12 tricks to fix a picky eater

We've all been there. And many of us are still there. No matter how many times we swore (to ourselves and everyone around us) that our kids would be different, that our kids would eat everything, the inevitable happened. We raised picky eaters.

Gone are the fantasies of eating family meals of chicken marsala and Thai curry. Now we get excited if they eat a bite of broccoli alongside a cheesy bowl of macaroni. Chicken nuggets are their own food group, along with buttered pasta and fish (gold, not fresh). 

But before you relegate your kids to a life of frozen fried foods, fear not. We checked in with Karen Le Billon, author of "French Kids Eat Everything," and Catherine McCord, founder of Weelicious and author of the cookbook "Weelicious: 140 Fast, Fresh, and Easy Recipes,and discovered there's still hope. Here are their 12 suggestions for getting your picky eater to eat:

1. Follow the French

Le Billon used to have picky kids, to the horror of her French in-laws. But, after a year living in France with her family, her kids began to eat like grown-ups (beets and all). The most essential lesson she learned overseas: "The French believe it is as important to teach your child to eat as it is to teach them to read," she says. "French mothers introduce an incredibly diverse range of food to their infants (pediatricians recommend leek soup for babies!), and French children learn to eat a broad range of healthy foods before the inevitable 'picky eater' phase."

2. Get creative

If McCord's kids use an emphatic "NO" when offered an unfamiliar food, she springs into action. "I'll let them sprinkle something on top like sesame seeds or even change how they're eating by offering chopsticks," she says. "Whatever I do, I try to make it fun, and 9 out of 10 times it works."

3. Stick with small portions

Children have small stomachs and may feel overwhelmed by large portions on a plate, Le Billon says. Her advice: keep portions small, especially when it comes to introducing new foods. If they like it, they'll ask for more, which also gives children a feeling of control.

4. Eat with others

A little positive peer pressure goes a long way. "At home and preschool, children encourage each other to taste new things," says Le Billon.

McCord agrees: "The more kids see others eating a variety of foods the more apt they are to trying them."

5. Avoid labeling your kids

According to Le Billon, the French believe that children can learn to eat, and like, all kinds of food. So instead of reinforcing the 'picky eater' label, Le Billon suggests telling your children: "You'll like that when you're a bit more grown up." If you expect kids to develop a wider palate, she notes, eventually they will. Though she cautions, "the French know this takes years, so be patient!"

6. Grow your own food

Want kids to eat veggies? Start an edible garden, says McCord. "My kids pick green beans straight off the vine in the morning on our way to school without my prompting," she explains. "They feel so empowered knowing they're helping to grow food and it's gratifying when they get to eat it."

7. Play down the health, pump up the taste

"In France, parents don't cajole with nutritional information," says Le Billon. Instead the focus on how good something tastes. "They believe (and tell their children), that good-for-you foods taste good. Healthy eating habits are a happy byproduct."

8. Meet the beet

"When a child says 'I don't like that food', they often mean 'I don't know it,'" says Le Billon. To take the mystery out of a new food, let your child get to know it a little better. "Show your child a raw beet and then let them touch it and smell it. Cut it open, and let them look at the intense color." Once the meet-and-greet is sufficient, Le Billon suggests trying it in a variety of ways. Her family favorites: beet popsicles and beet salad.

9. Forgo the kids' menu

Next time you're out to eat, resist the temptation to order off the kids' menu, which McCord notes are generally an abyss of reheated frozen foods. Her advice: Ask if you could order a regular item as a half portion for kids. "Many restaurants are happy to do this. If they won't, choose from the appetizer or side dishes, which are in smaller portions and often really interesting yet simple for picky eaters," she says.

10. Keep snacks to a minimum and keep them nutritious

If your child is munching on snacks all day long, it's no wonder they aren't hungry come mealtime. Plus, they always know something crunchier, sweeter and more exciting is just a few hours away. To bring your child back to the table, limit snacks to one or two times a day. "French children have three meals a day, and only one snack: breakfast, lunch, goűter (late-afternoon snack) and dinner," says Le Billon, adding that children are hungrier at mealtimes, and because of this, they tend to eat better.

McCord adds: "When I'm hungry and feeling sluggish, I need a pick-me-up snack, so imagine how kids who run around all day feel," she says. She likes to offer her kids raw veggies, fruit, rice cakes, cheese or nuts to give them energy after school or before dinner.

11. Resist the bribery temptation

Sure, it will get you through the meal, but bribing your kids to eat x in order to get y will only cause problems down the road. "Food is not a bribe, a reward, a punishment, a distraction or a substitute for discipline," says Le Billon. Instead, teach them healthy habits by getting them involved in the cooking, setting a fancy table and making the meal an experience the whole family will enjoy.

12. Relax

Perhaps the hardest tip of them all, the best thing you can do when dealing with a picky eater is to relax and be calm. "In France, the goal is not to control what children eat, but to teach them how to eat well," says Le Billon. "'Leaving them be' is part of this approach, which means reducing power struggles between parents and children around food." And while Le Billon admits this one is tough even for her, she has learned that the best reaction when a child refuses to eat is no reaction. "Don't force them to eat, but don't provide substitutes — and stick firmly to that rule!"'

And while McCord agrees on avoiding the dreaded fate of becoming a short-order cook, she's okay with giving kids a piece of cheese or fruit after dinner. "It's OK not to like every food, as long as you're making an effort to try a variety of foods," she says.


In addition to being a busy mom of two, Hillary Geronemus Truslow is an Internet marketing manager and writer. Fortunately, her husband likes to do most of the cooking.

Read next: 17 healthy snack ideas for kids on the go

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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