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Picky Eaters

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Between the ages 1-5 years, children are often “picky eaters”. They eat small amounts of a limited variety of food. Eating less is normal for children after the age of one because their growth rate slows down. Children between ages 1-5 years tend to eat less because they are normally very active and often want to play rather than eat. After turning 2 years old, it is normal for children to gain only 4-6 pounds a year. Since they are growing slower, they need only small amounts of food. Children are the best judge of how much food they should eat. By providing children with healthy food choices, parents remain in charge of what kinds of food children eat.

Tips for Helping Your Picky Eater:

If your child is still taking a bottle, take the bottle away.

  • Drinking too much by bottle can decrease your child’s appetite for other foods.
  • Children should be off the bottle at 12-13 months of age.

Let your young child feed him/herself with fingers or a spoon.

  • Self-feeding is very important, even if your child makes a mess.
  • By age 18 months, most children can use a spoon, but spills are to be expected.

Be a good “food model” for your child by eating a variety of healthy foods in front of your child during meals and snack time.

  • Children often copy the eating habits of those around them.

Avoid mealtime battles by making mealtime calm and pleasant.

Do not battle over food or make your child “clean the plate”. Never force your child to eat.

Since children only eat small amounts, give them smaller portions of food.

  • Seconds can be given if your child wants more.
  • A typical amount is one tablespoon per year of age. For example, a two-year-old would probably eat two tablespoons of each food.

Since children often make a mess, try to use large bibs and small plastic bowls, plates, cups and spoons.

  • Choose items that are easy to clean and the right size for your child’s small hands.

Make a game of trying new foods and encourage your child to try at least one bite.

  • Be careful not to force a new food, as this may cause the child to resent it.

If your child does not want to eat a meal, stay calm – it is okay.

  • Simply remove the plate and tell your child something like “the next time to eat will be dinner time”.
  • Do not scold.

Serve meals at regular times.

  • Children do better with routines and may become cranky and not eat well when off schedule.
  • Young children usually eat three meals and two snacks per day.

Include a variety of foods from the Food Guide Pyramid throughout the day. The food groups are:

  • Milk
  • Meat/Proteins
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Breads/Cereals
  • Fats/Oils/Sweets (use sparingly)

If your child does not eat one of the foods in a group, you should help him/her pick another choice from that group. 

Food Group


Milk Group

Cheese; cottage cheese; yogurt; powdered milk mixed with other foods; milk on cereal

Bread Group

Cereal; rice noodles; crackers; waffles

Meat /Protein Group

Eggs; tuna; peanut butter; chicken; beef; boneless fish, beans

Fruit Group

Variety of fruits, both canned and fresh; fruit juice; fruits in gelatin

Vegetable Group

Variety of vegetables, both canned and fresh; vegetable drinks; vegetables in soup

Try to give your child healthy snacks by limiting “junk” food such as chips, cookies and candy.

  • Give foods such as cheese, crackers, cereal or fruit for snacks.
  • Give fruit juice and water for snack drinks instead of soda and Kool-aid.

Snacks should be given at least 1 ½ hours before the next meal.

  • If snacks are too close to meals, then a child’s appetite for the meal can be poor.
  • It may be best not to give a snack if your child did not eat the last meal so the that he/she will have a good appetite for the next meal.

Do not have your child come to the table to eat until the food is ready and let your child leave the table as soon as he/she is finished.

  • Young children are very active and will not want to sit still at the table for very long.

Children often can change their favorite foods. They may go through times of eating only one kind of food. This is normal.

When to be Concerned:

You should call your child’s doctor if your child:

  • Has difficulty swallowing.
  • Is losing weight.
  • Has not gained any weight in 4-6 months. 
  • Has fever, diarrhea or vomiting for more than 24 hours.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.

Reviewed: 04/2008

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