August 2022 Mealtime Memo: Choosy Eaters

August 2022 Mealtime Memo: Choosy Eaters

Three-year-old Jade only eats white foods: bread, rice, and bananas. Does this sound familiar? If you work in child care, you likely know a child who is cautious, hesitant, or selective in the foods they eat. You are not alone. “Choosy” eating is common for many children as they move from infants to toddlers. Their growth rate slows down, and they become more independent. Rest assured, it is most likely temporary, and there are strategies to help get past this stage without mealtime battles.

I Wanted Pizza!

Pleasant Mealtimes

Mealtime should be enjoyable, not a power struggle. This may seem impossible, but you can do it! Providing healthy foods, positive role modeling, and routines while trusting the child to eat the right amounts will help to create a pleasant mealtime and a positive relationship with food.

Mealtime Roles

Child Care Professional’s Role:

  • Provide healthy foods at consistent times throughout the day.
  • Encourage, but do not force children to try or eat foods.
  • Trust children’s appetites. Encourage them to listen to their hunger and fullness cues. For example, you can ask, “Has your tummy had enough?”
  • Be a good role model.
    • Sit with the children and eat the same foods.
    • Try new foods, show enjoyment, and describe the taste, texture, and smell.
    • Keep comments and facial expressions positive and avoid showing disgust or disinterest. Children are listening and watching your reactions. For example, you can say, “This apricot is sweet and juicy!” or “Can you hear how crunchy this jicama stick is?”

Child’s Role:

  • Decide how much and which foods to eat—or whether to eat at all.
  • Use good table manners and make positive comments about foods.
  • If a child refuses to eat, they must wait for the next meal or snack to eat.

Family Style Meals

Letting children decide which foods and how much they put on their plate helps them feel in control and more willing to try a new food.

  • Provide foods in child-size serving dishes and let children serve themselves. Use serving spoons children can handle.
  • Offer each meal component to all children and do not force them to eat a specific food or more than they want.
  • When a child does not want to try the food at first, offer the food again later in the meal.
  • Seat children who need more encouragement next to more adventurous children.
  • If a child self-serves a large portion, remind them that everyone needs a first portion, and they can have a second serving later.

Table Manners

Establish rules at mealtime, including sitting during the meal, keeping their hands to themselves, not throwing food, and using a napkin. Children should also practice using good table manners. For example:

  • “May I please have more chicken?”
  • “Please pass the beans.”
  • Saying “thank you” after receiving a bowl of food.
  • Politely declining food with a “no thank you.”

Children as Helpers

Children love to help. It makes them feel independent and in control. They may be more willing to try foods if they can choose the foods to serve.

  • Engage children in menu planning. They can pick the fruit or vegetable to serve at certain meals each week or choose one or two new entrées to feature each month.
  • At the farmer’s market, encourage children to pick out a new fruit or vegetable to try.
  • In the garden, get the children involved in planting, tending to, and harvesting the produce. They will be more willing to eat foods they helped grow.

Encourage New Foods

Some children are often unwilling to try new foods because they are afraid of the unknown. Be patient and try these tips to encourage children to taste new foods.

  • Offer one new food at a time and in small amounts. Wait at least a week or two before reintroducing the food.
  • Serve one familiar or favorite food with one new food in the same meal.
  • Encourage children to touch, smell, lick, or taste the new food.
  • Continue to expose children to new foods. It may take more than 10–15 tries for a child to accept a new food.
  • Prepare foods with different textures and flavors. For example, offer carrots cooked with a meal, raw as a snack, cut into sticks or coins, or grated.
  • Make food attractive. Offer a variety of foods in different colors, shapes, and sizes. Use brightly colored plates, utensils, cups, or placemats.
  • Mix nutrition discussion with other activities such as reading, art, transitions, and dramatic or outdoor play.
  • Ask children to describe foods using all of their senses. For example:
    • Is the food crunchy, squishy, soft, or creamy?
    • Does it taste sweet, salty, sour, or bitter?
    • Which food crunches louder—carrots or cucumbers?
    • Which food on the plate is your favorite color?
    • What does the food smell like?

Check out the Encourage Children to Try New Foods video from USDA Team Nutrition that shows how CACFP operators can spark children’s interest in new foods.

Positive Messages

Be mindful of what you say and do in front of children. Avoid labeling a child as a “picky eater.” Instead, you can say, “He is still trying to decide the foods he likes,” or “She hasn’t tried that food enough times to know if she likes it or not.”

Forcing, bribing, rewarding, and punishing children to eat can lead to negative thoughts about food and eventually dislike and avoidance. It can also stop children from recognizing signs of hunger and fullness, leading to overeating. Below are examples of behaviors and phrases to avoid.

