Make Your Kid a Picky Eater in 3 Easy Steps

Picky Eater Kid

Wendy Hunter, MDWendy Hunter, MD
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Does your kid only eat white food, or scream at the prospect of vegetables?  It’s true that grocery shopping is easier when you only have to shop on two aisles. Someday your child may broaden their diet and making lunch will be more complicated, so here are three easy steps to ensure your child stays choosy:

Step 1: Offer the same foods every day

From 12-24 months of age is the critical window when kids are most open to new tastes. Give them the same foods everyday, like pasta, and bananas and they will learn to stick to those foods. It will only take a few tries at introducing a new food in order for a child to like them at this stage. After age 2, it can take 10 offers or more for a kid to accept a new food. The technical term for this is ‘food neophobia’. Being cautious about new foods is hard-wired into our brains; it served a survival purpose. Once you’re old enough to wander around and forage for food alone but still too inexperienced to know what’s safe, you are less likely to accidentally poison yourself. By age 3-4 you’ll have to offer a food up to 15 times for it to be accepted into a child’s diet.

Step 2: Lead by (bad) example

Fetuses develop their taste buds by tasting the amniotic fluid.  The flavor changes according to what mom has eaten*. Breast milk also changes flavor between feedings depending on what was for lunch. Formula, on the other hand, tastes exactly the same. So if you want your child to limit their tastes, give exclusively formula. It’s like dog food for people!

It’s easy to control what your baby tastes when you are pregnant. Once they are a year old, it is more challenging.  You can reinforce avoidance of offensive foods by avoiding the food altogether. But if you see the food be sure to say “Ick, Salmon! I don’t like fish.”  You’re guaranteed they are never going to like it either. There is good evidence this works, mothers and their children statistically dislike the same foods, and studies have shown this strongly correlates to mothers specifically not introducing foods to their kids that they don’t like.

* Lots of fun research on this: my fave example is the newborns that liked anise (yuck!) because their mothers ingested it during pregnancy. But research on babies’ tastes has also shown that if mom drinks carrot juice during pregnancy her baby will prefer carrot-flavored cereal later.

Step 3: Bribe them with cookies

Be sure to say things like “if you finish your tofu, you can have a cookie!” That way your child will know that cookies are good and tofu is bad. If you bribe them with something other than food, like a sticker or hug, they will learn that eating new foods is associated with a positive outcome, but they won’t learn that they are supposed to dislike the food you are offering. Alternatively, you can offer a penalty, like “no ice cream if you don’t eat your beans.” Or pressure them to sit at the table until they finish, that way they are sure to associate food with stress and punishment.

On the other hand, if you would prefer for your child to eat a healthy, varied diet, ignore the advice above. Offer your kids a variety of foods, especially vegetables and proteins, and offer them up to 15 times before giving up. Initial rejection of  a food is not the same as dislike; they just need to get over their initial food “neophobia”. Serve new foods with foods you know they already like. And you’re gonna have to act like a fool. Ooh and ahh and get excited about foods you want them to eat, even the ones you don’t like. “Ooh, green trees, I looooove broccoli, yum, try some!” Also, the way food looks does matter. A really fun study showed that Super-hero shaped food makes it more palatable to a toddler.


Toddlers’ food preferences. The impact of novel food exposure, maternal preferences and food neophobiaHoward A, Mallan KM, Byrne R, et al.Appetite. 2012 Dec;59(3):818-25.

Prenatal and Postnatal Flavor Learning by Human Infants. Mennella JA, Jagnow CP, Beauchamp GK. 2001. Pediatrics. 107(6):E88.

Influence of licensed characters on children’s taste and snack preferencesPediatrics. 2010 Jul;126(1):88-93.

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Wendy Hunter, MDAbout Wendy Hunter, MD

Dr. Wendy Hunter, MD is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at UC San Diego and practices pediatrics in the emergency department at Rady Children’s Hospital. She blogs at BabyScience on the science behind scary (but normal) baby symptoms and quirky kid behaviors. You can also find Dr. Hunter on Twitter and Facebook.



