When it comes to food, children know what they like, and are quick to dismiss anything that isn't familiar. Getting kids to try new things can take an immense amount of patience and creativity from parents. Here, parenting experts share their advice with us on how to best curb these behaviors at a young age.

By Topher Gauk-Roger
July 01, 2020 11:00 AM
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Getting children excited about eating healthy foods can be a tough challenge for parents. Kids know what they like, and are quick to dismiss anything that doesn't interest them. But as all parents know, children cannot live off a diet of only their favorite foods, so getting them to also eat the vegetables — or dreaded 'green things' — can take extensive patience and creativity.

"This isn't something that will happen overnight, and parents and caregivers need to recognize that many small actions they take will eventually lead to kids taking slow, small steps to better eating habits," Philadelphia-based dietitian Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD tells PEOPLE.

We talk to experts like Jones and pediatrician Elizabeth Murray with the University of Rochester Medical Center to answer questions parents may have about curbing these picky eating habits.

If my kid is a picky eater now, will they be forever? 

The concern for many parents regarding picky eating behaviors is how long they'll last, or if they could become permanent. But never fear, as Murray assures, picky eating will usually fix itself over time. "Toddlers, who are notorious for being picky eaters, are developmentally trying to figure out how they fit in the world," she tells PEOPLE. "This means that they are trying to understand what they can control and what they cannot. A toddler who has access to food will never starve."

Jones believes in a three-pronged approach. "I feel the top three ways to transform your child's diet are to stop pressuring them, change the way you talk about their attitude toward food and to continue to offer as many foods as you can, indefinitely," she says. "Pressuring your child to eat a food they don't love or aren't familiar with can create stress at mealtime and anxiety toward those foods. Instead, have a small amount of the unfamiliar food on their plate and after asking once if they'd like to try it, let it go." As Murray adds, "Eating should never be allowed to be a point of contention or argument with your children."

"My only rule for my son is that the foods I put on his plate have to stay on his plate," Jones continues. "If he doesn't want to taste it that day, that's fine. He typically winds up at least touching it or smelling it, which are important steps in the exposure process to become more interested in trying and eventually liking a food." She also stresses not labeling a child as a "picky eater," especially in front of them, to keep it from becoming an excuse for them not to try things.

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"My son actually will say some days 'I don't like eggs' when they're on his plate and he really just means 'I don't want eggs,' " says Jones. "Just like adults, all foods don't always sound good, so if they say this to you, just say 'you don't have to eat them now, we can try again later.' This doesn't mean making them a new meal, but it means not forcing them to eat something just because they usually like it."

Murray stresses the importance of not only offering them items they like out of concern they won't eat them otherwise. "I often hear from parents who say that their child will only eat chicken tenders or only noodles," she says. "That might be the case for now, but don’t let it be the case because you are only offering them those." Jones adds that research has shown it can take 30 or more exposures to a food before someone likes it.

Should I sneak foods my kids won’t eat into other foods?

One tactic parents often try is having their kids eat things they don't want without them realizing it. If you mix the food they're so hesitant about into something they love, will they even notice what they're actually consuming? For Jones, it's about keeping an honest dialogue with your child. "Sometimes acceptance of a food really comes down to texture and preparation, so once they realize they like something in a new way, they won't mind eating it that way again," she says. "Eventually, they will be willing to try it another way, too."

"You also don't need to assume you have to hide it from your kids the first time around," Jones adds. "Using my son as an example, when we make smoothies he helps add the spinach and butternut squash right in, but he still doesn't eat spinach on its own. He also went through a phase where he stopped eating lentils, so I'd smash them and add them to his quesadillas and sandwiches for extra iron and fiber."

Murray is a bit wary of this technique, suggesting parents be patient in thinking about a child's intake over the week instead of worrying about each individual meal. "Toddlers and younger children are active, they can be temperamental, and they are trying to figure everything out," she reminds. "Some days your child may have a huge lunch and therefore not be as interested in dinner. That’s okay; letting your child listen to their body is important."

Is it effective to not let them get up until their plate is clean?

Many parents likely grew up with this mandate, unable to go about their day until they had eaten every bite on their plate. Parents enforce this scare tactic to pressure children into eating things that make them miserable, with the child having zero say in the matter. Both of our experts are quick to shut down this plan.

"Always try to offer something you know your child would like, but do not make them a special meal," Murray suggests. "Don’t give up, but stand firm. If your child does not eat any dinner, make it clear that they will not be allowed to snack later on.  If they are not hungry at dinnertime, fine, but set a clear expectation of what food may be available to them later, like a dinner substitute."

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As Jones points out, forcing kids to clean their plate can make meals an anxiety-inducing experience for them. "This not only means you can make their picky eating worse, but you could set them up for an unhealthy relationship with food now and as an adult," she advises. "It's especially harmful to attach rewards to finishing the food on their plate. For example, if your child is told they don't get cookies until they finish their broccoli, they start putting cookies on a pedestal and thinking of broccoli as the bad thing they need to get through to get to the treats. It can also lead to someone feeling that overeating is normal and that they shouldn't listen to their body's fullness cues."

