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Child Development

How To Deal With A Picky Eater: Strategies To Try

December 1, 2022
Table of Contents

    Some children are adventurous eaters, but others find themselves limited to a select few foods. Unfortunately, picky eating can lead to nutrient deficiencies and other health concerns. If you have a picky eater, what can you do? First, let's address why a child with ADHD might be a picky eater. Then, we'll talk about what you can do for a child who struggles with picky eating and how the Joon app can help.

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    Why Is My Child So Picky?

    There are a host of reasons why a child might struggle with picky eating. Examples of what might make a child more likely to be a picky eater include but aren't limited to sensory issues, anxiety, a need for control, or a diagnosable eating disorder such as avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Many of these problems are more prevalent in kids with ADHD. Low appetite, which may be induced by medication in some cases, can also affect kids with ADHD and might play into some of the battles your family has with meals. You’re not a alone if your child sticks to the same foods, finds it difficult to try new foods, or doesn't eat enough to meet their nutritional needs. Many parents find themselves in the same boat, and it can be both frustrating and concerning. So, what can you do?

    How To Deal With A Picky Eater

    Families can reduce the power struggle surrounding food. Here are some ways to help your child overcome picky eating and make eating more peaceful for your family.

    How Joon Can Help With Picky Eaters

    Joon is a new game designed for kids with ADHD and their parents. With the app, parents add a customized list of tasks for their children to complete. When the child finishes their assigned tasks, also called quests, they get rewards in the game that allow them to care for a virtual pet of their choice. For the picky eater in your life, you can add tasks such as eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, cooking a meal with you, or even trying a specific new food.

    90% of kids who use Joon complete all of the quests their parents assign. Joon encourages independence, and parents often say that the app has improved their relationship with their children. Even better, Joon is backed by a range of professionals, including child psychologists, occupational therapists, and teachers. 

    Click here to try Joon for free.

    Start Small

    One very common trick used among dieticians who work with picky eaters is to work toward trying new foods in small steps. Picky eaters are usually comfortable with a set of certain foods. For kids who deal with extreme picky eating, that list might be very limited. Let's say that chicken nuggets are one of the foods your child eats, but they won't eat fish. To help them move toward fish in manageable steps, you might introduce fish sticks first, then breaded fish, and finally, fish without breading. Or, maybe they're comfortable with chips but rarely eat fruits and vegetables. You might start to introduce fruit by giving them banana chips as a snack. This practice is also called "food chaining."

    Be Consistent

    Create a consistent schedule for your child that includes three meals and snacks at specific times of the day. So that they know what to expect, teach kids when those meals and snacks will take place. You can even write out a schedule for your family to refer to on a calendar if you choose. One of the best ways to encourage healthy eating habits is to sit down for family meals, so try to be consistent. Sitting down to eat together allows you to act as a role model during meals, and it helps set a routine. 

    Have Boundaries

    It's not rare for picky eaters to refuse meals but ask for snacks or dessert items directly after. There are a couple of ways to approach that problem, all of which involve boundaries. Language matters. So, instead of "no, you can't have a snack," you might say, "snack time is in an hour! I'll set an alarm so you know when it's time." Boundaries can also be relevant regarding the foods you serve to kids. If your child demands chicken nuggets and french fries only, you may say something like, "Those sound great, but they aren't on the menu today." Keep it neutral, yet firm.

    Note: Joon can help your child establish a range of healthy habits and routines. In the app, you can assign kids various tasks, from brushing their teeth to eating breakfast. Once your child completes each task in real life, they’ll get rewards in the game that allow them to take care of a virtual pet. Alongside other benefits, Joon motivates kids with ADHD and encourages independence. Download Joon today.

    Do Not Pressure Your Child

    You might already know you shouldn't force kids to eat their entire meal when they're not hungry. Similarly, studies suggest that forcing a child to eat foods they don't like can backfire, leading to more power struggles, continuous refusal from the child, and, yes - a lower likelihood that kids will consume healthy foods, like vegetables. On the other hand, when parents act as a role model, it is more likely that children will eat more healthy foods. 

    The effects of forcing kids to eat foods they don’t like aren’t just present during childhood. One study found that over 70% of college students who were forced to eat foods they didn't like as kids still will not eat those foods as adults, and many retain negative memories associated with the foods.

    So, model a healthy diet and present opportunities for your child to try new foods, but don't force anything. If failure to get adequate nutrition becomes a concern, which is the case for many families with picky eaters, professional help is a better approach, but we'll talk about that later.