  • Nagging, begging, or forcing a child to eat (Ex., “Just two more bites”) teaches children to count on others to tell them how much to eat.
  • Making deals (Ex., “No more fruit until you eat your broccoli.”) can make a child more interested in the favored food and eating the disliked food a chore.
  • Phrases such as “eat that for me” or “be a good boy and eat that” teach children to eat for adult approval and love. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors and beliefs about food and may lead to overeating.

Activities for Staff Meetings

Include a recurring agenda item for “Mealtime Discussions or Challenges” to discuss what went well and challenges or questions staff have about mealtimes. Here are some ideas of how to engage staff in meetings.

  • Role-play with the scenarios in the Phrases that HELP and HINDER handout to get staff comfortable using positive phrases during mealtimes.
  • Discuss appropriate mealtime behaviors and comments using the examples in this Mealtime Memo.

Get Parents Involved

Inform families about positive eating environments to help provide consistency at home. You can send “badges” home to alert families about a child’s daily activities. Get badges to cut out and modify on page 2 of Tips for a “Choosy” Eater or on page 8 of Mealtimes With Toddlers in the CACFP.

Here are other resources to share with families:

Mealtimes With Toddlers Family Handout identifies typical mealtime behaviors and tips for families. The handout is available in English and Spanish.

Handling Picky Eating in Toddlers is a short video about how to manage mealtimes so they are more pleasant and less stressful.

Tips for Preventing Food Hassles provides information from the American Academy of Pediatrics that addresses mealtime challenges.

We Can! Parent Tips: Picky Eaters provides tips for turning a picky eater into a healthy one.

Tips for a “Choosy” Eater is one of the Nibbles for Health newsletters that provides specific ideas about handling choosy eaters. It is available in English and Spanish.

How to Handle Picky Eaters provides advice for families on how to handle picky eating, including what to do when a child asks for dessert after not eating their meal.

Phrases that Help and Hinder can help families turn negative phrases into positive ones.

For more information, refer to Mealtimes With Toddlers in the CACFP, which assists CACFP operators in creating positive mealtime environments for children. The website includes training videos and webinars. All materials are available in English and Spanish.

Mealtime Discussion Prompts

During mealtime, spark positive conversations with children using the questions below.

  • What new foods have you tried recently? Have you tried any new foods at home?
  • What new foods are you trying today? Are other children trying new foods? If so, provide encouragement and praise.
  • What new food would you be willing to try in the future?
  • What letter of the alphabet does this food start with?
  • What shape is our pasta? What color is this pepper?
  • What does the mango make you think of?
  • Can anyone add a color of the rainbow onto their plate?

Menu Ideas

The following menu ideas provide a variety of foods, colors, and textures that can spark conversations with children during mealtimes. Some recipes contain multiple food components listed in parentheses after the recipe


Maple Baked French Toast Squares
(meat alternate and grain)


1% Milk


Baked Tofu Bites
(meat and grain)

Broccoli florets


1% Milk


Zucchini Sticks With Red Sauce


You can find the featured Menu Ideas recipes in the resources below:


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2021, January 18). 8 ways to get picky eaters to become more adventurous. Kids Eat Right.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2012, January 5). Tips for preventing food hassles.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018, April 26). 10 tips for parents of picky eaters.

Ellyn Satter Institute. (n.d.). The picky eater. Childhood Feeding Problems and Solutions.

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). Baked tofu bites for ages 3–5. Child Nutrition Recipe Box. Baked Tofu

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). Child nutrition recipe box.

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). Maple baked French toast squares – USDA recipe for child care centers. Child Nutrition Recipe Box.

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). New CACFP lunch/supper recipes. Child Nutrition Recipe Box.

Institute of Child Nutrition. (n.d.). Zucchini sticks with red sauce – USDA recipe for child care centers. Child Nutrition Recipe Box.

Nemours. Kids Health. (n.d.). Handling picky eating in toddlers.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2018, September 13). Nibbles for health: Nutrition newsletters for parents of young children.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2018, September 13). Nibbles for health: Tips for a “choosy” eater.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2020, December 17). Encourage children to try new foods.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2022, February 24). Mealtimes with toddlers in the CACFP.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2022, September 22). Mealtimes with toddlers family handout.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, MyPlate. (n.d.). Phrases that help and hinder.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, MyPlate. (n.d.). Preschoolers.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). We can! Parent tip sheets: Picky eaters.

Zero to Three. (2010, April 18). How to handle picky eaters.

Archived Mealtime Memos



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