While parents have the best of intentions during meal time feedings, kids often have a different idea in mind. Here’s how to provide structure for your picky eater, while still staying flexible.


For some parents, the power struggles around food can be exhausting. It can seem like a never-ending battle when your child refuses to eat any other food except for some sweets and chocolate milk.

And while he may occasionally eat other foods off his plate, you are concerned about malnutrition on a daily basis, all while attempting to comfort yourself with a common sentiment of: “Well, at least it’s some form of nourishment!”

If you are in a similar situation with your picky eater, stay consistent and firm with these few tips to help your child adjust.

1. Keep drinks other than water to meal and snack time only.

This means juice, milk, chocolate milk, or any other fluid besides water. Offer only water in between meals and snacks. Young kids have tiny tummies and can feel falsely full if they have been drinking a lot of juice or milk.

The problem that often comes up when kids fill up on milk or juice in between meals or snacks is that they often feel too full from those fluids to eat actual food, and thus may miss out on key nutrients in their diet.

2. Understand the roles and responsibilities of the parent and child in the feeding relationship.

Ellyn Satter, a well-known dietitian and researcher in the field of infant and childhood nutrition, has a very important and impactful theory regarding the parent-child food relationship called the Division of Responsibility. In the feeding relationship, the parent is in charge of what the child is offered to eat and when. The child is responsible to choose if they eat and how much. The parent plans, prepares, and serves the food to the child at planned times, and that’s where the parent’s responsibility ends.

It is not necessary nor helpful for the parent to hover over the child’s plate, ensuring adequate servings of each food group are eaten. Instead, the parent sits down with the child, ideally eating the same food as her, and carries on with conversation and everyday life.  The parent does not focus on how much food is being eaten, how messy the child is eating, or anything else about the food. Basically, offer the food and then allow the child to explore, taste and enjoy; by doing so, you are recognizing that it is in his/her rights to refuse to eat at all.

3. Have planned meal and snack times throughout the day.

Offer 3 meals per day (breakfast in the morning, lunch at midday, and dinner in the evening) with a snack in between meals and possibly another snack before bed if needed. If your child refuses breakfast, you can rest easy knowing that the next snack time is only two or so hours away. If your child is begging you for food in the afternoon as you are getting things together for dinner, you can remind your child that snack time is only half hour from now. If your child refuses the dinner that you have offered and served, you can relax knowing that you will be able to serve them a snack before bed so that they will not go hungry.

4. Recognize that it is developmentally appropriate and normal for your child to eat ravenously one day and pick at their food the next.

Just knowing this fact can help parents relax when it comes to how much their child is eating. All too commonly, a parent notices their child is hardly eating anything and then panics, wondering if something is better than nothing.

That’s when the go-to foods come out, because you know without a doubt that your child will eat that food. Don’t get caught up in this cycle! Knowing these days of feasting and fasting are normal for young ones, and don’t let it stress you out.

5. Avoid making separate meals for your child.

It’s very tempting to get into the habit of offering separate meals for your child. Maybe you assume they would never eat the feta cheese you are eating with your salad, or maybe it’s because you’ve gotten into the habit of feeding your child something quick and easy before eating later yourself.

Start offering foods from your own dinner table (or breakfast, or lunch table) when you start introducing solids in infancy. You should always offer at least one food item at a meal that you know your child will eat. Maybe it’s a roll or fruit or yogurt. Cut up the chicken, offer the roll, have a fruit option, and even offer some of the vegetables in the salad. You can even put a small amount of the dressing on her plate to allow her to experiment with dipping.

6. Set the example of healthy eating yourself and eat with your child.

Sit down and eat meals and snacks with your child. He or she wants so much to be like dad and mom, and wants to be grown up. Show your child that you enjoy variety, and that food and eating can be positive and fun! Say it with your actions, more so than with your words, and they will listen.

Most of all, remember that you don’t need to make food a battle. It can take up to 17 times of being exposed to a food for a child to decide they will eat it. Be patient, and continue offering the foods even when times get tough.

Trust in the process, and it will all work out.

Adapted from the original article.

Paige Smathers, RDN, CD is a nutrition therapist based in Salt Lake City who helps individuals find positive ways to overcome struggles they experience with food and body image. She specializes in practical, down-to-earth solutions for those in eating disorder recovery and chronic dieting through a weight-neutral positive approach. Paige hosts the popular Nutrition Matters Podcast and runs her private practice, Positive Nutrition.