The One Phrase to Stop Saying to Your Picky Eater (and What to Say Instead)

Between a chicken nugget and a hard place

what not to say to a picky eater: Randy from 'A Christmas Story' eating mashed potatoes

You’ve spent 27 minutes trying to get your kid to eat a single pea, only to find out that they’ve sworn off green vegetables for good…along with anything that has sauce or a single speck of black pepper (“bugs”) on it. It’d be easy to entice them with a cookie or even drop down and beg, but you still have a shred of dignity, so you try the oldest trick in the book and say:

If you don’t eat all your [insert current despised food], you can’t be in the clean plate club.”

Oops—according to the experts, it turns out you just hurt your cause. I tapped Heidi Miller, CCC-SLP, COM, a pediatric feeding specialist, to find out what’s the best approach on the quest to transform a picky eater into a curious, open-minded epicurean (or, you know, just a kid who eats more than PB&J). The best strategy? It’s kind of counterintuitive. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t do.

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Meet the Expert

Heidi Miller, CCC-SLP, COM is a New Jersey–based speech-language pathologist, orofacial myologist and pediatric feeding specialist with over 20 years of experience. In addition to her work within the spectrum of speech, she has a particular interest in feeding disorders, and has worked with clients in a multitude of settings, including hospitals, schools and private clinics.

1. Model Good Eating, but Don’t Force It

About that clean-plate club: “Asking your children to ‘eat all of the food on their plate’ is a common mistake,” Miller told me. “According to [feeding expert] Ellyn Satter’s division of mealtime responsibilities, parents are responsible for what food is offered, when it is offered and where the meal takes place. The child chooses what food and how much of it they send to their belly.” In short, your job as the parent is to provide the nutrition. Beyond that, you’ll have to relinquish some control.

But as any parent that’s spiraled over a 6-year-old and a piece of salmon knows, that’s easier said than done. Miller’s suggestion? Instead of telling your child what they must eat or forcing them to finish a portion, share what you are doing: “I’m going to eat my crunchy broccoli first. What food are you starting with?” By modeling healthy eating behavior without making a big deal out of it, you’ll encourage your child to be relaxed and comfortable at mealtime, and therefore more open to trying new foods. 

2. Make Mealtime Relaxed (and Don’t Pressure Your Kid to Eat)

It’s tempting to offer a trade—one cupcake for three bites of bell pepper—but pressuring a child to eat is likely to backfire, experts say. Even when pressure seems positive (like with bribing, praising, rewarding or making a special plate for the picky eater), it makes too much of a show out of the meal. The goal is to make mealtime a relaxed, enjoyable event. 

One way to do this? Allow your child to poke around their plate before digging in. When you’re presenting new foods, Miller advises to not go directly to eating it. “Allow your child to explore the food by touching it, cutting it, putting to their lips or even biting into it.” This gives your child an idea of how the food will feel and taste in their mouth, and can lessen the anxiety caused by an unfamiliar dish.

3. Try a Non-Verbal Approach

So bribing, begging and cheerleading are all out, but expanding your child’s tastes beyond chicken nuggets is not a lost cause. In fact, Miller told me that non-verbal behaviors can be a major help when encouraging hesitant eaters. 

Start by eating with them: “By mirror modeling the food and eating family style,” she explained to me, “we create a shared experience, which is beneficial.”

Beyond that, any interaction with the food is a win. “Cooking, having your child help prepare some part of the meal, passing food to another family member: All of these things help. For younger feeders, trying finger food or fun shapes, turning foods into ‘pops’ and making feeding fun can be enticing too.”

Plus, Miller told me, it’s been proven that increased exposure to a variety of foods can help expand a child’s repertoire, so instead of falling back on repeat dinners, try to vary the menu to encourage your kid to try new foods. 

But, as she explained to me, the most important thing here is not to have distractions while eating. “If you are presenting these non-verbal cues, you want your child to be able to focus on them and not have their attention on the TV or iPad. Kids need to go through all the steps to eating. If feeding is a challenge for them, they really need to attend so they can learn to push through.” Sorry, Bluey, but you’re not invited to lunch this time.

4. Don’t Lose Your Cool (Or at Least Try to Be Chill)

The goal is to make your picky eater feel relaxed at mealtime, so above all, “Be CHILL!” Miller told me. “I know it’s hard but try your best to stay calm and reduce the pressure and stress around feeding.” Basically, the more Zen you are, the more green beans your kid will be likely to eat—and maybe even enjoy. (Maybe.)

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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...