We know many parents out there have had to deal with a fussy eating child. In fact, Duke Medicine performed a study that suggests 20% of preschool-age children are fussy eaters. The good news? We have some mom-tested strategies to help you outsmart your picky child.

But before you dive in, 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. It’s a distinction that matters.

Fussy Eating Child Vs. Problem Eater

A fussy eating child will often eat 30 or more foods. Yes, they are picky… but they will try a new food (eventually), even if they put up a fight first. A fussy eater may even eat the same food for several weeks before defiantly yelling “I don’t like it!” Usually this is because of “burnout” and they’ll end up trying it again in a week or two.

A problem eater is different. Problem eaters usually eat less than 20 foods and will not reintroduce something once they decide they don’t like it. They might avoid every food that has a certain texture or cut out entire food groups all together. It may 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 at play. If you suspect your child’s eating patterns go beyond pickiness, talk to your doctor.

Outsmarting A Fussy Eater

If you’re dealing with a fussy eating child, mealtime can feel like a battlefield. Instead of escalating to a 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. That’s where we come in.

When it comes to trying an unfamiliar food, you know your fussy eater toddler 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.

Strategies For A Fussy Eating Child

 

“I Don’t Want That On My Plate”

If you already know your child 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 eating child would rather taste something that looks good on your plate then what’s on theirs.

You can also try a fussy eater plate like this one that turns mealtime into a board game. If a picky child sees dinnertime as a fun game, rather than a power struggle, they may surprise you by eating their way to the end of the finish line.

“I Don’t Want To Eat That”

If your fussy eating child has decided that a particular food is not going down, that’s okay. Let them explore and play with their food instead. Have them touch the food with their hands, rather than forcing them to put it in their mouth. If your child has an oral sensitivity (SPD) this will feel safer and less threatening to them.

Once they are familiar with the feel of the food, you can try encouraging them to put it in their mouth. They don’t have to swallow it if they don’t want to. They can touch it to their lips, lick it, or just roll it around. You want them to get used to the texture and sensation of the food. This helps your child feel like they are in control of the situation and cuts down on defensiveness.

Next, you can tell your child they only need to eat one bite to see if they like it. And then praise the heck out of them every time they try something new. Even if they end up spitting it out, let them know how proud you are they gave it a try. Over time the positive reinforcement will encourage them to continue trying new things. You can even offer a small prize for successfully tasting a new food. A little bribery goes a long way.

“It Will Make Me Sick”

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

If your child ate macaroni for six months straight but is suddenly scared to eat it, think about the last time they had it. Was it a particularly bad experience? Did they get sick later that night or the following day? They might blame the yucky feeling on a 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 vegetables. If your fussy eating child claims they don’t like green food because they don’t want to eat peas, but they love green apples or green jelly beans, gently point out the fallacy in their logic and ask them to try just one pea.  

If your fussy eater truly won’t eat green foods, ask them to choose a color they do like. Then offer healthy foods in that shade. You can also try creating a little “magic” with natural food dye to change the color of a food. Or you can hide green veggies in soups and sauces. Blending up vegetables 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.

You can pick up one of our favorite healthy cookbooks for picky eaters if you’re looking for more ways to make healthy food appealing to kids.

“This Food Is Gross”

Offer ways to mix it up—literally. Does your fussy eating child love mashed potatoes, but hate green beans? Bury a few beans in the potatoes. Maybe your fussy eating child loves ranch dressing or yogurt but says they don’t like a particular fruit or vegetable. No problem!  Let them dip veggies in their favorite creamy sauce. 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 food styling tips up your sleeve so that the next time the “gross” argument happens, you’ve got a strategy ready.  

Above all, remember that on some days your fussy eating child 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 eater will win out in the end.

More from Beenke: How Can I Get My Picky Eater Child To Try Vegetables?