Picky Eater: Getting Your Finicky Child to Try New Foods

I have a son who redefines the term "picky eater". He has limited taste - peanut butter, crackers, bread, chicken, and pizza. He is small for his age (shortest in his class and 36 lbs.). Without causing angst, how can I get him to try new foods? We eat together every night, and dinnertime is often a struggle. He takes a multivitamin to get least a portion of calcium into him.

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Every child has a different approach towards food. They have actually been defined into categories.

• the enthusiastic,
• the steady accumulator and
• the late bloomer.

All are self-descriptive, aren't they? Your son falls into the third category. With time and given the opportunity he will grow to increase the variety of foods that he likes.

There are a few things you can do to support that growth. First of all, you need to respect your son's likes and dislikes. Just as you take into considerations yours and your husband's food preferences when planning the daily menu, you also need to consider your son's. That means you need to include at least one thing that he likes with every meal. Offer a variety of foods and don't allow substitutes, but let him pick from what you have offered.

Don't force him to eat anything he doesn’t like and don't offer rewards for eating. By doing that you have taken food out of the realm of nourishment and given it a role it shouldn’t play in your child's development. Kids should come to like food for it's inherent qualities, like tasting great and satisfying hunger. Encourage him to taste food but don't make him swallow it if he doesn't like it. My own son is willing to try new foods since he knows he can head to the sink and spit it out if he thinks it is that 'gross'! Many foods he wouldn't have tried without this ‘out’ have now become favorites... avocado for example. Other foods never got past the sink stage!

I think that you have done one of the most important things towards your son's eventual acceptance of a variety of foods and that is eating together every night. By seeing the rest of the family eat different foods, and just by being in the presence of those foods their familiarity will grow on him and eventually he may come to try them, like them, and make them a part of his food repertoire. It may be many years in the doing, or it may just be the passing of a stage, or it may be that he will even become an adult with limited likes.

Your job is to provide him with the opportunities to become whoever he was meant to be, without forcing, pandering, or bribing. Also, don't be surprised if your son moves through periods of food 'gags' where he will eat only a few foods for days or weeks on end, and then switches to another set of preferences. You are wise to be concerned about the variety of food he eats; even in light of the fact you are giving him a multivitamin. Many parents cater totally to food preference, thinking that the vitamin pill will take care of the rest. This is very short sighted in this day of fast passed nutrition research that more and more points out the fact that micro nutrients in the foods can play an important and symbiotic role with other nutrients and food components in promoting optimal health and disease prevention. The bigger the variety of foods in a persons diet the more that can take advantage of this.

Your son's size may not be related at all to what he does and doesn’t eat, but is just the type of build that he is. It seems like his height is not out of proportion to his weight. You and your pediatrician should keep track of his growth to make certain there is not a pathological reason for his small size. If he has the normal energy level and inquisitiveness of a six year old, than my guess is you just have a small child with a small appetite. From the food choices you mentioned, it sounds like he is getting plenty of energy and protein, as those are all mostly nutrient dense foods on his list.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful. Your son will not change overnight, but rather over time so you need to be patient and accepting. I suggest you purchase a copy of the book "How to Get Your Kid to Eat...But Not Too Much", by Ellyn Satter. It discusses nutrition and eating behavior right through the teenage years and devotes a few chapters to special topics. I find it invaluable and reassuring.

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