Pre-Schoolers with Preferences: Strategies for Managing Selective Eating

April 25, 2024

Embarking on the culinary adventure of parenthood often comes with its own set of challenges, especially when faced with the discerning tastes of preschoolers. Here are your RD-approved strategies for managing your preschooler and their food preferences.

I avoid using the term “picky” or “fussy” eater. To label anyone, child or adult, as picky when it comes to their food choices is a comparison to others. What and how we eat should be completely personalized to ourselves. However parents often struggle to feed their preschooler with many particular preferences. They worry whether their child is meeting their nutritional needs for age, and proper growth and development.

Let’s explore some strategies you as a parent can try when dealing with your preschooler’s particular food preferences:

First, and most importantly, be patient. This can feel very frustrating when your child is refusing every food option you offer, and being seemingly ungrateful for the food prepared for them. But how you react (or don’t react!) can make or break the situation. Avoid forcing or pressuring your child to eat anything they are refusing. Ask questions, and learn what they are thinking and feeling about their meal. Aim to avoid negative associations with food options and mealtime. Remember, even if they reject a food one time, does not mean they will reject it every time!

Embrace your child’s preferences. As children age and learn more about themselves, they become more adamant about exerting their own self-expression and can use their food choices as an outlet. Commonly, this will mean avoiding foods that are unfamiliar or uninteresting to them. But it’s actually important to celebrate them asserting themselves in this way and encourage them to know what they want and what they like.

  • Additionally, as part of growth and development, children may experience fluctuations in their appetite. This can mean that some days they may not even want foods they do like. Practice patience with this, be mindful of how long and how often this is happening.

Aim for diversity in food choices. Exposing your child during infancy to a wide range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and dairy can help set them up for eclectic tastes throughout their life. Offer your child balanced meals that include options from each of these food groups. Learn your child’s preferences by introducing one new food at a time. Even if they refuse the first time, don’t hesitate to try again – their taste preferences will change and evolve.

  • A colorful plate is also a fun draw for kids. Choose to create fun, colorful plates with whole, fresh ingredients to pique the curiosity of your child and entice them to try new things.

Work together! Build curiosity for your child, in the food being served, by including them in the meal plan and prep process. From choosing what will be served, to creating the shopping list and going shopping, to fruit and vegetable prep, ingredient mixing, and dish assembly – children can start to be involved from a young age, and become more and more involved as they age. By including them in the process, your child will feel ownership and interest in the meals, helping combat some of their selectiveness. 

Be a role model. As a parent you know your kids are always watching you, they look up to you and they care. That puts you in a unique position to model behavior for them. What you eat, how you eat, how you talk about food, and how you talk about your body are going to make a big difference in their childhood and in their adulthood. Avoid negative comments around food, meals, and body. Be a positive example for them!

Dealing with selective eating in preschoolers requires patience, creativity, and a proactive approach to nutrition. By understanding normal eating patterns, offering a variety of foods, and involving your child in meal preparation, you can help expand their palate and promote healthy eating habits for life. With time and consistency, you can navigate the challenges of selective eating and raise a happy, healthy eater. Remember to be patient, persistent, and seek out the guidance of a Registered Dietitian for additional support.

To learn more about what Dining With Nature offers for pediatric nutrition care – take a look at our Services page.

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