Not all picky eaters are the same – there are actually several different types of picky eaters. And for each type, there are different strategies that work best to get them to eat. Learn what type of picky eater your child is, and tips to encourage adventurous eating based on their type.
Many toddlers and preschoolers are picky eaters. So, if your 2-5 year old is reluctant to eat the food you offer, you’re certainly not alone. And even though kids who try a variety of flavors and textures in their first two years are more likely to be adventurous eaters later on, this doesn’t always apply right away. Any kid could be a picky eater in the toddler and preschool years.
But here’s something that may surprise you – not all picky eaters are picky for the same reasons. There are actually several different types of picky eaters. And for each type, there are different strategies that work best to get them to eat. Today, we’ll help you figure out what type of picky eater your child is, and tips to encourage adventurous eating based on their type and needs.
1. The “bland foods only” picky eater
What it looks like: Your little one doesn’t want strongly flavored and spiced foods. They only want very basic foods like scrambled eggs, butter noodles, and chicken nuggets.
Why it may be happening: You can likely chalk this one up to evolution, especially if your little one loved a lot of stronger flavors in their first two years.
When our hunter-gatherer ancestors became toddlers and got mobile enough to wander off from their parents, the preference for bland flavors over strong and bitter ones helped protect them from harmful leaves and berries.
This trait carries over to today: once your little one is able to walk and run with ease, they may start to get a lot pickier and choose only bland flavors.
Strategies to try: Sneak in variety a little bit at a time. For example, add olive oil to your little one’s noodles instead of butter, or sneak in a little bit of shredded veggies to their mac and cheese. Don’t tell them about these changes. If they ask if something’s different, though, be honest.
Another way to encourage more adventurous eating is to give yourself and your child the same plate of food, and then “model” by showing how much you’re enjoying the flavors first. Kids are natural imitators, so they’ll be more likely to try something after they see you eat it.
These other strategies might help as well:
- Have your little one help make a flavorful meal, by doing simple tasks like pouring in ingredients and stirring. This gets them used to the food, but doesn’t require them to eat it at the moment.
- Let your child smell, touch, and lick a food before eating, to get used to it.
- Do an activity where your child can make different patterns and pictures with new foods.
- Portion a flavorful food on little spoons, and let your child choose how much they want to eat.
2. The “foods can’t touch” picky eater
What it looks like: Your child doesn’t mind trying a lot of different flavors… as long as foods don’t touch on the plate, and are all separated properly. But if foods are touching – or mixed together in any way – your little one won’t eat the food.
Why it may be happening: Your little one probably wants control of the situation. They could be anxious about a big change (think potty training, starting preschool, or welcoming a new sibling). Or, their emotions could be at their peak for another reason. Asking for food separated out is a way to calm their emotions and take control of a situation.
Strategies to try: It’s totally fine to give in on this one and make sure foods don’t touch, especially if the meal is the same as the rest of the family’s. A divider plate works well for this type of situation.
But if you’re serving something like tacos or casserole (where everything is combined), try showing your child all the foods separate before you mix them, so they can see what the foods in the meal look like when separated out. You might also involve them in the food prep for this meal.
At the meal, ask your little one to give themself a very tiny portion of everything mixed together – just to put on the plate. Tell them they don’t have to eat that portion. They’re still in control over whether they eat it, but they’ll have a chance to get used to what it looks like. If they fuss, calmly mention that everyone has that food on their plate, and then redirect the conversation by asking them about something they enjoy.
3. The texture-averse picky eater
What it looks like: Your child doesn’t like foods with certain different textures, whether that’s crunchy pieces of thin carrots, slimy yogurt, or lumpy sweet potatoes.
Why it may be happening: Your little one may still be building confidence in exploring textures, especially because their mouth and jaw muscles are still developing. They might reject foods that they aren’t confident about munching, chewing, and swallowing, because they don’t feel like they have enough control.
Strategies to try: Introduce totally different textures of the foods your little one isn’t confident in.
- For instance, if they don’t like strips of crunchy veggies, try blanching the veggies (heating them in boiling water for 2-5 minutes, then immediately dunking them in ice water so they’re in between the tender and crunchy textures.)
- If slimy yogurt is an issue, try mixing it into overnight oats or a thick fruit smoothie.
- Or, if chewy meat’s a problem, try roasting meat tender or cooking moist meatballs.
It might also be helpful if you let your child feel the texture on their teeth before putting it in their mouth or on their tongue.
After they build confidence in the more “friendly” texture, you can see if they’d like to try different textures of that same food – but starting with small bites.
You might also give them a stool at the table, so they can rest their feet. It’s easier for young kids to chew when their feet are resting on something solid, because their feet support their core muscles. This might give them more confidence.
