Tips, Tricks, and Nutrition Considerations for Picky Eaters
Fussy eating can be a normal part of childhood, but picky eating is different (note some of the differences below). Feeding your family can be stressful, and having to navigate picky eating on top of that can make everything more challenging.
Normal Childhood Fussy Eating Behaviours
Picky Childhood Eating Behaviours
Only tries new foods sometimes
Only eats a few foods
Doesn’t want to eat veggies often
Hasn’t tried a new food in a long time
Meats or other proteins aren’t their favourite food
Not eating entire food groups (for example, no meat or protein)
One day they like a food and the next day or week, they don’t
Battles at every meal, mealtime stress
Doesn’t like eating mixed dishes (common in young children)
Only eats certain textures
Won’t eat in social settings (for example, birthday parties)
Foods need to be prepared in a certain way
I am going to be highlighting what nutrients a picky eater might be missing, and tips and tricks to help expand their food choices. My hope is that it provides you with some new strategies to try and lessen mealtime stress.
If you have a picky eater, they may be missing out on some of the following key nutrients.
It is common for picky eaters to avoid protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and legumes. Not getting enough protein can impact growth and immune performance.
What to Do: Offer protein sources you know they like at least once daily. You can also try higher-protein products such as fortified pancakes or breads that have higher protein content (looking for 5–6 g per serving). Dairy is also rich in protein. If your child enjoys milk, yogurt, or cheese, they will be getting decent amounts of protein through those sources. Soy options are also high in protein.
The Good News: Small children don’t need as much protein as you might think. For example, a toddler of 2–3 years of age only needs approximately 13 g of protein each day. They could obtain that from ½ cup yogurt (7 g) and 1 egg (7 g).
Iron is important for healthy blood production and oxygen transport in the body. If your child avoids iron-rich foods like red meat, spinach, and beans, they might be at risk of iron deficiency. In addition, if they are dairy lovers, the high calcium intake can play a role in inhibiting iron absorption.
What to Do: Monitor your child for signs of iron deficiency which include fatigue, weakness, difficulty sleeping, pale skin colouring, reduced immune function, and impaired cognitive function. Try offering iron-rich foods at least twice a day, and ensure they are consumed alongside vitamin C, as it enhances absorption—for example, meatballs and tomato sauce. If you feel they might be low in iron, discuss options with their health-care practitioner or nutrition expert. A supplement might be necessary here. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for iron is 8–10 mg depending on the age group.
Calcium is essential for building strong bones and teeth. If your child doesn’t like dairy products, they might not be getting enough calcium. Calcium-rich alternatives like fortified plant-based milks, dark leafy greens, or tofu could be options.
What to Do: If your child is not eating any of the foods mentioned above, you may want to consider a multivitamin containing calcium to ensure they are meeting the minimum requirements to support healthy growth.
Vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption, bone health, and immune function. Picky eaters who avoid fortified dairy or fatty fish (e.g., salmon) and spend limited time outdoors (in direct sunlight) may be at risk for vitamin D deficiency.
What to Do: Spend time outdoors in the sunshine (when possible, for at least 15–20 minutes each day without sunblock). I highly recommend a supplement for all Canadian children, especially over the fall and winter months, where direct sun exposure is minimal. Depending on the age, the dosage would range from 400 to 1,000 IU per day.
Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for brain health, cognitive function, and inflammation regulation. Children who avoid or eat limited quantities of fish, walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds may not be consuming enough of these essential fats.
What to Do: Try adding flaxseed oil to their yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, or something else they enjoy eating—it is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and an easy way to get it in. You can also try a fish-oil supplement (there are many different products on the market including chewable, liquid, and gummies).
Picky eaters may have an inadequate fibre intake if they are avoiding or eating minimal fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Fibre is important for supporting cardiovascular health, maintaining a healthy digestive system, and preventing constipation.
What to Do: Encourage your child to eat whole-grain bread as well as fruits and vegetables, preferably with the peel. If they have vegetable or fruit preferences, be sure to offer those alongside new foods to ensure they are getting the fibre their bodies need.
If you are concerned about your child’s nutrient intake and want to consider supplements or additional nutrition support, I highly recommend reaching out to a nutrition expert who can help guide you on what is best for your child and their specific needs.
Tips and Tricks to Help Expand Your Child’s Food Choices
Change takes time; be patient. Try implementing one or two of the strategies suggested below and give that change two or three weeks. Allow your child some time to respond to the new approach you are taking.
- Small changes over time; this might include changing the brand of food they like or changing the food item itself. What’s most important is taking it slow and make small changes over time. Once they accept a change, try slowing progressing to more change. For example, from their favourite take-out French fries, try French fries from another take-out spot, then homemade French fries, and finally, sweet-potato fries (change of the potato).
- Repeated exposure; just keep offering. It can take your child 12–15 times of being exposed to a food before they decide they want to try it. This doesn’t mean eat it, but simply try it. Practice patience and keep offering—they might surprise you one day!
- Have your child interact with foods you want them to eat. Try getting them smelling the food, touching the food, perhaps adding it to your plate for you. Interaction with food will eventually lead to eating the food—or at least trying it.
- Avoid pressure. This is the hardest part when it comes to picky eating, as parents always have the best intentions for their child or they are pressuring because they are concerned about lack of intake, growth, etc. Pressure can take many forms, and over time, pressure will likely create more mealtime stress and battles.
Different forms of pressure include “I made this just for you,” “if you don’t eat this, there is no TV later,” “if you don’t eat this, there is no dessert later,” or “just one more bite.”
Next time you are feeling inclined to say one of the above statements or to apply pressure, try stepping away and letting the situation be. Having a neutral stance on what they are eating will help reduce the stress of mealtime (for both you and your child).
- Offer a “safe” food. Put a food item on their plate that you know your child loves and will eat. This isn’t about creating an entirely separate meal for them, but simply including an item you know they will eat alongside new foods or your family meal. This item could be some fruit they love or a piece of cheese you know they will eat.
- Get them involved. Have fun together in the kitchen, try new recipes, have them pick out new items they want to try in the grocery store, and ask them for help.
Tip: Provide choice between two items. For example: “Do you want this fruit or this fruit?” Ultimately, you are choosing that they are eating fruit, but they have some choice as to which kind.
Wishing you and your family enjoyable mealtime moments ahead!
Angela Wallace, MSc, RD
A registered dietitian with the College of Dietitians of Ontario, personal trainer, and family food expert who specializes in women and child nutrition and fitness, she loves helping families get healthy together.