Nutrients, Eating Habits, and Picky Eaters17 min read
Raising healthy eaters can feel overwhelming, especially as children begin to assert their own opinions about food.
Creating healthy eating patterns for children is important for optimal growth and development, building a healthy immune system, and reducing the risk of chronic diseases later in life (
Children over the age of 1 will get most of their nutrition from solid food, and it’s important they eat foods from a variety of food groups to meet their vitamin and mineral needs (
That means eating protein-rich foods, carbs, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats. The amount of each food group will vary by age, gender, and activity level (
However, kids like what they already know, and getting them to try new foods or make sure they’re eating from all food groups can be challenging.
This guide helps you understand what you need to know and how to raise healthy, competent eaters.
Building healthy meal patterns for kids starts at home. You can do many things as a parent to encourage healthy eating.
Offer a wide variety of foods at each sitting
One of the best ways to encourage healthy eating is to offer a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods at each meal and snack (
At each meal, aim to serve:
- a fruit or vegetable
- proteins like meat, fish, poultry, tofu, or beans
- starchy vegetables or grains like potatoes, sweet potatoes, bulgur, or rice
- a fat source like oils, nuts, nut butter, or avocado
Even if your child doesn’t try or like a food the first (or even third) time you serve it, continue to offer those foods at future meals or snacks. Some kids may need to be exposed to a food 8–15 times before they decide to eat it (
While the focus should be on offering mostly nutrient-dense foods, it’s important to expose kids to a wide variety of foods to help them build a healthy relationship with food.
That said, the general advice is to limit added sugar until at least 2 years of age.
That’s because sugary foods may replace other more nutritious foods in their diets and increase the risk for cavities and metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes in kids (4,
After that, it’s okay for your child to occasionally enjoy foods that contain added sugar. However, aim to keep added sugar to less than 10 percent of their total calories (6).
Create a meal and snack schedule
Most children thrive when there is structure and routine in their day, including for meals. Consistent routines may even help improve behavior among children (7,
Meal and snack schedules can play an important role in helping kids build healthy eating habits and promote overall health.
Research shows that regular meal schedules (instead of all-day grazing) are linked to lower body weight and good metabolism among adults, which may be relevant for children, too (
But perhaps even more important for children, creating a routine around eating times can help them know what to expect and may reduce picky eating and increase food pleasure (11).
While exact schedules will vary by age, child, and family, most kids will benefit from eating three meals and two snacks (11).
Here’s an example schedule:
- Breakfast: 7 a.m.
- Snack: 9–9:30 a.m.
- Lunch: 12 p.m.
- Snack: 3 p.m.
- Dinner: 6 p.m.
Limit, but don’t restrict, less nutritious foods
Offering fun foods or those that offer less nutrition is also important to create a healthy relationship with food for kids over the age of 2. Restricting certain foods can have the opposite effect you might be aiming for (
Research shows that restricting foods (especially those that are highly palatable, like sweets and traditional snack foods) can lead to children eating more of those foods when they have access (
It may also lead to increased snacking among kids (
Food restriction is also associated with an increased risk of disordered eating, weight gain, and a preoccupation with certain foods (
Model healthy eating habits
It’s well established that kids exhibit behaviors they learn from their role models.
While your child may eat meals with friends at school or other caregivers, they learn many eating habits from you — the parent or caregiver (14, 15,
Therefore, if you want your kids to eat a wide variety of nutritious foods, it’s recommended that you do, too.
Research has shown a direct link between the number of fruits and vegetables a parent eats with how many their children eat (
Other measures of healthy eating among kids, including self-regulation, diet variety, and healthfulness, are linked to parents’ eating habits and parental modeling (
Implement the division of responsibility
The division of responsibility, a concept developed by Ellyn Satter, helps set roles for the parent and child on eating occasions and has been linked to healthier eating habits and less picky eating (
Testing tools using Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility have been validated to predict childhood nutrition risk (23,
Using them has been linked to higher eating competency, better eating, self-regulation, increased consumption of fruits and vegetables among kids, and reduced pickiness (
It may even help reduce mealtime battles by taking the pressure off the parent and child and fostering a trusting relationship (
The division of responsibility asserts that parents and children have separate roles in eating.
It is a parent’s job to decide:
- What is served
- When meals and snacks are offered (create a meal schedule)
- Where meals occur
It’s the child’s job to decide:
- If and what they eat among the foods offered
- How much they eat
This division encourages eating autonomy among children and may result in better feeding self-regulation, meaning kids can honor their hunger and fullness cues (
Eat meals as a family
Eating meals as a family offers many benefits for children of all ages — from young toddlers to teenagers.
