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Picky Eating 101: 6 Tips For Stress Free Family Meals
Navigating mealtimes with a picky eater can create a stressful environment for all parties. As a parent, you want to fulfill your role as a health promoter, role model, and educator when it comes to mealtimes and eating (10). There are a few common concerns that arise from parents of picky eaters: believing their picky eater isn’t consuming enough food or being viewed as too skinny as well as concerns of nutrient deficiencies if a picky eater only wants to eat junk foods (1). While concern for your child comes from a place of ensuring healthy nutrition and growth, many actions aimed to mediate the issue of picky eating can actually enforce those exact unwanted food behaviors. This occurs in the worry cycle when a parent’s reaction to a feeding challenge translates to added worry and counterproductive feeding pressures, ultimately increasing the picky eater’s resistance to foods (6). Parental practices and differing parenting styles can affect food consumption, specifically, pressure.
What is Mealtime Pressure?
As a parent, can you relate to these measures of pressure? One, “my child should always eat all of the food on their plate” (4). Two, “I have to be careful to make sure my child eats enough”. Three, “If my child says, ‘I’m not hungry,’ I try to get them to eat anyways” (4). Picky eating development and what’s known as the Pressure Paradox are closely related. Multiple studies suggest that child who received pressure to eat consumed fewer fruits and vegetables, increasing dislike of those food groups (4). With added pressure, short term wins can create long term losses. The pressure paradox as introduced in the Sensory Food Play post explains how kids can learn to eat for the wrong reasons, have decreased appetite from anxiety, and even reduced overall liking of foods (6). Typical food avoidance shown by young children can develop into picky eating due to parental pressures or control (9).
Examples of Pressure
If eating healthier foods is the way to a reward or activity, eating can become a chore holding unwanted negative associations or feelings (10). Additionally, tools such as electronics or a parent’s constant reminders will not always be available. This can create another barrier if food habits become dependent on incentives or the parent (6). Pressure comes in many forms; a good exercise is to ask yourself why you are acting when it comes to feeding practices. If it is to change your child’s eating patterns, like quantity or type of food consumed than they would typically eat willingly, it is considered pressure (8).
Parent vs Child Feeding Roles
To avoid counterproductive mealtime pressure, it can be helpful to first understand the traditional feeding roles of both the parent and child. To summarize, the parent is responsible for what, when, and where (7). As a guardian, you are able to choose what types of food to offer, how they are prepared or purchased, and the mealtime schedule. A key role as a parent is to be a step by step example of mealtime and eating behaviors for your picky eater to learn from (7). The child, however, is responsible for how much and whether (7). This means they can determine the amount of food they will eat and whether or not they try all of the offered food items on their plate. While this may seem scary, especially to a parent concerned about a picky eater’s eating patterns, accepting that your child will eat the amount they need is important. Again, your picky eater will learn how to eat and behave at mealtimes by following the parental lead.
Modeling & Verbal EncouragementParental modeling has shown significant positive associations with increased food consumption (3). A study showed that parents who ate fewer fruits and vegetables were more likely to pressure children to eat, causing increased picky eating development (4). Parental intake and frequency of target food items, such as vegetables, can be used to model desired eating behaviors (10). To implement this at home aim for family style meals, eat a wide variety of foods in front of your child, and focus on positive discussion at the table (3). As a reminder, praise can be a form of pressure, but this does not mean to eliminate positive discussion and support around food or mealtimes (6). Aim to comment on the enjoyability of foods and their company during a meal, rather than the quantity of food your child is eating.
Trust & Availability
Mealtime pressure can disrupt a child’s healthy internal hunger and satiety cutes, potentially leading to excessive eating and rapid growth (5). It is necessary to trust your child’s tummy allowing them to express hunger or fullness without trying to force them to eat when they do not want to (2). Pressures tactics such as making a child clean their plate before leaving the table or taking so many more bites are just two examples. If your picky eater expresses hunger outside of a mealtime, provide snacks with both favored and unfavored foods presented together to encourage healthy eating without restriction of choice. This can also alleviate the worry that your picky eater will only eat junk food. This leads to another parent role: availability. As mentioned in the Build a Better Plate post, keeping consistent meal and snack times will help create a reliable eating pattern for your picky eater. If you are able to offer consistent balanced meals for your picky eater, is will be easier to trust that they are eating what they need to thrive without controlling their mealtime behaviors.
Pressure to eat can often be sourced from the view that a child is not eating enough. While food waste can be frustrating, requiring your picky eater to clean the entire plate that was served to them creates overwhelming pressure. First, consider what a child sized portion is and compare it to how you typically serve your picky eater. As a general rule, the “palm size” can be used for each food group offered on the plate (2). This is a guideline, however, as some days they may not finish, and other times seconds might be served as appetite can differ day to day (6). Setting reasonable expectations for portion sizes and food consumption can reduce mealtime stress for both you and your picky eater.
Meal time Stress Review
Worry about your picky eater comes naturally from a place of care, although, when worry is translated into pressure it becomes counterproductive to mealtime success. Eliminating pressure tactics can allow your picky eater to develop typical eating behaviors and mealtime independence. It can also be helpful to reassure your picky eater that you won’t be disappointed if they do not eat a specific food offered. Simply allow other opportunities to try the food item again later, as internal motivation is shown to be the best stimulus (6). Reducing pressure on yourself and your picky eater’s diet can allow for a healthier, more enjoyable experience of food and expand to long-term healthy eating habits.
Helping your child with picky eating and feeling confident in trying new foods can feel overwhelming, in my book Blissful Meals, you’ll find my proven framework for increasing the foods your kiddo tries and LOVES! If you’re looking to get more customized support with your child’s picky eating, schedule a complimentary strategy call here.
(1)Brown CL, Pesch MH, Perrin EM, et al. Maternal Concern for Child Undereating. Acad Pediatr. 2016;16(8):777-782.
(2)Child Feeding Guide, Loughborough University. (2017). Pressure to eat.
(3)Child Feeding Guide, Loughborough University. (2017). Role modeling.
(4)Galloway AT, Fiorito L, Lee Y, Birch LL. Parental pressure, dietary patterns, and weight status among girls who are “picky eaters”. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005;105(4):541-8.
(5) Lumeng JC, Miller AL, Appugliese D, Rosenblum K, Kaciroti N. Picky eating, pressuring feeding, and growth in toddlers. Appetite. 2018;123:299-305.
(6)Rowell, K., McGlothlin, J., & Morris, S. E. (2015). Helping your child with extreme picky eating: A step-by-step guide for overcoming selective eating, food aversion, and feeding disorders. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
(7)Satter, E. (2016). Ellen Satter’s Divison of Responsibility in Feeding. Retrieved from
(8)Satter Institute, E. (2008). Solve your child’s feeding problems.
(9)Taylor CM, Emmett PM. Picky eating in children: causes and consequences. Proc Nutr Soc. 2019;78(2):161-169.
(10)Yee AZ, Lwin MO, Ho SS. The influence of parental practices on child promotive and preventive food consumption behaviors: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2017;14(1):47.