The first thing to know is that there’s nothing wrong with your child. Lots of kids — and let’s be honest, scores of adults, too — aren’t thrilled about trying new foods. Beyond the taste, unfamiliar smells, colors, and textures are often enough to make a kid go, “No way!”
So, what can you do about it? Find tips and ideas for picky 6-year-olds below.
What you can try
Trying (and failing) to get your child to eat different foods can be frustrating. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the issue, here are a few strategies that might work. The earlier you try to expand your child’s menu, the better!
Relieve the pressure
Feeding young children can be so stressful, so take the pressure off of everyone. That means not encouraging or forcing children to eat or “take one bite.” It’s hard to remain neutral when kids aren’t eating or when you’re excited that they’ve tried something new, but removing criticism, punishments, and even praise and rewards can be helpful. If you’re excited they’ve tried something new, try asking how it tasted or about the texture. Knowing it’s not your job to force or trick them into eating can be a real relief.
Family meals whenever possible
It’s not the whole piece of the puzzle, but striving to eat meals as a family might help the cause. Make a point to turn off the TV, put phones away, and sit at the table together. While enjoying meals together, chat about a silly or fun thing you each did that day or something you’re looking forward to.
One meal for everyone
Although it might take some time for your child to want to try everything on their plate, it’s important to prepare just one meal for the whole family whenever possible. That way, kids don’t get the impression they can refuse what’s offered and convince you to make them something else. Make sure there is something “safe” at every meal. This may mean you need to add a serving of fruit or a basic item like bread to a meal or deconstruct a mixed food.
It’s not a good idea to offer a full meal without any familiar or accepted foods, hunger won’t force most picky eaters to eat, and even a few bites of a familiar food can encourage more exploration.
More choice at the grocery store
For some kids, refusing to eat certain foods might be an attempt to exert control at an age when adults are calling virtually all the shots. In that case, it might help to give your child a little more choice over their diet while still encouraging healthy options.
Consider taking them to the grocery store with you and allowing them to pick out a couple of new fruits, veggies, or dinner staples, like a fun shape or color of pasta. If taking them shopping isn’t an option, let them help plan the menu each week. Siblings can each have a designated night and encourage each other to accept new ideas or themes.
At home, ask your kiddo if they’d like to help you prepare a meal. You can cook something they chose at the grocery store or whip up a simple pre-planned dinner for the family. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), this might give them a sense of pride while easing their fears about trying something new.
One new thing at a time
Offering several new foods at once might overwhelm your child. Instead, try introducing one new thing at a time alongside a couple of their tried-and-true favorites. You can also try separating ingredients, as many picky eaters don’t trust a new mixed food. For example, instead of serving pasta salad, serve each ingredient onto their plate separately. Over time you may be able to mix!
On a similar note, large portions may overwhelm a picky eater. The Mayo Clinic recommends offering new foods in smaller portions — one to three bites’ worth is a good place to start. Serving meals family-style means it’s easier to add food to their plate. This also reduces food waste.
Presenting new foods as a yes or no question, such as, “Do you want asparagus for dinner?” may result in a hard “No” more often than not. You might get a better response by proposing it as a choice instead, like, “Would you like carrots, broccoli, or asparagus for dinner tonight?”
Children at age 6 should have set meal and snack times. It’s harder for kids to key into feelings about hunger or be interested in family meals if the kitchen is always accessible.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests serving unfamiliar foods in fun shapes. Of course, you can buy dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and cartoon-themed mac n’ cheese at the grocery store. But it’s super easy to do it at home using cookie cutters or small tools sold for this purpose. You can stamp out playful chunks of fruits, vegetables, and sandwiches — to name just a few.
And don’t forget the fun utensils! Novelty forks, toothpicks, or plates can encourage trying something new.
Picky eaters: It can change
Your child’s picky eating habits won’t go away overnight. Aiming for small, consistent changes can make a big difference over time.
If you’re concerned about your child’s extreme pickiness, nutrition, growth, or development, check in with their pediatrician for insight and guidance.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
Read more from this series
- Taylor CM and Emmett PM. Picky eating in children: causes and consequences. Proc Nutr Soc. 2019. 78(2):161-169. doi:10.1017/S0029665118002586
- McCarthy C. Beyond Chicken Nuggets: Protein-Rich Alternatives for Picky Eaters. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2021. Web.
- Larson H. 8 Ways to Get Picky Eaters to Become More Adventurous. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2021. Web.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. Children’s nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters. Mayo Clinic. 2020. Web.
- Milanaik R, et al. Parental Management of Picky Eaters: Common Parenting Pitfalls. Pediatrics. 2019. 144 (2_MeetingAbstract): 210. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.144.2MA3.210
- First L. What Happens to Picky Eaters Over Time? A Study with Some Food for Thought. AAP Journals Blog. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2020. Web.
- McCarthy C. Study gives insight — and advice — on picky eating in children. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School.
- Jennifer Anderson, MSPH, RDN. “Solve Picky Eating: 11 Expert Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters.” Kids Eat in Color. Kids Eat in Color. August 2021. .https://kidseatincolor.com/picky-eating/.
- “10 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters.” Healthychildren.org. AAP. April 26, 2018. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/nutrition/Pages/Picky-Eaters.aspx.