5 Ways to Reduce Picky Eating

2/27/2023 | Kelsey Sandlin, RDN

Selective eating and food refusal are major sources of stress and frustration for many families. Since we know how important nutrition is for growth and development, we often feel the need to micromanage our child’s diet. Unfortunately, doing this creates power struggles, mealtime meltdowns, and stress for everyone. So how do we work to improve our child’s diet variety and adequacy without all the stress?

Practice the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding Method (sDOR)

The sDOR feeding method is a well-studied method coined by feeding therapist and author Ellyn Satter. The sDOR method encourages parents to take charge of what, where, and when food is offered. Then, children should have autonomy in how much they eat of the food offered. On a day-to-day basis, parents should provide a structured, predictable meal and snack schedule, ideally with some family meals included. These meals and snacks should be at the table and without distractions such as TV, iPads, or toys.

Parents should offer a variety of foods; children often need multiple exposures to new foods before they may be open to trying them or liking them. Be sure to include at least one “safe” food that we know the child likes alongside new foods rather than being a “short order cook”. Then, allow children to eat what they need. Think of it as “you provide, they decide”.

Children are more likely to have variable appetites and food preferences. Their unpredictable eating patterns may be due to the fact that they’re growing at different rates. It is natural for children to struggle with under or over-eating at times, we can help them learn about this in a safe space. We want to nurture our child’s natural ability to eat intuitively. This way, they can learn to trust their bodies, self-regulate, and have a healthy long-term relationship with food.

Ditch Old-School Feeding Methods

Although many of us were raised this way as kids, we know that the “clean plate club” and parents pressuring kids to eat does not work long-term. Research shows that high parental involvement during mealtime leads to MORE picky eating. The more you push, the more they resist.

Avoid doing the following:

  • Bribing: “no dessert until you eat your vegetables” 
  • Negotiating: “stop crying and I will give you a cookie”
  • Shaming: “your sister ate all her fruit, why can’t you?”
  • Punishing: “no TV for you tonight because you didn’t finish your vegetables”
  • Forcing: “you cannot get up from the table until you take one more bite”
  • Distracting: “you can watch your favorite show while you eat”

These may act as short-term solutions, but they can negatively affect our children’s eating and nutrition long-term. It may teach our children that they should eat for love and approval, should ignore their fullness, or should eat in order to feel better. Instead of focusing on what your child is or isn’t eating, talk about your day. Make mealtime environments pleasant and low-pressure. At the end of the day, it is not the parents’ job to get their child to eat. Parents can provide the necessary boundaries, structure, and opportunities, but children should be able to listen to their body’s internal hunger and fullness cues.

Create Opportunities for Appetite

We can set our child up for success by not allowing excessive “grazing” on snacks or calorie-containing drinks. If given the chance, many kids will fill up on snacks, milk, pop, and juice rather than food. Excessive grazing can stunt our children’s appetite for meals. And if you think about it, it’s much less enticing to try a new food if we are already full. Therefore, it is helpful to provide calorie-containing drinks alongside meals and snacks only, but not in between.

Children should generally have around 4 oz. of juice per day and around 20-24 oz. of milk per day depending on age. Water can be given in between meals. Snacks should be a part of the predictable meal and snack schedule. They should be provided at the table and without distractions.

How to Increase Interest in New Foods

Are you following the guidelines above but still struggling with your child’s limited diet variety?

Try empowering your child to feel a sense of control around food. After all, so much of the difficulty surrounding eating can come down to our children simply trying to test boundaries and exercise control. To combat this, offer your child choices. For example: offer two to three similar food options to pick from e.g., cheese and grapes or yogurt and strawberries. Further, offer meals “family style”. Set foods on the table and let children build their own plates. Involve them in meal preparation, grocery shopping, recipe selection, and/or setting the table.

Encourage food-play! As adults, we often don’t realize how challenging of a skill eating can be. The process of learning about different food textures, colors, smells, temperatures, sizes, and types can take several years. Allow children to explore foods in a low-pressure environment using their five senses. Describe how the food smells, looks, what it feels like, what it sounds like when it's being cut or knocked on the table, etc. Parents and peers “modeling” eating new foods is also a great learning experience for kids.

Does your child love shaped macaroni and cereal with characters on the front? Replicate that same sense of fun with fresh foods. Use animal food picks, shaped cookie cutters, food tongs, and sprinkles, or arrange your child’s plate into a funny face.

Consider Additional Reasons Why Your Child May be Eating Poorly

It is possible that your child is sick, tired, bored with food, or simply not hungry. It is okay if a child skips a meal every now and then. If you notice your children have stopped eating foods they used to love, ask if they are simply bored with them. Additionally, consider if your child may have a mechanical reason for avoiding foods: difficulty chewing or swallowing, poor posture, tongue tie, or history of oral trauma. Maybe your child has a food allergy, intolerance, irritable bowl syndrome (IBS), reflux, constipation, or diarrhea. 

Lastly, strong sensitivity to food textures, smells, and flavors may indicate sensory processing issues or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder. If you have more questions or concerns about your child’s picky eating, reach out to your pediatrician, Speech and Language Pathologist, Registered Dietitian and/or Occupational Therapist. 

If your child is a COPC patient...

We have a class to help you reduce the pressure around mealtime and broaden your child's eating selection. 

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