Tips for Feeding Picky Eaters – My Story
When my eldest son was born, I knew that I wanted him to develop good eating habits from the start. Today he’s an adventurous eater who loves to try new foods. When I married my husband, I gained a stepdaughter through marriage. She was a very particular eater who (with Autism) has some serious texture sensitivity. She now easily eats everything placed in front of her without any complaints!
But every kid is uniquely different. I place a plate of food in front of my toddler daughter and she recoils in horror. The arms pulled back, the face twisted in disgust. It’s a look I know well.
I’ll admit that I was not a healthy or adventurous eater as a child. In fact, I was extremely picky! I dreaded eating at friend’s houses because of my food aversions. My picky food list was always at the forefront of my mind, hoping that the meal being served wasn’t prepared with something that I’d have to pick out, avoid or gag on! Only in my twenties did I start trying new foods. And it’s because I used to be so particular with eating that I’ve been able to come up with tips for feeding picky eaters.
1. Start Young
When your baby first starts eating solids, offer a wide variety of flavors and textures. It’s tempting to want to keep with the smooth and sweet foods. Once the pediatrician give the go-ahead, it’s important that babies taste savory flavors and to get accustomed to textures.
I started by adding herbs and spices to baby food puree to add a dash of flavor. I discovered that my daughter loved a tiny bit of cinnamon with the baby cereal. Then I branched out to thyme in the chicken puree and curry in the butternut squash. Any time you’re introducing new foods to your baby, make notes. You’ll want to write down the date and what you fed them, on the rare chance that something they eat results in a reaction (for instance, my son used to get a pink rash on his cheeks after having cinnamon).
2. “You Don’t Have to Like it, but You Still Have to Eat it”
Enlist a family motto like this one, which knocks off the “I don’t like this” excuses. When I first married my husband, his daughter was 5 and had a very small meal repertoire. We knew that needed to change but he’d gotten accustomed to serving her the same foods. It was easier to give in than deal with a possible dinnertime meltdown.
Upon giving her a plate of food and hearing, “I don’t like meatloaf”, I replied, “You don’t have to like it, but you still have to eat it”. Saying it flatly and without emotion, drama or any kind of pressure from me seemed to do the trick. She tried it and now meatloaf is one of her favorite meals!
Get the recipe for this kid-friendly Pasta Salad Recipe. Kids don’t like tomatoes or olives? Swap out ingredients for something they do like!
3. Make the Meal Less About What the Kids Are Eating
Growing up, I was sooo stubborn about trying new foods. And that’s because during every dinner, the spotlight was on me to verify that I was eating what was served. My parents would make a big embarrassing fuss if I tried something new. So I stopped trying new things, just to be more in control.
We decided with our kids to take the focus off the eating and make mealtimes more enjoyable. We don’t obsess over every bite that our kids take. There is no big fanfare. It’s just food and meal time is not the place to pressure your kids. Push them and they’re sure to push back!
Click through for the Chunky Mexican Salsa Recipe, perfect for kids to eat with quesadillas and tacos. Adjust the temperature by modifying peppers in the recipe. Kids want salsa that’s a smoother consistency? Give this chunky pico de gallo a quick blend in the food processor!
Make the Table a Happy Place
If you’ve been putting an unnecessary spotlight on your kids at the dinner table, try something new. By creating an entirely new routine and adding fun aspects to the family meal, you’ll relieve some of the usual pressure. Try adding in conversation starting questions or allow family members to take turns choosing music to play during meals.
Let kids choose their own place mats and tableware. We have educational placemats like these that are great conversation starters. Consider smaller sized utensils with favorite characters. Turn off the TV so that nobody is mindlessly eating. Chat as a family to make the dinner table a happy place that your kids want to be every night.
4. Keep Offering
So, they didn’t like it the first time you served it. That’s okay, keep offering. It may take quite a few times of seeing a food on their plate before children will try it, let alone like it.
5. Limit Portion Sizes
How can you get picky eaters to try new foods? Don’t pile their plates! When serving a new food, all we ask is that our children try one or two bites and that’s all. Start with a very small portion on your child’s plate. When they finish it, offer seconds.
There are certain foods that my daughter doesn’t enjoy, like black beans. We will literally give her three beans and ask that she finish them. Once she is done, she can request more or she can be finished, there is no pressure (PS: She’ll now eat a big bowl of beans without issue!) Consider a Compartment Divided Plate so that foods aren’t “touching” and portion control is easier.
