14 Evidence-Based Picky Eater Strategies & The Science Behind Picky Eating
Whether you’re trying to feed a picky eater or you are a picky eater yourself, mealtimes can be incredibly frustrating, and often stressful. You may feel like you or your child will never escape the picky eating cycle, but you can find freedom. So, let’s start by understanding the science behind picky eating habits, along with 14 evidence-based picky eater strategies!
What Makes a Picky Eater 'Picky?'
Most often, a picky eater is dealing with some degree of food neophobia: the fear of new foods. Now, it’s important to know that picky eating and food neophobia are actually normal behaviors for children, particularly between the ages of 2 and 6. In fact, this fear of new foods may actually be a survival mechanism that helped protect our ancestors from potentially poisonous foods. For toddlers way back in the cavemen days, running around foraging for food, it would’ve been crucial to be cautious (a.k.a. ‘picky’) about trying new things!
Unfortunately, the longer an individual avoids trying new foods, the worse pickiness can get. In childhood, the eating habits and relationship with food that we develop are crucial to how we eat as adults. But, if you’re an adult picky eater, it’s still very possible to widen your food horizons—with the right picky eater strategies, of course. And, some adults are just plain pickier than others, which is also normal! So, what exactly makes a picky eater ‘picky?’
Genes & Taste Buds:
- Recent research findings suggest that food neophobia is actually a heritable trait. Basically, parents can pass on the ‘picky’ gene to their kids, making some people more likely to be picky than others!
- Also, it’s important to know that tastes are often more intense for children. That's because kids they generally have more taste buds than adults—we lose them as we age.
- On top of this, there are genetic differences in our actual taste buds themselves. So, certain foods don’t taste the same to all of us…
- With picky eating in particular, there’s a gene that affects whether or not a person is able to taste certain bitter compounds in food, and how strongly the taste is for them.
- The majority of kids and adults are ‘tasters,’ meaning most of us can taste these bitter compounds. But, children who are ‘tasters’ tend to be more sensitive to bitter foods (like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and spinach) than adults who are ‘tasters.
- In one study that offered veggies to preschoolers, ‘tasters’ ate far fewer vegetables than ‘nontasters,’ And, around 1 in every 3 of the ‘tasters’ ate NO vegetables at all.
Environment & Exposure:
So, knowing that there’s some genetic basis for picky eating habits, take a deep breath. Try being compassionate with yourself—whether you’re a picky eater or the parent of one. However, environment can play an equal (and sometimes greater) role in picky eating habits:
- If a picky eater’s parents are also picky and don’t like to try new things, that child won’t be exposed to as many new foods at home. So, ‘picky’ genes or not, fewer exposures to new foods means kids are more likely to develop picky eating habits.
- And, children are much more likely to try new foods that they see their parents, siblings, and/or friends eating. So, if you want your child to eat vegetables that you don’t eat yourself, it’s going to be a tough sell!
- Ultimately, the only way to start liking a new or disliked food is to be exposed to that food and try it multiple times.
According to a slew of research studies, it can take picky eaters (of any age) between 10 and 20 exposures to a new food before they finally come to accept and enjoy it. And, while getting them to taste a new food is ideal, an 'exposure' doesn't have to involve tasting at all. It can range from just smelling, touching, or simply seeing an unfamiliar food served at a meal. Or, exposures can include seeing a parent or friend eat an unfamiliar food and talk about how it tastes. (Working up to the picky eater's first taste of a new food is often the hardest part!)
Evidence-Based Picky Eater Strategies: Do's & Don'ts
If you take anything away from this article, it should be this: no matter your genetic makeup, you CAN change your tastes and eating habits. The key is getting exposed to new foods and having positive experiences with them. Yes, genes do play a role, but picky eating is also largely a learned behavior. Luckily, that means we also have the power to change those behaviors!
I’ve got 14 evidence-based picky eater strategies for you, broken down into the do’s and don’ts of how to handle a picky eater:
#1: DON'T pressure kids (or yourself) to eat.
