Cedars-Sinai Blog

Nutrition Tips and Tricks for Parents of Picky Eaters

Little girl playing with her food

Your little one refuses to eat anything but plain noodles—or maybe they gag at the sight or smell of cauliflower.

It’s a common problem: Anywhere from 8% to 50% of children are considered picky eaters. While eating healthy food provides young people with critical nutrients, boosts brain function, and defends against disease, type 2 diabetes, and iron deficiency, nearly half of the average daily calories consumed by young people have no nutritional value, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Kids are growing, learning and developing at such a fast pace that it’s really important for them to have a balanced diet,” said Laura Wozniak, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Cedars-Sinai Guerin Children’s. Making sure a picky child gets necessary nutrients can feel like an uphill climb, but there are ways even for picky eaters to meet nutritional goals, according to Wozniak.

“Kids are growing, learning and developing at such a fast pace that it’s really important for them to have a balanced diet.”

Offer a Diverse, Nutrient-Dense Diet

For children who are 2 years old or older, health officials champion daily servings of fruits and vegetables, whole grains (such as oatmeal and brown rice), oils and a range of lean proteins (including beans, eggs, lentils, peas, seafood, and low-fat meats and poultry). Kids also should have low- or no-fat dairy and curb their intake of saturated fats, sodium and added sugars, which are present in many fruit juices and sweetened drinks.

Children follow their parents’ lead, said Guerin Children’s pediatric dietitian Erin Feldman. Try to model proper nutrition in a way that fits your family and cultural preferences.

Focus on Adding Foods

Exposing toddlers to a wide range of nutritious meals, textures and flavors can help them form lasting healthy habits.

Picky eaters often get stuck eating drab dishes, Wozniak said—for example, chicken nuggets, bread, potato chips or french fries.

Instead of taking away something you know they like, dietitians encourage building in more color.

“Think greens and bright shades,” Feldman said.

That could include vegetables like broccoli, string beans and carrots, as well as a variety of fruits—not just apples and bananas, but also blueberries and peaches.

Headshot for Laura J. Wozniak, MD
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Laura J. Wozniak, MD

Peds - Gastroenterology
Guerin Children’s Provider

Laura J. Wozniak, MD

Peds - Gastroenterology
Guerin Children’s Provider
Guerin Children’s Provider
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Make Food Fun

Sometimes, small kids get intimidated by the size of a large lunch—or bored after a few bites, Feldman said. Switching up presentation can persuade them to eat what’s on offer.

For example, you can cut sandwiches into bite-size circles, triangles or other shapes. Or try adding fun, healthy dipping sauces, such as ranch or hummus, to fruits and vegetables.

Be flexible, Feldman said: “Meals don’t have to be picture perfect.”

Eating is one of few areas where children have some control, she added. You can empower them by offering choices when possible and staying within their general tastes.

Try putting a nutritious spin on a food you already know your child likes. If they love tater tots but won’t go near steamed broccoli, make broccoli tots or mix the two. For spaghetti fans, add vegetables to the sauce, or swap out pasta noodles for spiralized zucchini.

Family activities can also entertain kids who find mealtimes more challenging.

When introducing a new ingredient or meal, Feldman suggested taste-testing, so your son or daughter can rate it. If you cook a household favorite using a healthier recipe or addition, they might not even notice a difference.

Be Transparent With Ingredients

Feldman stressed open, honest communication about nutrition, especially as your child gets older and starts making their own dietary decisions.

You don’t want them to worry about being tricked into eating something they hate or feel they must keep secrets, she said.

Some with food aversions or sensory issues will do better if you change the texture.

Try switching out meat, chicken or plant-based proteins for different levels of chewiness or toughness. If your child is old enough to have little choking risk, you can freeze peas or mushy fruits like grapes and blueberries to make them crunchy snacks.

It’s Normal for Children to Fixate

Kids tend to go through jags, which are short bursts of days or weeks where they only want to eat the same one or two things every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Pickiness can jump around during these periods—from exclusively salmon and avocado, for instance, to chicken and rice.

“Jagging is really normal and usually resolves on its own,” Wozniak said.

Don’t Give Up

Almost all children outgrow food struggles as they get older, peaking around ages 3 to 6.

Stick with it when a fussy eater leaves something untouched, Wozniak urged. They typically need to be offered a new food eight to 15 times to accept it, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

But be careful at mealtimes to not overwhelm kids and hurt their relationship with food. Public health experts recommend against forcing youth to always clear their plate.

“They might not want to try sushi if their mom or dad insists,” she said, “but may change their mind after seeing other third and fourth graders eating it.”

If your kid’s tastes remain extremely limited, discuss your concerns with their pediatrician.

While picky eating rarely signals health problems, some children could have an underlying medical or developmental condition fueling their food aversions. Their doctor can refer them to a pediatric gastrointestinal specialist and registered dietitian for food therapy, in serious cases.

The pediatrician can also let you know if you need to offer your child vitamin or mineral supplements to keep their development on track.