Try “Adventure Points”
Awarding what my family calls “Adventure Points” has been a fun way for kids to try new things and earn something back in return. Each time my child takes a single bite of a new food, we reward them with an Adventure Point (we keep track on a piece of paper). For every 10 new tastes, they get to choose a small prize, something around $5 cost.
Adventure Points has been an easy way my kids have been able to control what they try or refuse. They know if they take just one bite, they earn a point. No bite? No problem, but they don’t earn any points.
6. Respect Their Lack of Appetite
How do I get my picky toddler to eat?! And why is my kid always telling me he’s not hungry? Kids truly do have small stomachs. Also their appetites peak and wane depending upon growth spurts. Repeat after yourself, “It’s just one meal”. They’ll eat when they get hungry.
Kids should continue to sit at the table with you during meals. I let my kids know that THIS is meal time. When the kids tell me they’re hungry in 30 minutes they’ll be served the exact same meal!
If your kids are consistently saying, “I’m not hungry” during official meal times, take a hard look at snacks. If snack eating is happening too close to lunch or dinner time, your child might not be ready to eat yet. Adjust snack times appropriate so they’re hungry (but not hangry!) come mealtime!
7. Keep An Open Mind
You’ve just prepared a new dish and you’re already thinking, “There is no way my kid is going to eat this.” Get that thought out of your head right now, because your picky eater might just surprise you. Go into each new experience with an open mind. Simply serve what you’ve made without a big production and ignore the “I don’t like this, even though I’ve never had it” commentary.
Last year I offered my kids white canellini beans. We’ve eaten a lot of beans (pinto, black, refried, kidney) over the years but I’d never served white beans. My preschooler asked me what they were and then tried one (up to that point, he wouldn’t even TRY the beans we’d offered). He shrugged after eating the white bean and said, “I guess I like beans”. And he’s eaten every bean since!
Get the recipe for my classic beer-battered SoCal Style Fish Tacos. Most kids gobble up this fried fish when they might not eat regular fish by itself. Tacos are always a good choice for kids who like to personalize their toppings.
Try Something NOBODY in the Family Has Tried Before!
We’ve recently signed up for the snack subscription box, Universal Yums. This box contains snack foods and treats from a chosen country in a variety of savory and sweet options. So far we’ve tried United Kingdom and Thailand and have had a fantastic time tasting and learning about each location.
But surprisingly nobody has loved it more than the pickiest eater in our house! My daughter has proudly shouted, “I’m brave!” when trying these new bites including Thai chili pepper potato chip and Pickled onion rings. I think it’s a combination of something fun and new and the fact that we’re all trying these foods for the first time. In any case, it’s been a great way to branch out as a family and experience different flavors!
8. Water is the Beverage Option
Though I do offer a small glass of milk with breakfast and dinner, for the rest of the day water is the only beverage option. Juice or caffeine-free soda is limited to special occasions, like at a party. I prefer that my kids get their calories from healthy, nutritious foods and not get filled up on beverages.
If you’re noticing that your kids are eating very little at meal time, consider cutting back on caloric beverages throughout the day. If you’re children are currently drinking a lot of juice, start adding water to the drink little by little (do it directly in the bottle). Continue to add more water each time, until eventually kids are sipping water with just a “splash” of juice.
9. Serve Well-Balanced Snacks
Nothing like that just-before-dinner snack to “ruin” their appetite for the main course! Limit snack time to twice a day and under 100 calories each time. Snacks should be well-balanced and include a little fat (like nuts), protein (like a lean piece of meat or nut butter) and a carbohydrate (like a half of a piece of fruit).
Make it easy for your kids by keeping fruit on the counter and prepped veggies in the fridge, where they are easy to grab on the go. We like edamame that kids can pop out of the pods (they are healthy and they take a bit of time to consume).
Avoid purchasing packaged snacks that are fast to grab and quick to consume. These are often loaded with sugar that ultimately, isn’t a satisfying snack. Snacks you prepare ahead of time or can fix in the moment are going to be healthier options that will also keep bellies full longer.
10. Keep the Choices Fresh
It’s easy to get stuck on serving the same fruits and vegetables. But it’s important to keep things fresh and continue to offer new flavors. My kids have just developed a love of yellow and green squash, which we lightly steam. It’s also essential that you keep fresh foods in the kitchen and to eliminate most bagged or processed items that are heavy on sodium and saturated fat.