It allows parents, siblings, and other family members to model healthy eating behaviors, an important role in kids’ eating habits — especially younger children (
It also provides an opportunity to talk positively about food and connect social behaviors with eating, which may be especially helpful for older children (
In addition, both family meals and parents modeling healthy eating result in less picky eating and emotional eating among children (
Family meals are also linked to better eating habits and a more nutritious diet for kids. Studies also show that kids who eat with their family experience more food enjoyment (
While studies looking at the connection between the frequency of family meals and healthy eating behaviors among kids suggest that the more you can eat as a family, the better, that may not always be practical (
If your family’s schedule makes it difficult for everyone to have dinner together, do the best you can.
Perhaps at least one parent can eat breakfast with the kids, or you can eat as a family on weekends or for some dinners during the week.
Shop and cook with your kids
Involving children of all ages — even young toddlers — in the cooking process can encourage them to eat a wider variety of foods, be more open to trying new foods, and get them excited about eating (
In fact, it can take eight to 15 exposures before some children try new food (
Research shows that repeated food exposures lead to the increased likeliness of a child trying and even liking a food. But think beyond exposures that happen at mealtime (
“The more food exposure a child has, the better. This includes reading about foods, grocery shopping, helping with meal prep, playing with food, and gardening,” says Amber Rodenas, RD, LDN, pediatric dietitian and owner of Seeds and Sprouts Nutrition for Kids, LLC.
Consider every opportunity to expose your kids to different foods. At the grocery store, talk about the colorful produce and have them pick out their favorite fruit or vegetable to bring home.
Consider starting a family garden or growing herbs in small pots and involving your child in the planting and harvesting.
When it comes to preparing food, the amount a child can be involved in depends on age and development. However, the earlier you start, the more the child will be able to do as they grow up.
Younger toddlers can help stir, add things to a bowl, or push buttons on a blender. As kids get older, they can begin pouring liquids into a bowl, cutting soft items (with kid-safe knives), and eventually even help with the actual cooking.
There’s no wrong way to get your child involved, and every exposure counts, even if it didn’t result in them eating the food at that moment.
Stock up on healthy essentials
Food availability plays a clear role in healthy eating — kids surely won’t eat what isn’t served!
Not surprisingly, research shows that having fruits and vegetables available at home encourages kids to eat more of them (
By stocking your kitchen with essentials, it’s easier to prepare meals that help your kids meet all of their nutrition needs.
Aim to keep the following foods stocked in your kitchen:
- a variety of colorful produce (frozen is just as nutritious as fresh) (29)
- whole grains like whole grain bread and pasta, quinoa, farro, brown rice, or wheat berries
- healthy proteins like eggs, chicken, fish (fresh, frozen, or canned), beans, and tofu
- healthy fats like nuts and nut butter, seeds, and olive oil
Keep healthy snacks on hand
Snacks are an opportunity to add nutrients your child needs to their diet. They are also helpful for kids’ energy and satiety between meals (30).
Snacks can ward off “hanger” meltdowns most parents have probably experienced at one time or another.
However, research shows that snacks contribute a significant amount of added sugar to children’s diets, and snacks tend to be sugary, less nutritious foods (
Try to choose nutritious snacks that include some protein, fiber, and fat to promote satiety (and limit all-day snacking) (32).
Some ideas for healthy snacks include (please choose those that are age-appropriate):
- cut vegetables with dip or hummus
- sliced apple with nut butter and raisins
- energy bites made with dried fruit, nuts or seeds, and oats
- dried chickpeas or other dried beans
- clementines with a cheese stick
- cheese and whole grain crackers
- yogurt with fruit
To encourage healthy snacking, make snack time fun by offering different utensils or varying how you serve the food (such as in muffin tins or on a snack board).
Creating healthy eating habits for kids is multifactorial. Do the best you can to offer a variety of foods and create an environment that encourages healthy eating. But remember that as a parent, you don’t have to do it perfectly every time.
There’s a lot we can do as parents to encourage healthy eating, but there are some things we should avoid as well.
Don’t pressure or bribe your kids to eat certain foods
Nagging, bribing, or pressure such as “just take one more bite” or “you can have dessert if you eat your broccoli” can lead to the opposite effect you’re aiming for.
Pressure techniques have been linked to poorer diet quality, less food variety, and food avoidance and may worsen picky eating (
In addition, they can be hard to enforce, especially among older children, and often lead to mealtime battles (
Labeling food as good or bad can also be coercion or pressure for your child and may lead to an unhealthy relationship with food later. Instead, keep talking about food neutrally (
In fact, modeling positive behavior and even not bringing attention to the food or what your child is eating may be a better approach (
Don’t allow screens at mealtimes
It can be tempting for a parent to turn on a show or allow your child to play on a tablet or iPad while eating to get some quiet. But this may do more harm than good.