29 Comments on “Make Your Kid a Picky Eater in 3 Easy Steps”

  1. My grandson is a very picky eater but this last year and trying many new recipes he has learned to eat better.

    1. Yes, that’s great, April! Hopefully the other two will rub off on the 3rd soon! Thanks for the comment!

  2. These are some really great tips. I offer my almost 1 year old a variety of foods. She also is breastfeed. Right now we are having difficulty getting her to eat meats. But for the most part she will try just about anything a give her.

    1. Hi Desire, that’s great that you’re getting her to eat such a variety! Of course, we often have trouble getting kids that age to eat meals, but as long as you keep exposing her to new, healthy foods, it will pay off!

  3. Thats an amazing article. I wish I had read that a few years ago and perhaps I would not struggle so with Tre’. I swear he wants nothing except Ramen Noodles and Trix yogurt. I make sure he has a daily vitamin, lots of water, and have started getting him to at least take one bite of something new a few times a week. I am a firm believer in not forcing a child to eat something, so as long as he keeps getting glowing reports from the doctor and has no problem trying new food, we will roll with it. However we do have a new baby on the scene at the end of the month, my little Easton. After Tre’, I’m seriously going to follow these guidelines and take this article to heart! Thank you so much for the guidance.

    1. Hi Terry. First of all, congrats on the new baby!!! That’s so exciting. Secondly, thanks for your comment. It sounds like you are working hard now to expose Tre’ to new foods. That is great! Just remember, that even if he doesn’t like something the first few times, that doesn’t mean to give up. Thanks for the comment, Terry!

  4. Love this article. With 4 young children this is definitely something we’ve dealt with and still are. These tips will hopefully make it easier once our youngest start eating solids.

    1. Hi Kelsey. We’re so glad you found this helpful! I’m sure you have dealt with this plenty! Good luck!

    1. Great Jessica! I hope you mean the real advice at the end and not the how-to-raise-a-picky-eater advice!! LOL

  5. I’m hoping I can avoid this with my little one. I’m a picky eater but his dad isn’t so I’m hoping we can get him to watch daddy eat and not me! =)

    1. Hi Autumn, thanks for the comment. Maybe you can hide that fact in front of your child? LOL. Maybe trying to set a good example will help you appreciate some new tastes too? Who knows!

  6. I had no idea that the flavor of amniotic fluid changes depending on what mom eats. That is really interesting.

  7. My granddaughter is 6 years old and doesn’t eat any vegetables. When she was a toddler she ate all kinds of veggies but then the dreaded junk food was introduced and now she won’ even try anything good for her ! This article would have helped a lot

    1. Thanks for the comment, Alice. She’s only 6 years old! There’s still plenty of time to change her eating habits. It’s definitely important to keep introducing kids to new food over and over, even if they don’t like it the first few times. The last paragraph of this blog post really has some good advice.

  8. I never was really a picky about what I ate. I mean sure there are somethings I hate to eat but I love just about everything and my kids are the same way so I guess I was pretty lucky when it came to feeding my kids. Your advise is wonderful and I am sure it will help a lot of people with kids that are picky eaters.

    1. That’s great, Beverly! It probably helped your kids a lot that you are not picky. They got to see you eat all kinds of food and expose them to all sorts of stuff. Thanks for the great comment!

  9. I offered my children a varied diet and didn’t have picky eaters. It just wasn’t something we did in our home. I figured I had control over the diet and food supply most of the time, and my task was to introduce them to healthy and nutritious foods. It wasn’t gooing to be until later that they were exposed to highly processed foods, soda, sugars, etc. and by then they had a start on good habits established and reinforced at home.

  10. What great advice! I didn’t know that “Fetuses develop their taste buds by tasting the amniotic fluid.”

    1. Yes, that’s very interesting! It just goes to show how important we are in helping to develop our children’s taste! It’s so interesting that children really prefer carrot flavor if their mothers drink carrot juice during pregnancy!

    1. Many of us were too, Laura! It’s up to us now though to help make sure our kids develop good eating habits!

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