Finally some tips that can help older picky eaters, specifically 6-12+, and an amazing resource for picky eating teens and even adults!
“What about my child that’s older, will these picky eating strategies work?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked many times. And, the truth is, many of the articles you find here on Your Kid’s Table do work for older kids. My complete picky eating program, Mealtime Works, is also designed for kids up until at least 10 years old.
But, I’ve never made it a point to talk just about the older kiddos, from 6 to 12 years old, and beyond. I think they could use some specific attention and I’m going to give you my top picky eating tips for older kids in this article.
I’ve got a great resource for teens and adults too!
The Pros and Cons of an Older Picky Eater
For most kids, picky eating starts some time in the toddler years, and for a lot of kids, it naturally fades away sometime between 3 and a half and 5 years old. Learn more about outgrowing picky eating.
That doesn’t happen for all kids though, and some kids over the age of 5 suddenly turn into picky eaters, although that’s much more rare.
When toddlers and preschoolers are picky eaters, they have limited communication and cognitive skills. They can’t always understand that eating is important. They also have very short attention spans and it’s challenging just to keep them sitting still for meals. But, they’re often open to new experiences, exploring, and play – all of which can be used to help them like new foods!
Older children that have been picky eaters for years may have many complicated layers to their eating difficulties. They’re likely to associate the foods they eat as habit and become less open to new foods, but they have the advantage now of communication and increased understanding.
Many older children can also tolerate sitting for much longer than before.
Is There Still Hope for 7, 8, 9, and 10+ Year Old Picky Eaters?
I think the same core principles apply to older picky eaters though, they just need tweaked a little, because it’s entirely possible for your child to begin to accept new and different foods at ANY age.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s a total myth that older kids can’t change their picky eating ways. It’s more than possible and the tips you’ll learn here will be a great first step!
Tips You Can Start Today for Older Picky Eaters
1. Drop the Labels
Picky eating is a very subjective term, and many parents have, at one time or another, considered their child to be a “picky eater”. While it probably seems like a small step, avoiding the term can actually help your child grow out of the seemingly unending phase for two reasons.
The first is that if your child hears you refer to them as a picky eater, it can make them feel badly about their eating and teach them to live up to the label.
The second reason is that it’s defeating for you as the parent. Although it’s part of a coping mechanism for us to use the label in the first place, we’re also limiting what’s possible with our child. If we believe our child will never learn to eat more foods, they probably won’t. As cheesy as it sounds, and as severe of a picky eater as your child is, you’ve got to believe that it’s possible.
I’m here to tell you that it is!
2. Take the Kitchen Back
I’m all about giving kids independence. I love to encourage kids to do all sorts of activities for themselves, and it certainly doesn’t stop at eating. But, there’s a difference between independence and your child having free range of the pantry and fridge. Until a child is much older, well into their teens, it isn’t necessary to give them that level of freedom.
As the parent, it’s your job to set the schedule of meals and in between those meals, there is no food. This can be hard to renegotiate if your child is used to getting food whenever they want, but it can be done.
And, it is soooooo worth it! Read mead more about this picky eating tip.
If you want to make a compromise and give your child some independence, set up snack times when they’re allowed to eat and either choose the snack entirely, which would be my first choice, or have a snack station where they can choose several options. You could also make a rule like, “One snack out of the snack bin and a serving of fruit.”
3. Teach Them to Cook
My kids love kid’s cooking shows. Have you ever seen one?
Every time I’m absolutely blown out of the water at what kids as young as 8 are able to cook. I’m talking high end gourmet foods. I think we, myself included, underestimate what our kids are capable of learning. Of course, there are some safety precautions you need to take for sure.
But, around age 6, kids are able to learn how to make a sandwich and simple recipes, by 8 and 9 years old a child may be able to pancakes!
I realized I wasn’t encouraging my son enough after watching those shows and at 9 years old he’s sometimes making breakfast for the whole family. Check him out below. He made Belgian waffles from scratch this past week with nearly no help.
When kids cook, they feel a sense of accomplishment and are vastly more likely to eat what they cooked. And, the process of teaching your child to cook not only gives them the positive experience they need with food, it also gets them touching, smelling, and maybe even tasting foods they’d normally turn their nose up at.
I know this is a popular strategy, one you may have heard before, but it is for good reason. One mom just shared with me that taking her son to a cooking class completely transformed his eating. The key here is to be open to working through the struggle. Your child may complain in the beginning, you may even need to make it a chore.
The effort will pay off though!
4. Post the Menu Plan
An easy picky eater rut to fall into is giving your child only the foods they eat, and while I do recommend always having one food at meals that they normally eat, you don’t have to completely cater to them. In fact, it’s dangerous because they quickly begin to compartmentalize food as “mine” and “yours”.
They won’t ever see the opportunity to try something else. One way to help get them used to family vs. custom meals is to post a menu plan and remind them of it often. If this is new for your family, there could be some push back, but persevere, they will adapt.
You can plan out the month, week, or day’s meal, whatever works for you. With an older child, they can likely read so you’ll want to post it on the fridge or a white board so they can see it or at the very least let them know in the morning and at afternoon snack what you’re having. Then make sure to get some, no matter how small, onto their plate.
You can grab a free menu plan for an entire month here.
5. Tap Into Their Interests
Another benefit of helping older kids is using what they’re interested in to help them explore new foods. One of my Mealtime Works students used her daughter’s love of Korean boy bands to introduce her to Korean food.
Her daughter wasn’t eating a lot of variety and while Korean food may have seemed like way too big of a leap, for this young teen, it was all the motivation she needed.
What is your child into? How can you use that to motivate them with food?
6. Act Like You Could Care Less
Once your child does try a new food, you’ve got to act like you didn’t even notice. As kids get older, they become even more self conscious and making a surprised comment like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you just ate a banana,” could be enough to shut them down from trying anything new again in the near future.
7. Let Go of the Lectures
I’m totally guilty of lecturing my kids about all sorts of things. I can drone on and on, when I’m worried or frustrated about their behavior or actions. But, eating is one place you don’t want to be doing that. That turns into pressure and the next time your kid comes to the table, they’ll be cautious to let their guard down and try something new.
But, I totally get wanting to teach your child about nutrition and healthy eating, that’s an all together different thing. The difference is you’re educating not lecturing and the goal isn’t to get them to eat in the moment, it’s to start to make better decisions moving forward, which does take time.
8. Make a Plan Together
As picky eaters get older, one of the biggest challenges becomes social situations with friends. Many times they feel different and isolated, even if nobody is in fact teasing them about their limited foods. That pain can be quite motivating, and sometimes kids are willing to work towards overcoming their picky eating.
To help them do that, sit down with them and create a plan together of small steps they can take. Use the tips from this post and to get even more ideas, watch my free picky eating workshop. You can get a spot here!
Affiliate links used below. See our full disclosure.
What About the Teens and Even Adults? Can Anything Help???
Last month, Catherine Pearson from the Huffington Post asked me if it really matters if your child is a picky eater? And, my first thought was the painful comments I’ve read over the years from adults and teens who are desperate for help and no longer want to struggle so much with eating.
Some of the tips here are a great start for teens and adults, but if you want even more help, check out Conquer Picky Eating for Teens and Adults. It’s a workbook specifically for teens and adults struggling with picky eating.
More on Picky Eaters
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 14 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.