Pressure makes mealtimes stressful for picky eaters of all ages. And, when parents make a big deal out of picky eating at home, outcomes are generally worse for the picky eater. Often, picky eating can get more extreme if kids are worried about angering or disappointing their parents at mealtime. Arguments about finishing the veggies on the plate, being forced to eat, or beating yourself up for struggling with a new food all create negative food experiences. And, those experiences can make picky eaters even more resistant to those foods. Mealtimes shouldn’t be a battleground—with kids, or with yourself.
Stress and criticism (whether it’s directed at kids or at yourself) only make changing picky eating habits more difficult. As one study showed, kids consumed significantly MORE food when they were NOT pressured to eat. In the experiment, two groups of children were offered both squash and corn soup every day for 11 weeks. One group was pressured to eat the corn but not the squash soup.h e other group was pressured to eat the squash but not the corn soup. Guess which soup the kids ate more of? Whichever soup they were NOT being pressured to eat. So, don’t force it!
#2: DO keep it casual, be compassionate, & check in with your doctor.
Instead, accept your child or yourself where they/you are. Keep things casual and treat trying new foods as a normal, everyday experience! Rather than watching kids like a hawk while they eat, give them some space and freedom. Let them explore new foods comfortably, at their own pace. For adult picky eaters, be patient and compassionate with yourself. When you succeed at trying a new food AND when you don’t, try again! (And again!)
And, if you’re concerned about your health or the health of your child, meet with your doctor or pediatrician. If your child's growth rate is on target, their picky habits may not be as damaging as you imagine them to be. But, your stress and anxiety about their eating may actually make the situation worse.
#3: DON'T enforce a 'clean your plate' rule.
Although many parents swear by the “clean your plate” rule, this tactic can actually be damaging for children. Studies show that telling kids to eat until their plate is empty can lead them to lose touch with their natural hunger and fullness cues. Sure, enforcing this rule may get your picky eater to clean their plate. But, it’s creating a negative food experience. And, it may make regulating food intake more difficult for them as adults and lead to disordered eating later on.
#4: DO make mealtime a positive experience.
At the core of all of the research into picky eater strategies, one thing is clear: positive eating experiences make people more accepting of new foods. If we enjoy the food experience, we’re more likely to enjoy the food itself! So, less pressuring, more openness and encouragement. Reduce the stress around eating, and find ways to make meals more fun. (More on that in strategy #14.)
Share meals as a family or with friends and talk about how good the food tastes. Encourage picky eaters to take just a bite, or even just smell or touch the food. Or, for adult picky eaters, try sharing meals with trusted friends who can encourage you with kindness. And, it’s so important to accept that mealtimes won’t always be perfect. Rather than bringing negativity to the experience with anger or frustration, practice acceptance and focus on the good. Most of all, keep trying and continue creating less-stress opportunities to taste new foods!
#5: DON'T introduce too many new foods or flavors at once.
With any fear or phobia, desensitization has to happen gradually. Introduce new ingredients slowly—try focusing on 1 new fruit or veggie at a time. Allow time for those foods to become more familiar. And, because picky eaters tend to prefer bland, ‘boring’ foods, don’t get too adventurous with the seasonings right away. Stick with simple, familiar flavors at first, so picky eaters are more open and willing to try a new food. Let them become more comfortable with trying new foods in general. Then, you can work your way up to new flavors and seasonings.
#6: DO start small when serving new foods.
Rather than an entire serving of a new food, put just a bite or a tiny nibble on the picky eater’s plate. Some picky eating experts recommend starting with pieces so small “that they could literally be blown away.” You can work up to larger portions, but a single, small bite is much more manageable for a first taste. When you offer the food, talk about how much you love the food and eat it in front of them. And, keep things casual with encouragement like, “I think you’ll like this!” Or, “try a nibble, it’ll be over before you know it—easy peasy!
#7: DO pair new foods with familiar foods.
Most picky eaters have at least some foods and flavors that they enjoy, so make the most of those! One of the best picky eater strategies is to serve new or disliked foods with familiar foods to make things easier. Maybe your picky eater hates broccoli but loves pasta. Try putting a small amount (even just a nibble) of broccoli in a tasty pasta dish!