Studies have shown that screens at mealtimes (TV, phone, iPad, etc.) are linked with eating less healthful food and poorer overall diet quality (
Distracted eating may also lead to overeating, weight gain, reduced food pleasure, and even longer-term health consequences like increased risk of metabolic diseases (
Some of the problems with distracted eating may be related to food choices. Research suggests that screen time may increase consumption of unhealthy foods, increase snacking, and encourage unhealthy dietary behaviors (
Instead of eating with screens, use meals as a time to connect with your children by asking them about their day or taking turns sharing your favorite part of the day.
Don’t focus only on health (or even the food)
While eating a nutritious diet is incredibly important to overall health, we also eat for pleasure.
Talking with your kids about how food tastes, feels, and smells can encourage them to try more foods.
These techniques may also help them form a healthier relationship with food (
“Feeding kids is about nurturing more than good food intake. It’s also about nurturing a trusting relationship,” says Sarah Ladden, MS RDN, pediatric dietitian, mom of three, and family feeding expert.
“The quickest way to get your child to eat calmly and without incident is to take the focus off of food entirely,” she adds.
It can be easy to default to methods like bribing or talking about health when trying to get children to eat healthily. But these things can actually be counterintuitive. Try to focus on creating a healthy food environment instead.
Picky eating can be stressful for parents. It makes preparing food difficult, and you may worry about whether or not your child is getting what they need to be healthy and support growth.
While picky eating certainly shouldn’t be ignored since it can affect nutrient and health status and development, research shows that it usually doesn’t affect growth trajectories (
The above guidelines on what to do (and what not to do) to raise healthy eaters can help both prevent and address picky eating. But if you’re feeling stuck, the following research-backed tips from child feeding specialists may help.
Try food chaining
In food chaining, you move gradually from foods your child likes to related foods you’d like them to try.
“Food chaining is a technique used by many dietitians and feeding therapists to help kids learn to like new foods using characteristics of foods they already like,” says Amber Rodenas, RD, LDN, pediatric dietitian and owner of Seeds and Sprouts Nutrition for Kids, LLC.
Food chaining might look something like this:
- Goldfish crackers → Cheez Itz → Saltine Crackers → Saltines with cheese slices
- Strawberries → grapes → grape or cherry tomatoes → tomato slices
You could also implement it by using the flavors of liked foods when preparing foods your child avoids.
For example, if your child likes tacos but doesn’t want to eat pasta, you could serve a “taco pasta” with some of the ingredients in tacos like ground beef and use taco seasoning while adding pasta.
Sometimes it may require moving from one brand of chicken nuggets or mac ‘n cheese to another brand and then introducing another similar food like fish sticks or pasta with butter and grated parmesan.
Food chaining takes patience and time, but older research has shown that it can be a very effective technique (
Implement food play
Food play like food bingo, cutting out shapes to make food puzzles, or even art projects with food (painting with dips and veggies) can be a no-pressure way to encourage your child to interact with the food and eventually try it.
Research shows it can be an effective way to get kids to try different fruits and vegetables that they previously avoided (40).
Even reading books about foods has increased younger children’s willingness to try new food (41).
Change up the way you serve foods
Similar to food play, serving foods in fun ways can be a helpful way to encourage your child to try something new.
Some examples are:
- cutting foods into different shapes
- serving meals ‘family style’ so kids can serve themselves
- turning ingredients into foods you know they like, such as dips
- adding a well-liked dip or condiment alongside a new food
Overcoming picky eating takes time and patience. Stay consistent, and over time most kids will learn to like a wider variety of foods.
Feeding picky eaters is a challenge that many parents face. Encouraging a more varied, nutritious diet takes patience and time. If your child is a picky eater, you can try strategies like introducing food play or food chaining.
There are many reasons why your child may not eat dairy foods, including an allergy or intolerance, taste preferences, and family dietary choices.
Dairy foods like milk, yogurt, and cheese provide important nutrients, including protein, fat, vitamins A and D, calcium, and potassium. Because dairy foods are often well-liked by kids, it’s an easy way for them to consume those nutrients.
However, your child can meet all of their nutrient needs without dairy. It just requires some thought and planning (
Ensure your child eats other sources of calcium like fortified soy milk, fortified orange juice, some tofu, canned salmon with bones, sardines, or salmon (
If your child doesn’t drink cow’s milk or other milk fortified with vitamin D, you may want to consider a vitamin D supplement.
If your child doesn’t eat dairy, you need to make sure they’re getting calcium and vitamin D from other food sources, like fortified soy milk, fortified orange juice, tofu, or fatty fish.
For adequate growth and development, kids must eat foods containing a mix of all macronutrients — protein, carbs, and fat — as each plays a different role in the body.
Protein is an incredibly important nutrient for both kids and adults.
It supports bone and muscle growth and is used to build skin, nails, and hair. It also helps with appetite regulation by filling you up and slowing down digestion (45, 46).