We recently tried Dinnerly, which gave us some new ideas for veggies and recipes. Branch out of the meal rut and try to prepare a new vegetable or fruit. Preparing them in a new way or serving them differently may encourage your kids to give them a try.
My kid won’t eat a banana but WILL eat banana bread! Try this yummy recipe for Banana Bread Muffins or Loaves.
11. Offer Sauces and Dips (or Not!)
My toddler won’t eat meat unless it’s smothered in ketchup. Totally fine by me, at least she’s eating it! What are the foods that your kids might enjoy more if they had a sauce or dip as an accompaniment? And then there are some kids, like my kindergartner who doesn’t like sauces at all!
If it’s easy enough to leave off the sauce on a dish, try letting family members add it themselves so the picky eater can have it “plain”. One of my kids will only eat spaghetti if it has tomato sauce; another only with butter. Two of my kids don’t like salad dressings. Serving foods without the sauce mixed in or poured on allows everyone to customize to their personal liking.
12. Remove White Foods from Your Diet
White foods are often the diet staples of a picky eater! Sub in colorful and more flavorful foods and skip the bland white foods. Avoid white bread and switch to a smooth tasting wheat. Once your child’s taste buds have gotten used to that, you can move to a nutty whole grain instead.
Instead of white potatoes, try steamed sweet potato chunks. Use whole wheat pasta instead of pasta made with white flour. Switch out white rice for brown rice. Don’t think that eating healthier foods is more costly – see my ideas on how to save money on groceries.
Kids who might not usually prefer golden potatoes may enjoy the creamy blended consistency of this Roasted Garlic and Potato Soup (especially when it’s topped with bacon!)
13. Be a Good Role Model
Kids will totally notice if you are serving them lima beans and you don’t have any on your plate! Make sure you practice what you preach so that kids see you eating healthfully as well.
I know that I tend to overeat and make unhealthy choices during stressful times. Too much eating in front of electronics, not enough veggies and too many diet sodas! Making good choices isn’t just a wise decision for your personal self-care, but setting that example for your kids is imperative.
14. Make Meals Distraction Free
While you don’t want the focus on your picky eater during meal times, it shouldn’t be focused on the TV or device either. Make meal times enjoyable with light conversation by turning off the television, phone and devices. Click through to read about healthy breakfast ideas for kids.
15. Dessert Isn’t the Reward
I know we’ve all been guilty of encouraging dinner eating by the promise of a sweet treat at the completion of the meal. But that definitely gives kids the message that dessert is more important by making it a reward.
In our home, dessert isn’t an every day occurrence. And it’s definitely not always a sugary treat. Consider fruits like strawberries with whipped cream or frozen grapes (cut in half before serving). Small cups of low-sugar pudding with personal toppings offer a sweet treat in a reasonable portion.
16. Give Them Something You KNOW They’ll Eat
This is one of the top tips for feeding picky eaters – When preparing a meal, always try to include at least one “sure thing”. This item should be a well-loved favorite that you know your child will eat. At my house that means I’m making a buttery pasta, brown rice, or green beans because it’s something that my kid will FOR SURE eat!
Giving your child something you know that they’ll eat serves several purposes. It helps your child to know that they are seen and respected. It helps to take the pressure off at meal time. Also it ensures that they won’t go hungry tonight if they resist trying something new.
I would still encourage you to serve your child a little of all the foods, in smaller portions. Kids plates should look similar to your plate, incorporating everything for a well-balanced meal. We still try to encourage trying all the things before they make requests for seconds of their favorite food.
17. Don’t Let Them Frazzle You
When my husband and I were first encouraging our daughter to try new things, it was important that we not lose our cool with her. A large part of being a picky eater is the control that it brings (speaking as a former picky eater herself!) When parents act like food is no big deal, it frees the child to relax and open up to trying new things just a little bit more.
Offer foods without pressure or bribery. If there is a complete meltdown at the mere suggestion of taking one bite, remove the plate and calmly tell the child to leave the table. Do not offer to prepare a different meal. Kids will either choose be stubborn and go without. Or they’ll begrudgingly eat what is offered. Just keep your cool and pretend it doesn’t bother you one way or another to get the control issue out of the way.
Hopefully the advice and tips for feeding picky eaters will help your household meal time struggles become a thing of the past!
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This post was originally published on Feb 26, 2018 and has been updated and republished.