13 Tips for Taking Picky Eaters Out to Eat (and Kid-Friendly Restaurants)
Your kid is a picky eater. And that makes mealtime more than just a daily power struggle. When picky eating takes center stage in your family’s life, the near-constant battles to try new foods or anything other than chicken nuggets can make the idea of dining out almost unthinkable. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
Yes, your family can eat an entire meal in a restaurant — picky kids included. Whether your kiddo’s picky eating habits include only a few select foods or are more of the “I won’t eat any food that touches another food” variety, you can find a spot everyone can enjoy.
Read on to learn more about this common childhood issue and how to handle it at home or in restaurants.
Why Are Some Children Picky Eaters?
You SIL’s preschoolers eat more than just a variety of foods. Every time the extended family eats together, her kiddos eagerly feast on three-quarters of the menu items — while your tot sticks to French fries and a tantrum. What gives?
There isn’t one reason for picky eating habits. Some pickiness is actually the child’s way of asserting their newfound sense of independence. But the culprit behind your kiddo’s limited food choices may go deeper.
According to a research review published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, this type of childhood behavior may come from early feeding issues, the pressure to eat, or even a delayed or late intro to lump foods. Another study, published in the journal Pediatrics, also found that difficulty controlling emotions is sometimes linked to picky eating habits.
Before you wage an all-out war on picky eating and start demanding that your son or daughter try new foods at every meal, this study also revealed that picky eating could happen when parents are overly strict and control what their children can and can’t eat.
While child development researchers have found connections between behaviors and eating habits, some children just don’t have the temperament to try new foods. This means it’s perfectly possible that you will never know why your kid snubs squash and rejoices over ramen. And that’s okay. If you don’t know the cause, you can still take steps to solve the problem.
Is COVID the Culprit?
The answer to this question is no — and yes. COVID itself probably didn’t cause your child’s picky eating. But it could have contributed to their restaurant-based issues. A small number of people have persistent loss of smell and taste as a result of a COVID infection. Info from Johns Hopkins Medicine explains these symptoms resolve within weeks for about one-quarter of COVID patients.
If loss of smell/taste persists past the few-week mark, research also suggests that there is a 60 to 80 percent chance of recovery or symptomatic improvement within one year. Provided your kiddo doesn’t have a COVID-induced taste loss, the pandemic could still play a role in your child’s unwillingness to eat almost anything in your fave local eatery.
Depending on your child’s age, restaurants are something totally new to them. Preschoolers who were young toddlers at the beginning of the pandemic aren’t likely to remember eating anywhere else but their family’s house.
When restrictions closed restaurants for in-person dining, your kitchen became the sole meal-prep space in your child’s mind. Now that everything is open again, you’re ready to eat everywhere and anywhere that isn’t your house. But your child is not.
If the sudden switch from mom and dad-made meals or kitchen table takeout has thrown your little one for a loop, give your young child a chance to learn about the wonderful world of dining outside of the house.
Even though you’re an eating out-of-the-house expert, your tot is not. Prep your toddler or preschooler for the experience, role play eating in a restaurant scenario with a table full of stuffed animal pals, or explore the menu beforehand to make the first few meals out easier for your picky eater.
What Else Can You Do To Solve Picky Eating?
Keep in mind, that you may not “solve” your child’s pickiness ASAP. Instead of eliminating the issue entirely, focus on what you can do to support your child and make meals easier (i.e., avoid the very public tantrum that happens when you order veggies instead of ice cream for your picky eater’s side dish).
The strategy, or strategies, you choose depends on your child, their temperament, their age, and the specific situation. If you’re not sure exactly where to start, try one, some, or maybe even all of these picky eating tips:
1. Take a Step Back
It’s tempting to force food on your child. But this can have the opposite effect. Again, forceful pushing may create or escalate picky eating.
Whether your child isn’t hungry or they just won’t eat what’s on their plate, take a step back and don’t stress. Ask the server for a to-go box (so you don’t have to waste your child’s meal) and enjoy your child’s non-tantruming company as you and the rest of your family eat.