Or, embrace the power of simple dips and sauces that your picky eater enjoys. In one study, children were far more willing to try a new and unfamiliar food if they could have it with a dip that they liked! Whether your picky eater likes hummus, guacamole, or just good ol’ ketchup, let them dip to their heart's content. Because, even if that new food is a bit scary, your picky eater at least knows that they enjoy their favorite dip!
#8: DO be patient and keep serving foods, even after a picky eater rejects them.
Remember, food neophobia is a fear of newness. And, people rarely ‘get over’ any fear all of a sudden or with just one exposure. Offer gentle encouragement, and don’t give up on a picky eater (or yourself) if they reject a new food or meal. Keep in mind, research tells us that it takes time to accept new foods—between 10 to 20 exposures. And, those repeated exposures help desensitize a picky eater from their fear as they get more familiar with a new food.
Multiple studies have shown that kids who are offered, exposed to, or taste a new/disliked food on a daily basis (usually for 14 days) significantly increase their acceptance of the food AND start to like it more! Plus, kids who also see their parents eating those same foods show even greater increases in liking a food. If you’ve served broccoli 5 times and a picky eater still won’t take a bite, keep calm and try again. The 6th time might be the charm—or the 10th, or the 15th! But, rest assured, it gets easier. Research also shows that, once a picky eater has finally tried a few new foods, they need fewer exposures to unfamiliar foods in the future.
#9: DON'T treat sweets like 'rewards' and vegetables like 'chores' or a 'punishment.'
Many parents use picky eater strategies that involve offering a treat as a ‘reward’ for eating a new or disliked food. You may have experienced this yourself at some point: “Just two more bites of vegetables and you can have dessert!” Or, sometimes this tactic escalates into threats of punishment: “Finish your vegetables or no TV tonight.” Although well-intentioned, research shows that approaches like these actually do more damage in the long-term.
Yes, offering dessert may ‘work’ by getting a picky eater to take those two bites of veggies. But, this doesn’t help a picky eater come to like vegetables more. Instead, it teaches kids that the veggies are a ‘chore’ forced upon them, while the dessert is the ‘reward.’ Or, in the case of threatening kids, they come to associate vegetables with punishment. And, those associations can lead to a dysfunctional relationship with food—devaluing nutritious vegetables as ‘bad’ or undesirable, and valuing dessert as ‘good’ and desirable.
#10: DO offer healthy foods or non-food incentives.
Now, research shows that incentives are effective picky eater strategies. But, it’s crucial to use the right kind of incentives in the right ways. Let's say you’re trying to get a picky eater to try a new vegetable (or one that they ‘hate’). Consider offering them a familiar food that they like as an incentive—ideally a healthier option and NOT a sweet treat. Encourage them to try that nibble of broccoli, knowing afterward they can have a handful of grapes or even pretzels. But, the key is to gradually offer more broccoli each time, and less and less of the grapes/pretzels, etc. Eventually, the idea is to no longer offer the incentive food at all!
Or, you can also try non-food incentives, and make the experience of trying new foods like a ‘game.’ Maybe you offer stickers or other simple rewards when a picky eater tries a new food or eats a disliked food. This way, trying a new food becomes a positive food experience, rather than a chore or punishment. And, by making the experience fun, you encourage picky eaters to keep trying other new foods, too!
#11: DO teach by example, and share meals with your picky eater.
If you’re the parent of a picky eater, it’s important to know that what you eat has a major impact on what your child eats (or what they won’t eat). Exposure to new foods isn’t just getting kids to taste new foods. It also means seeing new foods often, becoming familiar with them, and seeing other people enjoy those foods. Several studies have found that children’s food intake is very closely correlated with their parents’. Basically, parents provide a model for what kids are willing to eat.
