Can my picky eater live on chicken nuggets? AHN Pediatrics has the answer.

I wasn’t going to argue with a 2-year-old about eating dinner. Now I’m arguing with a 4-year-old. How do I get him to eat more varieties of food, especially vegetables?

It may take years for young children to go beyond their favorite foods, insisting on yogurt, cheese sticks, or PB &J three times a day. There is security in the familiar. Why should they try anything else?

Picky eaters often expand their food choices over time, but it doesn’t make these early years any easier,” said Jennifer Yoon, RDN, LDN, IBCLC. ”Battles over food are rarely productive. It’s best to offer new or non-preferred foods consistently, without nagging or forcing the issue.”

picky eater
Photo courtesy of AHN.

Helping little bodies grow

Healthy brains and bodies require protein, vitamins, and minerals that are best absorbed through food. Plus, filling up on sugar or the wrong foods can lead to obesity.

But children don’t need to eat a lot to get the nutrients they need. For a 3-year-old, about 1,000 calories a day will do (according to the U.S. dietary guidelines). That’s one cup each of fruit and vegetables, two cups of dairy, three ounces of grains and two ounces of protein, divided by three meals and snacks.

“Our best advice is to stay positive,” said Yoon. “Praise the child for sitting at the table and for touching, tasting or eating new foods. Try to ignore complaints and don’t provide substitutions.”

Other tips for timid palates

Make mealtime family time, with lots of talk, and no TV or phones. Everyone should get the same dinner, but try to include one thing that each family member likes.

  • Introduce new foods in small portions, like a spoonful of rice or one floret of cauliflower. If they eat that, applaud their success.
  • Shop and cook with your kids and they may be more eager to explore new foods.
  • Encourage “one bite of everything.” Be a good role model and try something that is new to you, too.
  • Let your children choose their own portion size. No clean plates needed.
  • Eliminating juice and soda can help you limit added sugar to less than 10% of daily calories, about 6 teaspoons (25 grams).
  • Dessert shouldn’t be the reward for eating dinner. That makes dessert valuable and vegetables a chore.

“Don’t become too caught up in this struggle. A new food is a huge consideration at this age and for some children. Just allowing the food to be on the plate is a big first step. Let them get there at their own pace,” said Yoon.

If your child’s diet is limited, talk to your pediatrician about their weight, and the need for any vitamin or mineral supplements. The doctor may want to do a blood test for any iron or vitamin D deficiency.

Every child is different, so check with AHN Pediatrics or your child’s doctor for specific advice.

This article is a paid content partnership with Allegheny Health Network.