2. Model Healthy Eating Behaviors
Your child is watching you — all of the time. Your mini stalker sees when you eat and knows when you casually turn your nose at the stinky cheese your partner sneaks into the fridge.
Act as a meal model and show your child that you have a healthy relationship with food. Get excited about mealtime and smile when you eat veggies and new foods! This works at home and in restaurants too.
3. Put Your Child in Charge
Your child can’t stand fish and cauliflower. Okay. Then tell them it’s alright to order something else off the menu. Trying new foods doesn’t always equal an adult-led choice. Let your little one pick their own menu selections for mealtime. That is, within reason.
4. Skip the Kids' Menu
The paper placemat covered with tic-tac-toe boards and cartoonish pics of macaroni and cheese, French fries, and chicken nuggets isn’t the only route to your child’s restaurant meal. If your child’s palette extends beyond the typical “kid foods,” try an adult menu appetizer. Unlike mains, apps may come in smaller portions — making them the perfect size for preschoolers.
5. Don't Wait Until Your Child is Famished to Eat
You skipped the mid-day snack, hoping your child would build a monstrous hunger that only a meal out could quench. But then the opposite happened. Instead of gobbling up everything on their plate, your picky preschooler snubbed their food, snubbed you, and then proceeded to have a major public meltdown.
A hungry child is a cranky child. And a cranky child may not eat. Avoid this situation and give your child a starter snack at home before you dine out.
6. Order Ahead of Time
This directly connects to the “My child is so hungry, they’re too cranky to eat anything now” issue. Avoid hunger-fueled meltdowns and order ahead of time. If that’s not possible, ask to order your child’s meal as soon as you’re seated.
Which Kid-Friendly Restaurants Should You Choose?
More specifically, what are kid-friendly restaurants and what should you look for in a dining option for the whole family (including your picky eater)?
There isn’t one universal eatery that works for every picky kid. Some of the finickiest of eaters may enjoy an ultra-chic fine dining experience that comes complete with micro-greens and tofu covered in a sauce you can’t pronounce.
The key to dining out without a power struggle is finding a restaurant that matches your child’s needs, habits, and eating behaviors. And no, this isn’t always easy. To make the most of mealtime with your little ones and find an eatery that won’t spark a tantrum, or at least no one will care if your child meltdowns mid-meal, look for:
7. A Menu with Variety
You want your child to try new foods. This isn’t exactly easy if your kiddo eats chicken nuggets, noodles, and peanut butter every day. Give your child the max choices possible and pick a place that has several different options.
8. Somewhere That Serves Kids' Meals
Yes, your child may prefer to order off the adult menu. But this may not happen all the time. If your plain Jane picky eater is totally into buttered noodles, French fries, and hamburgers, make sure the restaurant has a kid's menu with these preschooler-friendly foods.
9. A Noisy Atmosphere
This tip only works if you have a loud child who can tolerate an equally loud environment—or may possibly have a scream-fueled meltdown. A noisy space will drown out unwanted sounds. In other words, your kiddo’s picky eating protests won’t offend the people three tables away.
10. A Quiet Setting
Is sensory overload an issue for your child? Too much stimulation can make dining out a disaster. If your child is easily overwhelmed, select a restaurant that is quiet and low-key.
11. A Restaurant That Takes Reservations
Don’t get stuck waiting behind the other 473 families who are finally ready to return to in-person dining. Make a reservation to avoid an unnecessary wait. The longer your child stands around before you’re seated, the more likely it is that they’ll get bored and just want to go home.
12. Somewhere New or Different
From old black and white silent movies playing on an endless loop to cars hanging from the ceiling and the walls, some eateries have it all. Turn a family meal out into a night of entertainment and choose a restaurant with a wild, weird, or wacky setting.
13. A Comforting Space
Parents of picky eaters are often on edge when they dine out. Make the experience better for everyone and choose a comfortable restaurant. Forget about rigid chairs or tables that look like they came straight out of a barbed wire factory.
Not only will comfy furniture make you feel at home, but it will also help your child to relax.
Now that you’ve got tips to try that may help your picky eater to overcome their food fixations, it’s time to turn your attention to the rest of the meal. Check out our info on table manners for kids right here!