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Picky eaters

Convincing picky eaters to eat fruit and vegetables is a daily battle for many parents. We give you tips for tackling this common problem.

Many of us have to contend with picky eaters. It is easy to presume that we are just talking about children (whether they are 1 year old or 18 years old), but while children are the consummate picky eaters, there are plenty of picky parents, grandparents, partners, flatmates and home-stay students. (Too spicy, too foreign, too bland, too many vegetables, too many complaints!)

Conforming to the picky eaters personal ‘Official Approved Foods List’ may provide short-term relief but in the longer term it just exacerbates the problem. The picky eater becomes brand specific, often only eating name brand products, packet foods and snacks. This kind of pedantry is all very well if money is no object but when you have to watch what you spend it’s not just self indulgent, it’s expensive.

Special food for the picky eater is an added burden on the grocery budget. Much of the attraction of these foods is the packaging; those expensive little individual servings are just so appealing.

The advent of children’s food seems to be a relatively new thing. Traditionally kids ate pretty much what the adults were eating: there was dinner and you ate it or you went without. It is increasingly common these days for the kids to eat an entirely separate meal from the adults, who will eat later in the evening.

Preparing several different meals is hard work, so increasingly you might serve quick, easy to cook foods such as nuggets, noodles and burgers because even the pickiest eaters will eat them without a fuss.

We rationalise feeding them processed food because “at least it won’t go to waste, if I make something proper they won’t eat it” or “the kids can get away with it more than adults, after all most of them are slim, they’ll burn it off”. Sadly that’s no longer true.

According to findings of the 2002 National Children’s Nutrition Survey:

  • Only about two out of five children met the recommended number of serves of fruit (at least two per day)
  • About three out of five children met the recommended number of serves of vegetables (three or more per day)
  • 31% of children were either overweight or obese

Picky eaters not only suffer nutritionally, as they get older they become increasingly socially disadvantaged. Not being able to eat in other people’s homes or in ethnic restaurants may be a problem when the work party is a Thai buffet, your top client invites you to lunch at a Japanese restaurant or your flatmate who cooks every second night is a vegan.

You may not be able to change the habits of your partner or flatmate but you can influence your kids (even the teenagers), so start now. Here are some of the techniques I’ve found work well.

  • With babies and toddlers, pull the highchair up to the table when the family are eating. Even if baby has been fed, she will see what others are eating; as she gets older and can feed herself, let her taste and handle a little off your plate, including her in the meal.
  • Avoid letting them have a drink of milk or juice just before a meal; picky eaters will fill up on the drink then say they aren’t hungry or eat poorly as they have spoilt their appetite and missed an opportunity to eat real food.
  • Avoid using dessert as a bribe: “If you don’t eat your dinner you won’t get any dessert” implies to the picky eater that eating dinner warrants a reward and they soon figure out how many mouthfuls constitute eating dinner, in order to get dessert. The resulting series of compromises highlights dessert and diminishes the importance of dinner altogether: just don’t go there.
  • Never say to your kids: “You won’t like this” – they’ll most likely believe you.
  • If they tell you they don’t like it, keep offering the food: it can take as many as 10 tastes or more to determine whether or not they like something. This applies to adults as well as children.

This simple method is brilliant for helping picky eaters adjust to new foods they insist they don’t like. If for example they won’t eat any green vegetables, using the one bite rule you will include a single mouthful of a green vegetable with their dinner every night. It must be the same variety of green vegetable for 7-10 nights.

When they weep, groan and even gag, you tell them firmly “You must eat that one bite. If you don’t, then get down from the table immediately and go to bed. Why don’t you try to eat that one little bite nicely?”

Faced with the prospect of missing out on family time or their favourite TV programme, they’ll rarely choose to send themselves to bed over just one bite. After all it is only one little mouthful: even the biggest drama queen can choke down one little mouthful, and the most soft-hearted parents can manage to enforce just one mouthful.

Many kids will make a great show of nearly vomiting, but it rarely actually happens. Particularly after you point out that “people who are vomiting at the table are clearly unwell and must get down from the table and go immediately to bed as they must get a good sleep so they are well again in the morning”.

What does occur though is that over the course of the week they tire of putting on the performance, become accustomed to the texture and flavour of the feared food and, while they may not necessarily like it, they have learned to eat it. When they can eat one bite without a fuss you have them! The next night put three pieces of the now familiar vegetable on their plate and introduce one mouthful of another feared food. They will be so busy obsessing about the new food they won’t even notice they have eaten the other.

The one bite rule enables you to be firm while finding out what they are simply afraid of and what they truly don’t like. As adults we eat many foods that we don’t necessarily “like”: we eat them because we have learned to, because they are good for us and because it is good manners.

Many of our children are operating under the illusion that they should only have to eat what they like. My kids will eat capsicum, courgette, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, beans and peas. That’s not to say they like them, but they no longer pick them out. They genuinely don’t like pumpkin. I continue to offer it though as palates change. I remember loathing olives, mushrooms and blue cheese, all of which I now love.

Whether your children are still in nappies or always asking to borrow your car, it’s never too late to make positive changes to their eating habits. Children like what they know, and they eat what they like. Familiarisation is everything.

For more ways to help your kids eat well you might be interested in:

Five ways to keep your kids healthy for life!

What to feed your kids for better learning power

10 ways to help your fussy eater

Better eating on the autism spectrum

Get gardening, kids then take it to the table

Healthy eating reward chart for kids


Neophobia of food (fear of new foods) is a predisposition to reject new foods that is prevalent between two and three years of age. This response is normal and protects the child should it be offered a food which could cause nausea or toxicity. The caregiver should offer the new food repeatedly at intervals. It may require 10 or more offerings before the new food is accepted.


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