I place the 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 admit that I was not a healthy or adventurous eater as a child. In fact, I was extremely picky! I dreaded eating at a friend’s house because of my food aversions. I had my picky food list in mind and hoped that the meal being served didn’t have 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 ideas for feeding picky eaters.
Tips for Feeding Picky Eaters
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! Keep reading for my tested tips for feeding picky eaters.
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1. Start Young
When your babies first start eating solids, offer a wide variety of flavors and textures. It’s tempting to want to keep with the smooth and sweet foods but it’s important that babies learn (once the doctor gives the go-ahead) about 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 a tiny bit of cinnamon with the baby cereal, thyme in the chicken puree and curry in the butternut squash.
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!
3. Make the Meal Less About the 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!
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.
Consider a Compartment Divided Plate so that foods aren’t “touching” and portion control is easier.
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 and that if they tell me they’re hungry in 30 minutes that what we’re eating at the moment is what they will be served!
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!
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.
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. Snacks should be well-balanced and include a little fat (like nuts), protein (like a lean piece of meat) 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).
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 mostly 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.
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 does’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”.
12. Remove White Foods
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.
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 and that they see you eating healthfully as well. Are you ready to start your own healthy eating plan? Check out my review of Personal Trainer Food.
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).
16. Don’t Let Them Frazzle You
When my husband and I were first encouraging our daughter to try new things, it was imperative 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.