Murray recommends having meals together as a family with no distractions, "to allow the rest of the family to model appropriate mealtime behaviors — and it’s a great way for the family to stay connected."

Jones also asks that parents trust their children to know when they are hungry or when they are full.  "Maybe you don't want them to know there is dessert until they're done with their meal (meaning finished, not that they've cleaned the plate), or you can offer dessert with dinner," she suggests. "I do the latter often and see my son go from biting into a cookie and then back to taking a bite of his pasta with kale pesto."

How do I pick and choose my battles with feeling my kids have eaten enough?

Food can feel like a constant war for parents, with every meal served with a side of complications. As any parent knows, it is paramount to know when to let things slide to avoid becoming completely overwhelmed. "Mealtime should never be a battle, so you can simply make it a rule that they at least have to sit at the table while everyone else eats — even if they aren't hungry," says Jones. "If you're confident they have an option they do like, getting up to make another option for them shouldn't be an option for you! If they truly aren't hungry, cover the meal in the fridge and offer it again at their next snack or meal."

Murray assures there's an important distinction between battling and setting a clear expectation of eating habits, and the earlier parents set these expectations, the better. "Key parts to a meal: when possible, eat as a family; offer a variety of foods often; try to serve at least one item you know they will like in combination with other items; if your child chooses not to participate, don’t battle, but make it clear that they are not participating in dinner time," she says. "If they become hungry later in the evening, that is fine, but the food they are offered later will be something similar, served at the table, etc."

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Are there any tricks when you eat out with your picky eater?

A big stress for parents can be the taking kids out to eat with the family. Aside from the pressures of getting them to the restaurant and praying they behave, there's the matter of hoping they'll actually eat anything. But as Murray points out, it's only one meal of the day and if they don't eat much, it's okay.

"You can always bring something you know they will like to supplement what is offered at the restaurant, but there may be a phase where ordering off the menu for your child is really just a waste of food," she shares. "If you know that it will be frustrating for you to purchase a meal for them that they won’t eat, then it’s best to not order them anything or pick something that will make for good leftovers."

Parents should consider taking the children with them any time they eat out from a young age, and have them taste your meals when they're eating solid foods. This may keep them from getting too used to a 'meal routine' they struggle breaking later on.

"This sets the stage early to try things that are prepared differently than at home and to share meals in different environments together," says Jones. "If you're trying to encourage an older child to eat better while out, try to always have at least one familiar food on their plate that you know they enjoy so that they aren't staring at a dish that looks entirely weird to them."

The extra step of bringing food for them may prove frustrating, but the familiarity can help children feel less anxious about the new food in front of them when you're out, and will encourage them to try something new. "They may leave having only eaten that familiar food and the bread at the restaurant, but without completely foreign items and pressure from you, they won't have anxiety about the eating experience, which is important in the long run," Jones adds.

Will it make a difference to make them part of the shopping or cooking process?

The fear kids have of new foods can stem from their unfamiliarity with how the item is made, or where it originates. One solution may be inviting your child to be part of the meal prep from the beginning, helping them build a level of comfort early on.

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"Toddlers and kids want to feel in control since most of their day is decided for them," says Jones. "By having a say in which new vegetable you buy at the store, or by playing a role in preparing a mixed dish, for example, they'll feel more inclined to try it." Adds Murray, "Remember, toddlers are trying to figure out how they fit into the family and they want to be able to do what everyone else in the family is able to do."

It's important for parents to find a part of the process that interests their child, and go from there. Jones encourages parents to grow herbs and vegetables with their children, even if it's just a basil plant on the counter they're responsible for. "My son helped plant the seeds for our vegetable garden this year and helps me water them most days, too," she shares. "He may not love all of the items we are growing yet, but he is quick to pull the cilantro, basil, and snap peas and taste them on his own without me asking."

"I found that with my own children, the cooking process was a little tricky, but they both enjoyed standing at the sink to work on 'cleaning' the dishes involved in food prep," Murray adds. "Avoid letting children near raw meats or eggs, but a sink full of bubble soap can be a great distraction!"

Is it important to create a routine when it comes to food?

Consistency is the key for children to adapt. As Murray reminds, when it comes to kicking some of the traits of a picky eater, "it's a marathon, not a sprint." Navigating new things is a daily hurdle for children, and it can be both exciting and stressful for them, so having routine can help create a structure to get through it.

But Jones points out the importance of flexibility, because no one knows your child better than you. "When my 2-year-old is overly hungry, he gets angry quickly (just like adults) and will start acting out," she shares. "It typically happens if he was more active than normal the day before or that day, typical when he's at a family member or friend's house. In these cases, he may have a larger snack earlier than normal, or have a small snack before his scheduled mealtime."