Authored by JoannaRasmuson

Picky Eating in Children and How to Combat it

June 20, 2019 | Family Medicine

As children grow up, their eating behaviors change. Picky eating is an eating behavior where children eat a limited amount of food, are unwilling to try new foods or have strong food preferences (like only eating grains or not eating vegetables). Picky eating can be a frustrating behavior to deal with, as it can prevent your child from receiving the right amount of nutrients. Here is some information to help you navigate this tricky stage in your child’s life.

What Are the Causes of Picky Eating?

Children develop picky eating behaviors for a variety of reasons. According to the University of California San Francisco Children’s Hospital, “Some children are naturally more sensitive to taste, smell and texture.” These sensitivities can impact the types of foods your child likes and dislikes.

Additionally, in the early ages of a child’s life, the pace at which he or she grows can vary, which can influence appetite. Other children develop picky eating habits by modeling their parents’ eating behavior.

It’s important to understand that your child’s eating habits can change day to day, week to week, or even month to month. They may like a food one week and dislike it the next. Encouraging your child, being patient with their eating habits and setting a good example for them by eating a variety of healthy foods can be the best way to help your child develop consistent eating habits.

How Harmful is Picky Eating to My Child?

In a recent study involving 4,018 participants, the prevalence of picky eating among children was:

  • 26.5% at 18 months of age
  • 27.6% at 3 years of age
  • 13.2% at 6 years of age

This study also found that 46% of children were picky eaters at one point during childhood. According to these findings, picky eating is a relatively common behavior. The study also suggested that picky eating is usually a temporary behavior and is a part of normal development in preschool children.

Other studies have pointed to the idea that picky eating is not associated with having an eating disorder and that picky eating does not have a significant effect on growth during childhood. Due to the widespread presence of the behavior in children, picky eating is usually not a cause for concern. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s eating behaviors, talk to your primary care physician.


What Can I Do to Help My Picky Eater Get the Nutrients They Need?

In addition to providing your child with a balanced diet, here are some tips to helping your child get the nutrients they need to grow and develop normally.

Offer a Variety of Age-Appropriate, Nutritious Foods

Your child should have the opportunity to pick from a variety of foods at mealtime like vegetables, fruits, proteins and starches. The family menu should not consist only of the foods your child will eat. Give your child an opportunity to try things that they are unfamiliar with.

Set a Consistent Meal Schedule

In order to meet your child’s nutritional needs, snacks and meals should be regular and consistent. Having a set schedule including breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a snack in between each meal helps your child know that there is an opportunity to eat every two to three hours. If your child chooses to skip a meal or snack, he or she can wait until the next scheduled meal. If your child refuses to eat while the family is still eating, have him or her sit at the table until the majority of the family is finished.

Make Meal Time a Pleasant Experience

Consider the mealtime environment when feeding a child. Dedicating a regular eating space for your child will help him or her feel more comfortable. Conversation should be pleasant and the eating space should be clean.

Limit High-Calorie Drinks and Junk Food

Your children may not eat the foods you provide if they are drinking too many calories from juice or milk or if they are eating too much junk food. Limit your child to 4 ounces of juice and 24 ounces of milk a day. Also, limit the amount of junk food you give to your child.

Avoid Being a Short-Order Cook

If your child doesn’t like or is not eating the foods that you have prepared for a meal or snack, avoid the temptation to make something you know your child will eat. A consistent and regular meal schedule will allow your child to skip a meal and know that another meal is soon. Additionally, your child will be more likely to eat if they are hungry.

Don’t Always Offer Dessert

Dessert does not need to be offered with every meal or even every day. If dessert is available, a child will likely eat desert whether or not they are full.

If your child does not eat what you have prepared, withholding dessert is not the answer. The child will learn to value dessert above more nutritious foods, which can alter eating patterns for life.

Our family medicine providers are equipped to handle medical needs for patients in every stage of life. We are trained in a wide range of disciplines including internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, gynecology and geriatrics.


“Picky Eaters.” UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital

“Hold the Tears, Please: How to Combat Picky Eating.” Duke Department of Pediatrics.

“How to Please Fussy Eaters.”

Lam, Jason. “Picky Eating in Children.” Frontiers in Pediatrics, vol. 3, 2015, doi:10.3389/fped.2015.00041.

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.