We know many parents out there have had to deal with fussy eaters. In fact, Duke Medicine performed a study that suggests 20% of preschool-age children are fussy eaters. But before you start Googling “how to get kids to eat vegetables,” take a closer look at your child’s eating habits to determine if they are simply “fussy” or if they might fall into the problem eater category.

fussy eaters often eat 30 or more foods. They might eat the same food for several weeks before defiantly yelling “I don’t like it!” Usually, this is because of “burnout” and they’ll eat it again in a week or two. If your toddler is picky, they will try a new food (eventually), even if they put up a fight first.

A problem eater is different. Problem eaters usually eat less than 20 foods and will not reintroduce something they decide they don’t like. They might avoid every food that has a certain texture or cut out entire food groups, and it could take 25 steps or more on the steps to eating hierarchy for a problem eater to try something new. With a problem eater it’s possible there is a sensory processing disorder (SPD) or other underlying issue issue at play, so if your child’s eating patterns go beyond pickiness, talk to your doctor.

For a kid who’s just plain old fussy eater, mealtime can feel like a battlefield. Instead of escalating to full-scale food war, try reframing the exchange from “battle” to “game”. Battles cause damage and leave scars, while games can most definitely be won (with a little strategy).  

When it comes to trying an unfamiliar food, you know your kid is going to come at you with every excuse in the book…so be ready! Strategize how to address the excuses, plan three moves ahead, and stack the odds in your favor so you’ll come out on top of the fussy eaters game.

Smart Strategies For Fussy Eaters

“I Don’t Want That On My Plate”

If you already know your preschooler will refuse to try anything new on their plate, don’t put it there. Let them watch you eat something new off of your own plate first. Tell them how good it tastes and how much you are enjoying it. You might get lucky and have them ask for a bite, or if not, you can offer them one. FOMO works on kids too. Sometimes a fussy eater would rather taste something that looks good on your plate then tries something new on their own. You can also try this fun plate to encourage fussy eaters.

“It Will Make Me Sick”

It’s possible your child has a legitimate reason to feel this way. Kids can have negative food association due to a memory. Little ones have a hard time differentiating between what happened in the past and what’s happening now.

If your child ate macaroni for 6 months straight but is suddenly scared to eat it, think about the last time they did. Was it a particularly bad experience? Did they get sick later that night or the following day? They might blame the yucky feeling on formerly yummy food. You may need to give them a little time and distance between the negative event and the food in question. Then reintroduce the food later so your child can understand it wasn’t the macaroni’s fault.

“I Don’t Like Food That Color”

We’ve heard this one before, particularly with veggies. If your fussy eaters claim they don’t like green food because they don’t want to eat peas, but they love green apples, green broccoli, or green jelly beans, gently point out the fallacy in their logic and ask them to try just one pea.

If your toddler fussy eater truly won’t eat green foods, ask them to choose a color they do like. Offer healthy foods in that shade. You can also try creating a little “magic” with natural food dye to change the color. Or try hiding green veggies in soups and sauces. Blending up veggies and serving them in a red marinara is a great way to get kids to eat them. Cheese sauce works too. Once they get used to eating the offending vegetable in disguise, you can slowly introduce it in its more natural green state. We also like this guide on how to get kids to love vegetables. 

“This Food Is Gross”

Offer ways to mix it up—literally. Does your fussy eater love mashed potatoes, but hate green beans? Bury a few beans in the potatoes. Maybe your picky eater loves ranch dressing or yogurt but says they don’t like a particular fruit or vegetable. No problem!  Let them dip a veggie in their favorite creamy food. I’ll bet broccoli becomes a lot less “gross” when dipped in ranch.

You can also cut or arrange foods into fun shapes. It’s hard to call something gross when it looks like a smiley face. Try looking online at Pinterest and Facebook for fun food presentation ideas, there’s a ton out there. It’s good to have some fun food ideas up your sleeve so that the next time the “gross” argument happens, you’ve got your strategy ready.  

Above all, remember that on some days your kiddo will be more stubborn than you are. You won’t win every battle, and that’s okay. You’re playing the long game, remember? Sticking to a consistent and resourceful plan for introducing new foods to your fussy eaters will win out in the end.