My 5 Simple Food Rules for Picky Eaters

By: Tricia Cornell

There’s a book out there called My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus. I know. I know. Just the sort of thing a parent deep in the throes of the food wars needs to read.

When I first encountered it, my household was in the middle of a seemingly intractable orange food phase. You know how some kids are beige eaters? (bread, pasta, cheese, potatoes) Mine, for a time, were orange eaters. I felt like I would never wash the smell of Goldfish crackers and boxed mac and cheese out of my clothes. The last thing I needed to hear about was some kid who was rolling her own sushi before she was potty-trained. (Don’t worry. I made that part up. But the octopus is real.)

I’m not here to bash the book; it’s actually a fun read, with some great tips. But let’s talk about that title. I know a lot of two-year-olds who would happily eat octopus. And I bet you do, too. Or maybe 18-month-olds, or three-year-olds. Most kids without any underlying medical issues go through phases when they are open to new foods. (Toddlers, in particular.) And then it’s back to beige.

Getting your two-year-old to eat octopus isn’t a particularly impressive parenting achievement. It’s more of a party trick. Let’s talk when you’ve got a five-year-old clamoring for broccoli. Or, more importantly, when you’ve raised a college student who will invite you to his apartment and stir-fry some vegetables for you.

Because that’s our ultimate goal, right? To raise healthy, adventurous adults. Whatever phase your child is in right now is just a mile marker on a long, long road. Watching the day-to-day (or week-to-week, or month-to-month) scorecard on how our kids are eating is a sure path to parenting insanity. As soon as you pat yourself on the back (like, right after your two-year-old tries octopus), you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

And as soon as you despair that your house smells permanently like orange food, your kid surprises you and asks for seconds of zucchini. As long as you’ve got the zucchini on the table in the first place, you’re doing okay in my book.

If you share a similar food philosophy, check out my 5 Food Rules for Picky Eaters below.

1. Don’t let pickiness define them. You know the best way to guarantee you raise a picky eater? By labeling your kid a picky eater. Keep offering a variety of foods, even if you think you know what the answer’s going to be. Someday — I promise — the answer will change.

2. Think long-term. A varied, complete diet is the goal, but it doesn’t have to happen in every meal. Or even every day. Keep offering a variety of foods. (Wait! I said the very same thing above! Well, that’s because this really is the key.) Over the course of a week, most kids’ diets will balance out, even if it means lots of carbs on Monday, lots of protein on Tuesday, nothing much at all on Wednesday, enough fruit to choke an elephant on Thursday.

3. Give them choices. But not too many. At my house, the choices stop when my rear end hits my chair at the dinner table. If it’s not on the table at that point, it’s not available for dinner. This has been non-negotiable all my kids’ lives. The time for choices comes while I’m planning what to cook for the week. I happily take suggestions at that point, and welcome their help in cooking.

4. Manners. Manners. Manners. Do I care if my kids reject what I cook? To be honest, yes. It hurts my feelings. But I keep that to myself. What gets a stern look at our dinner table is the way the rejection is stated. If you leave the zucchini on your plate, that’s fine. It’s not fine to call it “yucky” or push it around with a sour face. Picky eaters don’t get a pass on basic manners.

5. Structure snacks. A lot of families have basic mealtimes down — and that’s great. But snacks seem to come willy-nilly throughout the day. I’m not going to tell you what the rules around snacks should be at your house, but you definitely should have some. Some houses are no-snacking houses. Some have snacks at particular times. At some houses, the rule is “snack all you want, as long as it’s fruit.” You may be surprised to learn that some picky eaters aren’t picky at all: They’re full. From all that snacking.



1. It’s Not About Nutrition.

2. Family Feeding Dynamics

3. Image via stu_spivack Flick'r

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