The Picky Eater Habit Parents Can Use to Their Advantage, According to Experts

Let’s lower the pressure

kid only eats one thing: a toddler eating at the table with a bib on
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Feeding your kid can be fun, frustrating and anxiety-inducing rolled into one—this, all parents know. After all, you’re responsible for providing nourishment and therefore influencing your kid’s healthy development. No big deal, right?

So when Otto won’t eat anything but peanut butter puffs for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it’s completely natural that you spiral. He’s going to eat the same thing for the rest of his life and be stunted and it’s my fault, you think. But according to the experts, serving the same foods won’t make or break your kid’s development. In fact, it might help them. I spoke with a nutritionist to find out more.

Meet the Experts

  • Elizabeth Davenport, MPH, RD, LD is a registered dietician, child feeding expert and co-founder of Sunny Side Up Nutrition. At her Washington, D.C.–based private practice, she specializes in treating individuals with eating disorders and families seeking support in feeding their children.
  • Stephanie Cohen, M.A., CCC-SLP, CLC is a Chicago-based speech-language pathologist, lactation consultant and author who has advanced training in pediatric feeding disorders and specializes in working with children from birth through 3 years of age.

First, Why Does Your Child Want the Same Food All the Time?

Per speech-language pathologist Stephanie Cohen, M.A., CCC-SLP, CLC, there’s a likely reason why your kid wants to eat the same food over and over again: “For many children, same food means safety,” she says in a TikTok. According to Cohen, when a meal is predictable, a child can come to the table feeling hungry and know there will be something with a familiar texture and flavor to satisfy their hunger.

That said, if you’re dealing with an extreme picky eater, “it’s important for parents to see their pediatrician to screen for anything that might be contributing to the extreme picky eating and to have the child’s growth assessed,” registered dietician Elizabeth Davenport, MPH, RD, LC, told me. “It’s also recommended that parents seek out the support of a registered dietitian, speech-language pathologist and/or occupational therapist who works from a responsive feeding lens.”

Why It’s OK to Serve Your Child the Same Food (At Least Sometimes)

As a parent who’s probably stressing over every untouched broccoli crown, rest assured that when you provide familiar foods to your child, you’re not necessarily holding them back. You’re actually showing them that they can trust you and that you understand them, as Cohen explains in her video.

“This isn’t saying we are not going to think about offering opportunities for our child to learn,” Cohen elaborates in her TikTok, “but you have to start with helping your child feel safe with you.”

Offer Chances to Try New Foods, But Don’t Force Them

So you’re not ruining your kid’s palate by serving them nuggets again…but obviously you still want them to eat a nutritious variety of foods. How, though?

While it’s tempting to force your kid to finish their entire plate instead of allowing them to pick out the “good” parts, resist that urge. “Forcing a child to eat foods teaches them that they aren’t in charge of their bodies or what they eat,” Davenport told me. What’s more is that, “research shows that pressing children to eat certain foods doesn’t lead to them eating more foods long-term.”

Remember, your kid wants to feel safe and comfortable at mealtime. “It’s recommended not to force a child to eat foods they don’t feel safe eating,” Davenport explained. “By making kids eat foods they don’t feel safe eating, we interfere with their autonomy and their natural intuitive eating skills, and we’re setting up food to become a battleground.”

Introduce New Foods in a Low-Stress Way

There’s a delicate balance between appeasing your kid and getting them to branch out, because while you want to provide a safe environment, you also don’t want this single-food-saga to become a long-forming habit. “If parents offer only the foods that they know their child will eat, their children will not accept new foods as they grow and develop,” Davenport agreed. The key, she explained, is to provide structure and support without pressure so your kid can develop eating skills as they grow.

For parents, this can look like creating a low-stress meal and snack environment, remaining neutral about how you talk about foods, allowing your child to serve and feed themself if they’re old enough, offering regular meals and snacks and being attuned and responsive to your child’s cues. “Assure your child there will be food they feel comfortable eating and that they don’t have to eat anything they don’t like,” she said.

To introduce new foods to kids in a low-pressure way, Davenport suggested the following ideas:

  • Serve foods family-style: This gives children the opportunity to try less-safe foods when they feel ready. 
  • Serve meals deconstructed: For example, if you’re making pasta with tomato sauce and your child doesn’t like sauce, serve the sauce on the side or family style. If your child doesn’t like sauce, they’re able to have the pasta without it. 
  • Offer new foods at snack time: Kids tend to be less hungry then, so it may not feel as stressful. 
  • Make foods in different forms: Your child might not like sauteed spinach, but they might try a spinach and cheese quesadilla. Or, offer new foods with a dip or sauce your child likes.
  • Eat new foods in front of your kid: Seeing parents and others eat foods they don’t eat is another form of exposure.
  • Interact with food without the pressure to try it: Take kids to a U-pick farm, visit the farmers market or grocery store together, read books about different foods, do a fun art project with a new food, or have a cooking competition or other game with food.
  • Have kids help in the kitchen: For example, having a child put lettuce in a bowl is exposure to lettuce without the pressure to eat anything.

The Bottom Line

Tl;dr? If your kid only wants to eat one food, it’s probably because it makes them feel safe at mealtime (but check with your pediatrician, too). As long as you provide ample opportunities for them to try new foods in a low-pressure way, letting them eat their safe food won’t set them back (but it will help them trust you).

Child Therapists Are Begging You to Stop Telling Your Kids to Do This


Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...