, casseroles or soup.
    • Add foods high in vitamin C, like tomatoes, oranges, strawberries, bell peppers and broccoli, to meals. Vitamin C can help your child absorb more iron from food to keep their growing body healthy.

I’m worried. I have tried these tips and my child still won’t eat.

If you have concerns about your child’s eating or feel they have more serious challenges, you may need extra support from a professional with special training in child feeding

More serious picky eating behavior is different than a normal picky eating phase. Here are a few signs your child may need more help:

  • Eats less than 20 different foods. 
  • Refuses to eat or is afraid of eating. 
  • Is not gaining weight or has lost weight due to poor eating. 
  • Avoids foods of certain temperature, texture or color. 
  • Has rigid rules around eating.
  • Does not get enough food within a reasonable amount of time.
  • Cries, throws tantrums or has inappropriate behavior at mealtimes.
  • Does not eat age-appropriate foods. 
  • Gags when eating certain foods or when using utensils.

Learn more about the difference between normal picky eating and more extreme picky eating behaviors with our lesson, Battle at the Table: Is it Just a Phase?

Expert Advice:

  • Follow your instincts and ask for help if something does not feel right. 
  • Contact your child’s health care provider if you think they are having more extreme picky eating habits, especially if they are losing weight or not gaining weight appropriately.
  • Talk to your WIC nutritionist or dietitian about what kind of help is best for your child. WIC can help you find a local health care provider, if needed.
  • Keep track of what your child eats and does not eat. This can be very useful to identify what kind of help is best for your child. 
  • If you have concerns about your child’s development, you can also request an evaluation from Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) or your local public school. 
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