Got a picky eater on your hands? Here’s how parents can deal

Click to play video 'How to deal with a child who is a picky eater' How to deal with a child who is a picky eater
WATCH: Have a picky eater at home? Experts say it's normal phase most children go through.

Trying to feed a picky eater is almost always a battle come dinner time, but no matter what parents do, it doesn’t seem to be enough to convince junior to eat his food.

This is a common dilemma many families face, parenting expert and co-founder of Parenting Power Julie Freedman-Smith says, yet moms and dads everywhere are at a loss for what to do.

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“I think it’s pretty developmentally normal,” Freedman-Smith says. “Usually kids around the age of three – even if they loved all food up until that point – start to decide that they don’t like something. Something they loved yesterday they don’t love today and they might like it tomorrow. Part of it is just overall, it’s a pretty normal thing for kids to go through and part of it is that they are suddenly realizing the power of their words… So a lot of the time it starts as an attention-getter, and if it’s working for them, kids will continue.”

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There are some kids who remain picky eaters for their entire lives, Freedman-Smith explains, but it only becomes a problem if the child isn’t eating what they need to be eating for their health in order to thrive.

But just how common of an issue is this with parents?

A small 2010 study out of Stanford University of children between the ages of two and 11 years found that at any given age, between 13 per cent and 22 per cent of children can be picky eaters.

There’s no given time to how long this phase can last, but the study did observe that for 40 per cent of the 120 children and parents surveyed it did last more than two years.

Sometimes, however, there are other factors that can shape fussy eaters, including parents.

“Parents can shape their [kid’s] habits because if your child is being really picky and there’s a lot of attention paid to that and they get a lot of payback from it, then they’re going to continue,” Freedman-Smith says.
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It’s also important for parents to realize that adult taste buds are different from the taste buds children have, Freedman-Smith points out.

(According to, the average person has about 10,000 taste buds that are replaced every two weeks or so. However, as a person ages, those taste buds don’t get replaced. That’s why certain foods taste stronger to children than they do to adults, the website explains.)

And while parents may be worried about their picky eater, Freedman-Smith says there’s nothing to worry about – just as long as children get the nutrients they need to be healthy.

“I think what’s important is that we’re providing healthy food for our kids to eat,” she says. “A child will not starve him or herself. I don’t think it’s critical that we are making sure that they eat every possible thing. It’s nice to provide a wide range of options for our kids and to expose them to a lot of things, but I wouldn’t say that’s the most important thing you can do for your child.”

So instead of driving yourself crazy trying to decipher your child’s code when it comes to food, Freedman-Smith suggests parents try these tips and tricks.

READ MORE: How parents manage conflict in the home will impact their children

First, parents should try to take a different approach when looking at their diet versus their child’s, Freedman-Smith suggests.

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“As adults, we tend to look at what we’re eating at every meal. But when it comes to kids, because they’re growing and going through so many changes, it’s better to look at what kids are eating over the course of a whole week. So are they getting a balanced diet over the course of a whole week as opposed to a meal because sometimes you have kids who are starving at breakfast and they don’t eat very much for lunch and have a bigger dinner, or they eat a huge lunch and aren’t very hungry at dinner. So if you’re judging on a meal by meal basis, it’s enough to make any parent crazy.”

If parents determine the picky eating is an attention-seeking behaviour, then Freedman-Smith says parents should pay as little attention to that behaviour as possible. By paying attention and acknowledging it, you may be encouraging the child to continue their picky eating.

Make the food available and have it as part of snacks and meals every time so that they are willing to try it, as well she says.

Lastly, have the food available at times when the child is hungry. Often times the picky eating happens at dinner and that’s because kids have been grazing all afternoon, so by the time they get to dinner, they’re not all that hungry. So if those foods that they have been reluctant to eat are put out when they’re hungry for a snack when they start to get puckish, they may be more likely to jump in and try something, Freedman-Smith says.

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Other tips for parents suggested by Eat Right Ontario include:

  • Preparing one meal for the whole family: Your child will be more willing to try new foods if they know they will not get their favourite foods if they refuse them at dinner time.
  • Listen to your child: Sometimes your child just may be full, so listen to them.
  • Don’t pressure, praise, reward, trick or punish: According to Eat Right Ontario, children who want to be independent will not eat well if they feel pressure. Let your child decide if or how much they will eat from the foods that are offered.

For more tips, visit