Further, it plays a role in the immune system by helping build antibodies to fight off illness, helps your body carry important nutrients like iron, and plays a role in hormone development, among many other functions (46).
Protein is important to support recovery from athletic activities, so very active children or those that play sports may need more protein than those that are more sedentary (46).
Protein is available in animal and plant foods, including meat, poultry, fish, and soy foods like tofu and tempeh, beans, lentils, and dairy.
Carbs are the body’s main energy source and the brain’s preferred energy source (47).
Most of the carbs you eat are digested and broken down into glucose before your body can use them. Glucose can then be used by your cells or stored in the liver and muscles for later use.
Make sure to choose whole-food sources of carbs rather than refined carbs most of the time. You’ll find refined carbs in baked goods like bread, cakes, cookies, and pastries.
Carbs are abundant in fruits, starchy vegetables, grains, beans, and dairy (47).
Starchy vegetables include white and sweet potatoes, winter squash like butternut, corn, and peas. Nearly all other vegetables are called non-starchy, or watery, vegetables.
Fat is essential for absorbing vitamins A, D, E, and K and some antioxidants. It’s also important for brain development, hormone development, skin, eye, hair health, and more (
Fat also helps increase satiety and provides taste and texture to meals, which may play a role in overall healthy eating (
Aim to serve more unsaturated fats that are liquid at room temperature, primarily found in plant sources and fatty fish.
That includes olive, avocado, canola oils, nuts, nut butter, seeds like pumpkin, sunflower, flax, hemp, chia seeds, and avocado.
Macronutrients include protein, carbs, and fat. All three are important for growth and development as well as overall health and can be consumed by eating a varied diet.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that support growth and development, help the body function, and fight off illnesses. Kids need to consume all vitamins and minerals, but below are some important ones to pay attention to.
Calcium helps build strong bones and teeth and assists in muscle contractions, stimulation of nerves, and blood pressure regulation (
While dairy is one of the most commonly consumed sources of calcium, it’s available in a variety of both dairy and non-dairy foods, including (
- Yogurt, milk, and cheese
- Fortified soy milk and some other fortified plant-based milk
- Fortified orange juice
- Canned salmon with bones
- Tofu made with calcium sulfate
It’s available in smaller amounts in:
- Chia seeds
- Turnip greens
Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus, supports bone growth, and contributes to brain development in children and mental health (
Your body makes much of its vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. However, it’s impossible to obtain enough direct sunlight year-round in most parts of the world for optimal vitamin D levels (
Food sources include fatty fish, fortified milk (dairy and some non-dairy), canned salmon with bones, egg yolks, and fortified cereal. Some mushrooms may also contain some vitamin D (
Depending on your child’s diet and exposure to sunlight, it may be appropriate to consider a vitamin D supplement. Talk with your child’s doctor for an individual recommendation (
Iron supports neurological development, growth, and immune function. It also helps red blood cells carry and deliver oxygen to tissue throughout the body.
Long-term iron deficiency in children may contribute to cognitive problems and learning disabilities (
While iron is important for all children, girls should pay extra attention to iron-rich foods once they start menstruating.
Food sources include meat, seafood, iron-fortified cereals, lentils, beans, and spinach. It’s available in smaller amounts in nuts, bread, and chicken (
Our bodies can better absorb iron from meat and seafood than we are from plant-based foods. Consuming foods that contain vitamin C can enhance iron absorption from plants, but your child may need more iron-rich foods if they don’t eat meat (
Zinc is an essential mineral that plays a role in growth and development and is important for supporting a healthy immune system (
It is involved in the activity of over 300 enzymes in your body that play a role in digestion, metabolism, nerve function, and more (56).
The best sources of zinc include meat, dairy products, eggs, shellfish, nuts, and whole grains (
B vitamins are also important for growth, energy levels, and brain function (
B vitamins are readily available in whole grains and fortified refined grains. B-vitamins are also plentiful in eggs, meat, seafood, dairy, legumes, leafy greens, and seeds (
If your child follows a vegan diet or doesn’t like meat, seafood, or eggs, you should consider whether they’re getting enough vitamin B-12. Talk with your child’s doctor if you’re concerned they aren’t getting enough (
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that support overall health, growth, and development. Your child can usually meet their micronutrient needs by eating a varied diet.
Healthy eating is important for growth, development, and overall health. It also can help set kids up for healthy eating into adulthood.
It’s important to set up a family and home environment that encourages healthy eating. That involves buying and serving nutritious foods, eating meals as a family, and modeling healthy behavior.
Aim for a positive eating environment. It’s not helpful to bribe or pressure children to eat certain foods, leading to increased food avoidance and picky eating.
There’s no one way to raise a healthy eater, but implementing these guidelines can help your child become a flexible, competent eater over time.