In one study, researchers found that, when parents ate fewer fruits and vegetables, so did their kids. So, it’s not enough to put the veggies on the plate and tell your child that broccoli and Brussels sprouts taste good. If you want your kids to eat it, then YOU have to eat those foods, too—in front of them. And, this strategy is most effective when picky eaters see others around them enjoying the food. Embrace family meals and shared meals, and talk about how delicious the food tastes!
#12: DO give picky eaters choices, and get them involved in meal prep.
Sometimes, refusing food or being ‘picky’ is a child’s way of asserting their control! (And, this learned behavior can carry over into adulthood.) So, give them the power of choice in what they’re eating by offering them multiple healthy options. If your picky eater hates broccoli and is just okay with carrots, put both on the plate. They may feel more inclined to give the carrots a try! This strategy can be especially effective at shared meals or snacks with friends! Plus, learning how to make healthy food decisions is an important skill to develop for any child.
Take this strategy a step further and get your picky eater involved in the meal prep process in some way. Maybe they can help shop for groceries, choose recipes, or prepare some of the actual food. Again, this is a way to give kids some control over what they eat, so they’re more open to new foods. And, getting them involved in the kitchen can make them more curious about the meal. They may be more likely to taste the food that they helped to cook!
#13: DON'T offer options that you don't want your picky eater to eat.
Options are important, but choose them wisely. Maybe your picky eater loves boxed macaroni and cheese. But, if it’s not the kind of fuel you want them to eat, then don’t offer macaroni as one of the options! Perhaps you serve a healthier alternative, like some whole-wheat or lentil pasta. And, pair it with a bit of roasted broccoli, some raw carrots, and strawberries. Your child may not eat or try EVERYTHING on the plate, but at least you can feel good about whatever they do choose to eat!
Surround your picky eater with healthy options—on their plate, at snack time, in the pantry. Those options may not be your picky eater’s favorites, but that can be a good thing! Hunger can be a powerful motivator when it comes to trying less-familiar foods... And, when kids have a say in what they get to eat, mealtimes become more enjoyable (for everyone).
#14: DO get creative and make meals more fun!
If you’ve been a Mind Over Munchie for a while, you know we’re all about making healthy food more fun! And, this same approach can also be helpful for picky eaters. It’s simple: kids are just more likely to eat foods that are appealing to them!
- Entice with color! Incorporate a rainbow of veggies and fruits on a picky eater’s plate, and they may be more inclined to give it a taste.
- Explore shapes and different serving methods. Your picky eater may be more excited to eat cucumber that’s cut into shapes, or carrots peeled into ribbons. Try skewering veggies and cheese, because food is just more fun on a stick. Or, cook scrambled eggs on a waffle iron for a cool texture twist!
- Serve a tasty dip on the side! Not only can dips make unfamiliar foods more approachable for kids, but it makes the eating experience more interactive for them.
But, sometimes, the simple rebranding of a food’s name or making mealtimes more playful can make a huge difference. In one study, preschoolers ate twice as many carrots when they were called ‘X-ray vision carrots’ instead of just ‘carrots.’ And, they continued to eat more carrots, even after the study. You could try this out in a million different ways, like ‘power peas’ or ‘broccoli trees’—get creative!
Plus, research shows that this also has a significant impact on adult eaters. In a restaurant study, 2 groups of diners ate the same seafood filet dish. But, sales and liking of the meal increased dramatically just because it was renamed: “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet.” Simple changes can make food more appealing, and making mealtimes fun can help picky eaters overcome their fears!
REMEMBER: It's all about positive food experiences!
So, to review, the 3 key factors in getting a picky eater to accept and like new foods are:
- Exposure—multiple, repeated experiences with the new food, including seeing, touching, and tasting it.
- Modeling—seeing parents, friends, and peers eat the same food (and enjoy it).
- Incentives—small ‘rewards’ that can make picky eaters more willing to try new foods.
But, most importantly, find ways to create those positive food experiences. Incorporate fun shapes and colors into meals. Offer picky eaters choices. Get creative with imaginative names for disliked veggies. There are SO many ways to make mealtimes more fun and help picky eaters feel more comfortable! When we’re enjoying the food experience, we’re more likely to enjoy the food itself.