4. The “nothing new” picky eater
What it looks like: Your little one loves the meals that they’re used to, but won’t touch anything new that you put in front of them.
Why it may be happening: Your little one could simply not be used to the new food. Or, they might want to have a choice about what they eat, and would rather stick with the familiar things they know they enjoy.
Strategies to try: Keep putting the food in front of your little one, and don’t give up if they don’t want to eat it! It often takes 10-15 exposures to a food before a child learns to enjoy it. Modeling is great for this type of picky eater, too – try the food yourself, and show how much you enjoy it.
You can also give your child a choice in one part of the family meal, so they get something they enjoy (for example, ask them “Would you like peas or carrots at dinner?”). But then, serve the favorite with the new or newer foods.
Try encouraging your child to touch or sniff a new food first. Or, you might serve just one bite of the new food on a spoon. While you should leave it up to your child if they take that bite, presenting the small portion of the new food may be less overwhelming. If they take the bite, offer them more the next time you serve that food.
Your little one might also like one way that a new food is prepared better than other ways, so vary the way you serve the new foods. Why not give your little one a choice between different recipes with a food you’re introducing, and possibly even involve them in food prep?
5. The specific picky eater
What it looks like: Your little one will only eat foods that are served in a certain way (such as bread with no crust, or only bright yellow mac and cheese). This is similar to the picky eater who doesn’t want new foods or only bland foods, but slightly different.
Why it may be happening: Your little one likes to stick to foods they feel confident in. They may be apprehensive about trying new foods, and want the power to choose the familiar.
Strategies to try: Try preparing new meals together, so your little one gets familiar with different ways food is prepared and served. At mealtimes, it’s important to expose your child to different types of food and different ways that they can be served – but without pressure to eat the food. Try starting with small amounts and encouraging them to touch or sniff it first. The more your child is exposed to new foods, the more likely they are to try these foods on their own.
6. The picky eater who would rather drink milk
What it looks like: Your little one drinks lots of milk throughout the day. But when mealtime comes, all they want to do is drink their glass of milk – and they won’t touch anything on their plate.
Why it may be happening:It’s a lot quicker to drink milk than eat food, so your little one might prefer the milk because they can leave the table sooner and get back to playing.
Milk is a healthy drink, but it fills your little one up quickly. If your child drinks too much milk throughout the day, that leaves little room for them to be hungry for solid foods.
Strategies to try: Only give your little one a small cup of milk at the next meal. If they drink all the milk, switch to water with their next meals, and then milk after the meals.
You might also set a “table timer” to get your little one used to staying at the table during family mealtimes. Start with setting the timer for 7-10 minutes, and ask your child to stay at the table with family until they hear the bell. Then, at the timer, they can go play regardless of how much they’ve eaten. Gradually increase the time as desired once your child’s used to the 7-10 minute timeframe.
7. The picky eater who gags
What it looks like: When you give your child a new food, they put it in their mouth… but then, they almost always gag.
Why it may be happening: Your child may have sensory issues, which might cause them to over-react to the sensation of the food and gag immediately. Or, they may have difficulties in moving their mouth, jaw, tongue, and muscles of the face (known as oral-motor issues). Talk to your pediatrician to find out if this is the case.
If your pediatrician rules out both of these issues, the gagging might be a sign of stress. Your child could be anxious about you trying to get them to eat something new. Or, if they have a history of reflux, food intolerances, or constipation, have a food allergy, or have choked before, they could be stressed due to those previous negative experiences with food.
Strategies to try: If your child has sensory or oral-motor issues, your pediatrician will advise you on next steps and possibly refer you to the appropriate specialist.
If the gagging is due to stress, use low-pressure ways to introduce the new foods. This could include presenting the food in an activity where they can touch it and make pictures, helping you prepare the foods, or encouraging them to smell the food.
You could even put your child in charge of scooping out big or small portions for your family using big and small spoons. This way, they can engage with the food using their other senses before choosing whether to taste it. This may also add fun to meals and lessen the stress.
8. The unpredictable picky eater
What it looks like: One day, your little one loves a meal you put in front of them – one with flavors that they loved in their first two years. The next time you serve that meal, though, your little one rejects it outright, or maybe only eats a few bites.
Why it may be happening: This one could also be about control. Your little one might be refusing foods they normally enjoy because they want to take charge of the situation.
Or, your little one might just not be hungry. Compared to their first 18 months of life, they’re growing a lot less, so their appetite could vary greatly from meal to meal and from day to day.
Another reason your child might not have an appetite is if they haven’t expended enough energy through active play. If they are sitting around all day, they won’t work up much of an appetite.
Strategies to try: Don’t get discouraged if it looks like your little one rejected a meal out of the blue. Keep serving it – they will likely eat it and enjoy it on another day. And if you think your little one isn’t expending enough energy, work more active play into the day.
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