Redefining Picky Eating

Feeding Relationship 4 min

Tips to help you support cautious eaters

By DFC - PLC, Nutrition Team
little boy that refuses to eat


  • Increasing skills in eating
  • Helping children accept new foods

Learning to Eat Means Learning New Skills

It is common for educators and caregivers to worry when children refuse to eat or only want to eat a small number of foods. Worry is a natural response since adults want to care for children by giving them the amount of food they think is appropriate. Picky eating is a term often used to describe this type of eating.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there was another way to refer to this rather than using negative terms like “picky or “fussy”?

Consider using the term “cautious eating” as an alternate phrase as it is a more positive way to support children.  Being cautious is a normal part of learning any new skill. Children may be uncertain about foods as they learn to eat. They may need more time to become comfortable and learn about their preferences, which may change day to day.

Help Children Learn the Skill of Eating a Variety of Foods

  • Discuss the menu ahead of eating times to prepare children for what they are about to eat. Introduce any new food by doing a fun activity such as drawing a picture or reading a story.
  • Offer a food that is well accepted along with foods that children may be cautious about.
  • Sit less adventurous eaters next to a friend who tries most foods.
  • Enjoy time at the table by talking with children about their favorite foods.
  • Encourage children to use their five senses to explore foods that they are eating.  Playing with food is part of learning and accepting new foods.
  • Lead by example. Be excited about a variety of foods and show how to politely refuse foods.
  • Remove plates at the end of the meal, without commenting, even if food wasn’t eaten.
  • Keep all messages about food neutral. Discuss how foods look and feel, where foods come from and different ways to eat them rather than referring to food as good versus bad. 

Remember to be patient and try again with children as they learn to accept foods. Children may need to try a new food as many as 15 times before they learn to like it. Continue to offer foods served in different ways (e.g., plain yogurt, yogurt topped with fruit, frozen yogurt pop, smoothie with yogurt and fruit, etc.).

For more information, see our article on "Reducing Pressure at Mealtimes".


Early Childhood
Feeding relationship

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