From Nutritionist Kelly Jones: Feeding Selective Eaters

Young girl contemplating a slice of red bell pepper on her fork, surrounded by fresh vegetables.

This is a guest post from registered dietician and nutritionist Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.

A smiling woman with long dark hair wearing a black sleeveless top.Growing up, I was labeled as a “picky eater.” Looking back, I can right away see why that label carried through my early teens. I have also come to realize the label itself didn’t make things any better. The way we prepare food, talk about it and our family member’s preferences all shape the way we decide to eat as a toddler, child, teen and ultimately as an adult.

It seems to make sense that after a child tries a food a few times and spits it out, or just refuses to eat it, that it isn’t worth preparing or offering it anymore. This can quickly limit what you serve your children, so they become more comfortable with their favorites and less comfortable with anything else. Add to that the forced “clean the plate club,” and your child can easily build up anxiety around nourishing foods that they do like, but just weren’t hungry for at a particular meal.

Research shows it can take 30 or more food exposures before someone likes it. While no one needs to like every food, it is often lack of exposure or lack of willingness to try different preparations that leads to poor variety in one’s diet. Interaction with food can also play a role. I vividly remember tasting green beans while standing in the yard by my mom’s vegetable garden. They are a vegetable I’ve always enjoyed and evidence shows this type of experience is true for many other children as well. On the other hand, I spent plenty of time baking with one grandmother, and of course loved to eat all of our creations, but when I was with my other grandmother who cooked plenty of balanced, from-scratch meals, I was never involved and didn’t have a taste for her cooking.

Playful setup of toy dinosaurs next to broccoli mimicking a tree, on a wooden surface outdoors.

The way we speak about food around our children influences their dietary preferences. If Dad doesn’t like zucchini and is vocal about it, the little one may decide they don’t like it anymore either. In a similar fashion, if they hear you speaking badly about carbohydrates (or any nutrient or food), they may decide bread isn’t good for them and begin restrictive patterns at an early age. They hear when you call them picky! If they feel a connection to this label, their selective eating status can seem like an easy excuse to avoid new foods in the future.

Think back to your childhood when considering how you will present food and discuss it with your own child. What experiences, labels or rules didn’t build the best habits? What positive experiences can you reflect on and replicate?

Easy Applications

Let their bodies guide their choices. A child’s little body and brain instinctively knows what it needs. Today, they may love a bean burger and broccoli, and tomorrow they may decide to pass on it, or eat less of it. As long as your child’s growth is on track at doctor’s appointments and you don’t notice other symptoms of undernutrition (low energy, frequent illness etc), you’ll see that over the course of a few days their food intake evens out.

…and don’t make a big deal out of food. If sweets are only available outside of the house or after dinner, there is a good chance your child will crave them more and overeat on them when they’re allowed to have them. If your child wants a cookie at 1 PM, and it’s available without being labeled as “bad” or as a reward, it probably won’t seem as exciting. They have the internal ability to enjoy the treat and move on to crave more nourishing foods later in the day! If you want to keep nutrient dense sweets around, swap refined sugar with raw honey  in some of your recipes. 

Assorted vegetables and Nate's honey bottle on a blue background.

Involve your kids in meal planning and cooking. No, they don’t need to write a menu for the week (and neither do you), but asking them to pick one vegetable or whole grain to eat that week helps them feel connected to the food and the meal. If you can,  have them help with simple tasks while you prepare it. In the beginning they may still decide they don’t want to try it, but those experiences count as exposures and bring you closer to them trying and liking it.

Prepare foods in a variety of ways. Some kids may love raw snap peas while others may only eat them cooked. That’s okay, but it takes trial and error to figure it out. If you want a preparation that takes the bitterness out of vegetables, try roasting – almost any veggie can be prepared this way! When introducing newer foods, also try to pair them with a food that your child already enjoys and is comfortable with.

Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN


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