Only Chicken Tenders, Fries & Ketchup: Managing Picky Eating

Although feeding young children can be stressful for parents, it is important to remember eating can be tough on young kids too!

Most, if not all, young children have specific food preferences and at one time or another can be selective (or picky!) about food. Young children are often reluctant to try foods that are unfamiliar or look different. Even more mind boggling, little ones quickly change taste preferences seemingly overnight. A favorite food one day can be despised the next. You often have to let your child try a food 15-20 times (if they will do it!) before they learn to like it.

True picky eating that goes beyond these patterns is a bit more extreme. Picky eaters get upset when they see unfamiliar food and will only eat a few select favorites (chicken nuggets, French fries, hot dogs are popular rotations for many picky eaters). Often it is hard for picky eaters to eat in unfamiliar places, or they prefer the food at only a specific place. For example, only pizza from Jets is makes the cut. An outing to a restaurant or a party can suddenly become loaded with stress if they don’t feel comfortable with the food options provided.

The natural response for most parents is to offer encouragement by saying “Just try it.” Unfortunately, gentle prodding is typically ineffective, and encouragement quickly becomes a negotiation of “just one bite.”

Food battles don’t work. They become battles of will versus anything about food.

SO what do you do, mama of a Picky Eater?

  • Focus on the uncomfortable feelings about the disliked food. You can’t logic the fear out of picky eating!
  • Continue to provide regular meals and snacks in a structured manner so your child comes to the table hungry.
  • Allow them freedom to choose from what you provide for each snack and meal.
  • Do your best to have regular family meals that are enjoyable and not focused on what your kids are or are not eating.
  • Go on “food adventures” by providing new foods paired with foods you know your child likes.
  • Implement the idea of “food chaining” which allows you to expand slowly on your child’s food preferences. For example, if your child only eats one brand of chicken nuggets, slowly introduce a new brand. Once that is accepted, you can then provide chicken tenders versus nuggets, eventually moving up to chicken prepared in different ways.
  • Avoid pressure to eat. Believe it or not, the statement “You don’t have to eat that,” can be a game changer.

If the picky eating continues and you are concerned about your child’s health or you see increased anxiety, it may be helpful to consult with your pediatrician or a dietitian who specializes in childhood feeding. Kristine Vazzano is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders. For more information about eating disorders, visit or follow her on twitter at MindfullnessED.



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Hi! I am Kristine, mama to two spirited, creative and fiercely independent toddlers. I am also a clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders and a mental health advocate. I have not yet found the solution to “mommy guilt” nor struck the elusive work/life balance, but I love what I do and am learning to embrace where I am now. I don't believe parenting is possible without a village of love and support, and I am eternally grateful for mine. I do my best to sweat once a day, breathe deeply, and connect with those I care about most. I can never get enough coffee or Anthroplogie. I believe strongly in collaboration and surrounding myself with strong women, which has led me to this latest blogging adventure with Detroit Moms Blog. I look forward to sharing and learning with you!


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