Life

7 Easy Tips for Dealing With a Picky Eater, From a Dietitian

4 min read

A dietitian and parent shares her go-to tips.
A dietitian and parent shares her go-to tips.

Negotiating for a bite of spinach; conceding a cookie for dessert. For some parents, mealtime is an all-too-familiar battle of the wills—and few people understand that better than Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, PhD, RD, and Ritual’s Senior Director of Scientific Affairs.

Dr. Mastaneh isn’t just an expert on the topic of childhood nutrition—she also has ultimate on-the-job experience as a mom of two. Below, she shares some easy ways to help nip picky eating in the bud.

Lead by example.

We probably don’t need to tell you that kids are often bound to copy mom and dad—which is why openly enjoying a balanced diet of nutrient-rich foods can be an easy way to instill positive habits.

“If you want to shape their dietary behavior, you need to first make sure that your own dietary behaviors and what you do is what you want your kids to learn,” says Dr. Mastaneh. To put another spin on it: “If you tell them to eat healthy and you're not doing it, it's probably not going to work.”

Don’t label foods as “good” or “bad.”

It sounds counterintuitive, but giving your kids options (and in turn, empowering them to make their own choices) is actually a better way to avoid battles at mealtime. In fact, studies have shown that when parents are restrictive of certain foods and demanding of others, it backfires: their kids tend to display even pickier behavior for the long haul. (1)

“That’s how I taught my son,” says Dr. Mastaneh. “If you ask him, he says: ‘Ice cream is okay, vegetables are great.’ As long as you're doing it in moderation, and you're controlling the portion size, they can still get the pleasure from these pleasurable foods.”

If they’re iffy, encourage them to just “give it a taste.”

Look—we all have certain foods we don’t love, and kids are no different. But rather than insisting that they finish their peas or broccoli, says Dr. Mastaneh, just encourage them to take one bite.

“Say, ‘You don't have to eat it—just one taste,’” she says. If they give it a try and say it’s yucky, thank them for tasting it and let it go. “Then again, maybe a few days later, you ask, ‘Oh, can you taste it again?’ Just be consistent—not pushing.”

When they ask for something less healthy, give it a nutritious boost.

Let’s say he wants something sweet. “It's all about what you have available at home,” says Dr. Mastaneh. “If they love sweets, give them a healthier alternative for sweets.” For her, that means keeping a lot of different fresh (and sometimes dried) fruits on hand, depending on what her son is in the mood for.

And if ice cream is on the menu? “Top it with berries or a strawberry sauce, so it’s not just empty calories,” says Dr. Mastaneh. “They're still getting nutrients.”

Put them in the driver’s seat.

Lots of picky eating research points to the idea that when we let kids feel like they’re in charge, they’re more likely to get excited about making healthy choices. That means asking them to pick out different veggies at the grocery store, or even preparing it together at home. “Let them sort the fruits and vegetables, wash them, and (safely) help you cut them,” she says.” Then, encourage them to serve and enjoy the meal they helped make. (1)

Invite them to learn where their food comes from.

One really simple way to do this is creating a small garden together—even if it’s just a pot of spinach or herbs on the windowsill. It’s a fun activity, and it’s bound to get them excited to try the fruits (or veggies) of their labor.

“We have a small garden at home and my son helps plant different herbs,” says Dr. Mastaneh. “We even planted garlic. Can you imagine what garlic leaves taste like? But he helped grow that garlic, and he was so excited to try it.”

Embrace variety, and embrace it early.

We’re talking pregnancy—because believe it or not, what you eat while you’re expecting may actually impact your kids’ favorite flavors later on. (In one study, women who drank carrot juice during their pregnancy had babies who preferred carrot-flavored cereal to plain cereal later on.) That’s why enjoying a range of nutrient-dense foods while you’re expecting is a good idea. And that’s a mentality worth championing well after they’re born. (2)

Bottom line? “If you have the right feeding practices and expose them to a variety of flavors, new foods, new cuisine, new spices, I think that the healthy eating process may be much easier than you might think,” says Dr. Mastaneh.

References:

  1. Mogharreban, C., Nahikian-Nelms, M. Autonomy at mealtime: Building healthy food preferences and eating behaviors in young children. Early Childhood Educ J 24, 29–32 (1996)
  2. Mennella, J. A., Jagnow, C. P., & Beauchamp, G. K. (2001). Prenatal and postnatal flavor learning by human infants. Pediatrics, 107(6), E88. doi:10.1542/peds.107.6.e88

Share

Meet our Expert

This article features advice from our Science Team.

Science Thumb — Mastaneh

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, PhD, RD, Senior Director, Scientific Affairs

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences and is a Registered Dietitian. She received her training from Penn State University and University of Connecticut where she researched dietary patterns, chemosensory perception and community nutrition. Her dietetic work is focused on promoting healthy eating habits by translating the science of nutrition into practical information for the public.

Science Thumb — Mastaneh

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, PhD, RD, Senior Director, Scientific Affairs

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences and is a Registered Dietitian. She received her training from Penn State University and University of Connecticut where she researched dietary patterns, chemosensory perception and community nutrition. Her dietetic work is focused on promoting healthy eating habits by translating the science of nutrition into practical information for the public.