    Serve Healthy Foods (But Limit Snacks And Drinks)

    What can you do instead of pressuring your child?

    Many parents practice what's called division of responsibility. Division of responsibility means that you and your child both have a job; your job is to set the food out or plate it for your child. Your child's job is to eat what they want to eat from the plate. Using this method, you can limit snacks and drinks with low nutritional value and set out a range of healthy foods. Be careful not to label foods as "bad," "good," or "junk," however. Instead, talk about the benefits of certain foods. For example, "carrots are good for your eyes," or "broccoli makes you strong, and we can pair it with potatoes. I know you like those!" 

    Why is language so important? In addition to other possible negative consequences like an increase in fear around food, kids may gravitate toward the foods you call "junk" or "unhealthy" even more if you start to label food as healthy/unhealthy/good/bad, thinking that if it's "healthy," they won't like it. 

    Use Fun Shapes And Plates

    If you have a picky eater, you may share the experience of many other parents where kids respond differently to the same food based on how it's presented. For example, maybe your child will eat broccoli in small pieces exclusively, or they’ll eat chips out of the fun-sized bags only. It sounds wild to some, but it's not uncommon for picky eaters! If you haven't already, look for ways to make food more fun to eat. This could mean using a cookie cutter to turn the sandwich into a dinosaur or a heart, chopping fruits or vegetables differently, using a plate in the shape of an animal they like, or something else. You might be surprised that a certain food your child wouldn't eat before starts to appeal to them when presented in a particular way.

    Also, don’t give up if your child has only tried a food once. One of the most frequent mistakes parents make with picky eating is refraining from trying again. 

    Talk About the Ingredients 

    Talking about the benefits of foods like specific fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein sources is a great way to educate children on nutrition and frame food in a positive light. Discussing ingredients and their benefits is just one way that talking about ingredients can help kids, however. Before special meals especially, it can help to have a conversation about the foods that'll be present at the dinner table before your child comes into contact with them.

    So, before a holiday meal, you might say, "Christmas is in five days. Dinner is going to look a little bit different that night. There's going to be mashed potatoes, peas, and chicken. What's a food you might want to make together and add?" 

    This is a great way to involve children in the cooking process and soothe some of their potential anxiety. Encourage kids to try the new foods, but let them know they don't have to eat anything they don't like - just remember to tell them to say "thank you" to the family member who brought it!

    Some parents offer to show kids pictures of the foods that'll be on the table before the meal. Even if it’s not in preparation for a holiday meal, conversations similar to this can help prepare kids for any meal with a lot of new foods, meals in environments that differ from what they're used to, and so on.

    Involve Your Child In The Cooking Process

    Get your kids involved in the cooking process, and make it a pleasurable experience. When your child gets to help make a meal, it can help them feel more comfortable with the foods in front of them, which can encourage healthy eating and may increase the likelihood that they'll try a new food. Cooking together teaches children an essential life skill, so it's a win-win. Some families might find it helpful to go to the library and let their child help pick out a book of child-friendly recipes. For young kids, this can double as an opportunity to practice reading.

    Let Them Experiment With Food

    Most kids play with their food or otherwise experiment with food. This is a standard part of childhood development, and it can help children reduce stress around or have an overall more enjoyable time with food. Let kids experiment and play with their food to make it fun, in addition to involving them in the process of cooking.

    Playing with food can help kids get more comfortable with new options, so don’t stop them. Let kids touch food so that they’ll get used to new textures, scents, and so on. 

    Seek Professional Help For Picky Eating

    If nothing seems to work or you're at the end of your rope, it might be time to seek professional help. There are registered dieticians who specialize in picky eating, ARFID, and sensory issues. Even children with the most extreme cases of picky eating can move forward and expand their food repertoire, and there's no shame in adding someone with clinical experience to the equation. You can find a registered dietician (RD) who specializes in picky eating by searching the web or asking your child's pediatrician for a referral.

    Depending on the reason for picky eating, an occupational therapist or speech language pathologist may help as well. 


    Picky eating is common in children, and if your child deals with it, it’s not your fault. The good news is that there are things you can do to help. Forcing your child to eat something that they don’t want to isn’t the answer, and there are other ways. If the problem becomes severe, causes ongoing or intense distress, or leads to gaps in nutrition, make sure to reach out to a professional, like an RD, who can help.

    In addition to other tips, parents can use a behavior tracking app like Joon to aid change and motivation in kids who struggle with picky eating.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.