Tips for picky eaters of all ages

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From toddlers to teenagers, many children will have selective or ‘picky’ eating habits at some point in their development. Here are some strategies to help understand and manage this.

Dealing with picky eaters can be a challenging aspect of parenting. Understanding the reasons behind picky eating and employing effective strategies can help parents navigate this common issue with patience and confidence.

Toddler stage (1-3 years old)

Toddlers are notorious for their fussy eating habits, often preferring certain foods while rejecting others. (And even changing their minds the following week!) 

Toddlers are often picky eaters due to a combination of factors, including biological, psychological, and environmental influences. Here are some reasons why toddlers might exhibit picky eating behaviours:

Stage of Development

Toddlers are at a stage of rapid growth and development and their tastes and preferences are still developing. This can lead them to be more sensitive to new textures, flavours and foods.

Fear of New Foods (Neophobia)

Toddlers may have a natural fear or aversion to new foods, known as neophobia. This is believed to be an evolutionary trait to protect them from potentially harmful substances. They may be wary of unfamiliar foods, preferring those they recognise and are comfortable with.

Sensory Sensitivities

Toddlers may have heightened sensory sensitivities, making them more particular about the taste, texture, smell, or appearance of foods. For example, they may dislike certain textures like mushy or crunchy foods.

Independence and Control

Toddlers are at the stage of asserting their independence and autonomy, and mealtime can become a battleground where they assert control. Being picky about food can be one way for them to exert control over their environment.

Previous Experiences

Negative experiences with certain foods, such as being forced to eat something they dislike or experiencing digestive discomfort, can contribute to picky eating behaviours.

Parental Influence

Parents’ attitudes and behaviours towards food can also impact a toddler’s eating habits. If parents express frustration or stress around mealtime, it can exacerbate picky eating behaviours. Similarly, if parents cater excessively to their child’s preferences, it can reinforce picky eating habits.

Environmental Factors

The food environment at home, daycare, or other settings can influence a toddler’s food choices. Exposure to a limited variety of foods or frequent consumption of highly processed or unhealthy foods can contribute to picky eating. 

Growth Spurts and Appetite Fluctuations

Toddlers’ appetites can fluctuate due to growth spurts, teething, illness, or other factors. During these times, they may be more selective about the foods they eat.

The toddler stage is crucial for establishing healthy eating patterns and experiences, making it essential for parents to introduce a variety of nutritious foods early on. However, toddlers may exhibit picky eating behaviours due to developmental factors such as exploring independence, sensory sensitivity, or simply being nervous to try new tastes and textures.

Strategies for Toddlers

Offer a variety of foods

Introduce new foods alongside familiar ones to encourage exploration and acceptance.

Be patient

Understand that it may take multiple exposures before a child accepts a new food.

Set a routine

Establish regular meal and snack times to provide structure and consistency.

Lead by example

Demonstrate healthy eating habits by eating meals together as a family.

Preschoolers (3-5 years old)

Preschoolers continue to assert their independence and may display stronger preferences for certain foods. Peer influence and environmental factors can also impact their eating habits. Additionally, children at this age may experience heightened sensitivity to taste, texture, and appearance of food, leading to picky eating behaviours.

Strategies for Preschoolers

Involve children in meal preparation

Encourage participation in cooking and grocery shopping to increase their interest in food.

Make meals fun

Use creative presentations and engage children in themed meals or food-related activities.

Offer choices

Provide limited options to empower children to pick from a small selection, while ensuring that all the choices are nutritious.

Avoid pressure

Refrain from forcing or bribing children to eat, as this can create negative associations with food.

Always stay calm

It will never help to introduce stress to your young child over food. Keep your cool and remain calm around food at all times!

Elementary school (6-11 years old)

As children enter elementary school, their exposure to various foods may increase through school lunches, social events and peer interactions such as eating at a friend’s home. However, picky eating tendencies can still persist, influenced by factors such as taste preferences, peer pressure and busy schedules. Additionally, children may develop aversions to certain foods based on past experiences or sensory sensitivities like smell, texture or even temperature.

Strategies for 6-11 Year Olds

Encourage balanced meals

Ensure that meals include a variety of food groups to meet nutritional needs.

Educate about nutrition

Teach children about the importance of different nutrients, how they support their health and make them grow..

Encourage independence

Allow children to make age-appropriate decisions about their food choices while guiding them towards healthier options.

Respect preferences

Acknowledge and accommodate your child’s individual preferences while gently encouraging experimentation with new foods.

Teenagers (12-18 Years old)

Teenagers are navigating a period of rapid growth and development, which may influence their dietary preferences and habits. Peer influence, body image concerns, and busy schedules can all impact their food choices. Additionally, teens may experiment with restrictive diets or develop disordered eating patterns, further complicating the issue of their picky eating.


Create a supportive environment 

Foster open communication about Food and body image without judgement or criticism.

Model healthy behaviours

Emphasise the importance of balanced nutrition and mindful eating habits through your own actions.

Involve teens in meal planning

Encourage teens to contribute ideas and preferences when planning meals and snacks.

Seek professional guidance if needed

Consult with a registered dietitian or healthcare provider if concerns arise about disordered eating or nutritional deficiencies.

Dealing with picky eaters requires a calm attitude, patience, understanding and a proactive approach from parents for all ages of children. By recognising the underlying reasons for picky eating and implementing appropriate strategies, parents can help their children to develop healthier relationships with food and establish lifelong habits that support their overall wellbeing.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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