DocSmo’s picky eater turnaround (Pedcast)

Welcome to another pedcast. Thank you for joining me today. I am your host, Dr. Paul Smolen, a general pediatrician with now 31 years of practice experience. Yes, you guessed it, I am the Doc and Smo in the blog. Our topics here range from the womb to the workplace, from diapers to the diploma, from gestation to graduation…. Well, you get the idea. We talk about almost anything that relates to children.

I am often asked by frustrated parents during their children’s checkups, “How can I get my school-age child to eat ‘good food?’ All he will eat is chicken nuggets and french fries,” they tell me. My next question is always, “Do you prepare a special dinner for him or her or do you offer him what the rest of the family is eating?”  When the answer is a special meal, I know I have my work cut out for me. I am asked so often about the picky eater that I thought I would share with you a strategy that you might find helpful if you are in this situation.  So sit back and listen to DocSmo’s approach to what I call the “rigid picky eater.” I hope it will help.

Let’s say your child demands the same low quality food every night and you have gotten used to giving in to his or her demands… you know, special meals for junior and all processed food. What can we do to change this?

Before we get into the specifics of my recommendations, let’s talk about the goals that you should set to measure successful change.

First goal: If you have one of these rigid eaters, we want to improve the quality of the food that they get. We all know that processed meats, pastas made from refined flour, fake cheeses, deep fried potatoes, and the like are very low quality foods for a child. Goal One is to change them to eating REAL HIGH QUALITY FOOD.

Second goal: Increase the variety of foods your child consumes. Your mother taught you to eat some of everything on your plate, and she did this for a reason…It is almost impossible to get all the nutrients one needs from a small number of foods, especially if those foods are low quality to start with. Make sure you listen to your mother!

Third goal: We want to achieve improved nutrition with minimum disruption to the family. Parenting is hard enough without adding more stress, more work, and more battles to fight.

Fourth Goal: We want to create an environment where eating is a pleasurable experience for everyone in the family, including your rigid little eater! Eating is supposed to be a joyful experience, not a vehicle for conflict.

Doc Smo Pearl: Your child’s choices in food should be between good food and good food…no junk served in this kitchen!

OK, that is all well and good, but you as a parent are trapped in a situation where your 6 year old refuses to eat what the family is eating and demands and expects to get the few low quality foods they are comfortable eating. Your child is getting a “special meal” because you are frankly tired of the conflict. What do you do? Here is what I recommend:

  • Give some warning: Tell your little rigid picky eater that the rules are going to change and that he or she is going to get to choose some new foods to eat.
  • Decide what alternative meals are acceptable to you, remembering our goals of high quality, increased variety, not requiring a parent to prepare, and something your child will find pleasurable, or at least not distasteful.
  • When mealtime comes around, put the family meal (the stuff you are going to eat) in small quantities on your child’s plate at mealtime.
  • If your “rigid eater” refuses the meal, calmly tell them to go fix one of the alternatives you both have chosen.

Good alternatives could be yogurt, boiled eggs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with high quality bread, peanut butter, and real jam or honey, real cheese sandwich, or the like. You and your child decide ahead of time. Make sure these are whole food alternatives.

When your little “rigid eater” starts whining about dinner, you–the parent–are not to stop eating or get up to help prepare another meal.  Show no emotion at all. Your child needs to take care of this. The moment of truth…they have a choice: get up and get an alternative dinner they have to fix or deal with the food on their plate. If they do try everything on their plate, recognize this fact! Praise them. Recognize their accomplishment. If they refuse to eat what you fixed, drop it. Not a word. Remember another DocSmo pearl: “Children will do what is in their own best interest almost every time.” Over time, if it’s easier for your child to eat the wholesome food presented rather than getting up and fixing dinner themselves, they will eventually eat what the family eats.

Here are some other suggestions that might help your child get more familiar with different types of foods and flavors:

  • If your child might like to cook, having them involved in food preparation may help them be more adventurous with their eating.  Even very young children can help cook!
  • If you are very motivated to help your child broaden their culinary palate, getting them involved in growing some of the family’s food is an extremely powerful way to get children to try new exciting whole foods. Try a small garden yourself, maybe even growing vegetables in pots if necessary.

I have found over the years that this approach to a rigid eater works. Slowly but surely they will try new textures and tastes, and you can feel reassured that even while they cling to just a few foods that they will accept, at least those foods that you are providing are whole foods, high in nutrition, and low in added sugars, preservatives, and pesticides. I hope that helps. I welcome your comments on Facebook, iTunes, or my blog, Take a minute and share the posts you like with a friend or give your own suggestions. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, your pedcast host, hoping you don’t teeter when it comes to providing good food for your little rigid eater.  Until next time.


  1. Annie Beth Brown Donahue says:

    This is our exact policy, almost word for word. I feel like you’ve plagiarized our house rules. We do have a couple of expansions, though. 1)You have to at least taste of all the components of the original meal, to make sure your taste buds haven’t changed. 2)You can have an alternative meal that you make yourself (whether that’s heating up leftovers from another meal, or fixing peanut butter, or making eggs over easy..) as long as it contains protein. 3)The meal should be *different* than something you ate earlier that day. (If you had peanut butter for breakfast or lunch, you need to get eggs or leftovers for dinner.) 4)If you are too young to be trusted to make the food yourself (immature 3yo or child with special needs) you have to SIT and WAIT (with the original meal on your plate) for everyone else to finish eating, and *then* I will give you leftovers, etc. I’ve found that most children would rather go ahead and eat at least some of the meal that’s in front of them rather than to wait for mom to pull out the peanut butter.

    • DocSmo says:

      All great suggestions! I love your thought-out approach to mealtime, and these are all strategies that any parent could adopt to help develop a household of healthy, adventurous young eaters.

  2. Crystal says:

    How would you address this will a child that is still too young to totally grasp this? She is 20 months and refuses to even try nearly everything we place in front of her. She will of course eat bad fried foods. I’ve tried the eat what we have or get nothing approach but feel terrible about it.

    • DocSmo says:

      Crystal, I am sorry you are having such difficulty with you toddler. It seems that most toddlers become rigid about their eating, but your seems extreme. My turn-around advice is obviously meant for older children and will not help you. A number of questions do come to mind with regards to your child however: Are they off the bottle, do they get juice or other sweetened beverages, are they snacking a lot, do they eat in high chair, does he or she show a strong aversion to textures, or do they have any signs of developmental delay? A lot of things interfere with a child’s willingness to enjoy eating and exploring food. Talk these issues over with their pediatrician. I bet they can help.

  3. Charlotte says:

    I never thought I’d end up with such a rigid eater. Really hoping he will come around in time! Thanks for the suggestions.

  4. Mary Watkins says:

    This is all good advice, and appreciate that you are putting it out there as many parents need it desperately. We also use a similar approach that is based on a book called “Child of Mine” that was recommended to me many years ago by one of the nurse practitioners at your pediatric practice. The difference between your method and theirs which we follow loosely is we don’t allow our children to stray from the meal we are serving. However, we offer a number of choices and always try to inlcude something they will eat. For example, if we are serving Brunswick stew, there will also be a veggie, fruit, rice on the table. They can take what they want and sometimes will only take the fruit and plain rice. But over time they will usually take other things and expand their horizons. We also offer ‘tasters’ meaning if they have a few bits of the item I designate (maybe fish or a veggie), they get a treat for dessert. I think conceptually what we do is very similar to your advice and it has worked over the last 12 years to take the pressure out of mealtimes and encourage a variety of healthy food in their diets.

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