Picky eating can be a source of major frustration. Besides concerns over wasted food, time and expense, parents of picky eaters are likely to feel anxious about whether their child is getting proper nutrition. In many cases, picky eating is a temporary developmental phase that signals a child’s growing independence, which generally passes without any long-term negative effects, but it also helps to understand some other causes of picky eating and how to manage them.

Getting The Balance Right

To ensure a balanced diet, the goal is to include food from the four major food groups, with healthy options such as protein snacks for kids or chopped-up fruit in between meals. These should include:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Protein (meat, fish, eggs, and/or plant-based alternatives such as pulses or beans)
  • Dairy or dairy alternatives
  • Starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, bread and grains.

Meals should be served using age-appropriate portion sizes and serving styles. Some foods such as uncut grapes can be a choking hazard to children under four. Always supervise babies and young children while they are eating.

Ideally, half the plate should be fruit and vegetables, but if there are one or two “off” days where you don’t manage all four food groups (or even turn to “breakfast for dinner” as a last resort), that’s perfectly acceptable.

Eat Your Greens

Meals should be low in fat, salt and sugar, which tend to provide a short-lived dopamine boost while being the least nutritious. Add in colorful, clever packaging aimed at children, and instilling healthy eating habits can become challenging.

Due to a gene intended to protect us from consuming toxic plants, humans have a natural aversion to bitter tastes until around age 20, which can help to explain children’s tendency to dislike certain foods such as raw vegetables.

Underlying Causes

Old-fashioned approaches (telling a child they must clear their plate, using sweets as a “reward”, remarks about “starving children” or demanding “just one bite”) are not just ineffective; they also risk negatively impacting a child’s mental and emotional wellbeing.


It’s easy to view picky eating as negative behavior, yet one of the reasons it can be so challenging to manage is because it’s not simply about rejection. Picky eating may also indicate an underlying health condition, for example:

  • Certain physical health issues (such as a stomach bug) affecting appetite
  • Specific medications acting as appetite suppressants
  • Mental health conditions such as anxiety or OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • Cognitive conditions like autism or ADHD (which may also involve sensory issues)
  • Allergies or food intolerances (intolerances may be harder to spot – but signs may include bloating or nausea)

Eating Disorders

Picky eating may also be a sign of an underlying eating disorder such as ARFID (avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder). People with disordered eating may not necessarily be underweight, but may exhibit the following:

  • Changes in eating habits
  • Spending longer than usual in the bathroom
  • Poor body image
  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Wanting to restrict or control their eating

If you have an eating disorder, you may be experiencing anxiety and uncertainty over whether your child will experience the same. Eating disorders are complex conditions with multiple causes, and while genetics can be a major driver, there are proactive steps you can take:

  • Educating your child about issues such as body diversity and media literacy (including the misrepresentation of bodies and faces via things like social media filters)
  • Promoting healthy approaches to the body, which can include:
    • Body positivity – developing a sense of love for the body
    • Body neutrality – which focuses on self-acceptance and non-judgment
  • Avoiding negative talk about weight, bodies or food.
  • Encouraging intuitive eating can also help your child learn to listen to what their body needs and learn how to take care of it.

If you notice symptoms related to an eating disorder or suspect any other underlying causes of picky eating, speak with your doctor and try to include your child in decisions about their healthcare where possible.

Play With Your Food

Educating children on nutrition can also help, especially when it involves an element of play. This can make experiences like mealtimes and supermarket trips less stressful and more fun. Some examples include:

  • Using flashcards to learn about nutrition
  • Playing “shopping list bingo” at the supermarket
  • Cooking simple, child-friendly meals together
  • Learning about (and trying) food from other countries
  • Making food more visually appealing, for example using colorful fruit or fun plates


Picky eating can be challenging, but with the advice and support of qualified and licensed healthcare professionals, it is possible to successfully navigate it so that you and your child can look forward to happier mealtimes together.