In this post, we are discussing how to get your picky eater to eat healthy – whether that’s your toddler, preschooler or your husband! I share my favorite methods for encouraging my picky eaters to eat healthy foods.
Hey there, friend. You’re probably reading this because you want to know how to help your child to eat better, healthier, and more consistently.
First of all let me say that I am NOT a medical professional or dietitian. I’m just a regular ole mom like you who has struggled with the same things. This is what I’ve learned through experience, tons of research and consulting with doctors, nutritionists and registered dietitians. If you or your child has a health issue, please consult with your doctor.
Dr. Justin Coulson at Happy Families – a psychologist and father of 6 (!!) daughters – remarks that some of the most common mealtime mistakes are:
- Applying too much pressure
- Giving too much choice
- Using shame and guilt
So, what do you do when you fall into some of those pitfalls? I know I have done ALL of those things at one point or another.
Tip #1: Take a deep breath.
Seriously. Take a deep breath. I’ll wait.
Now, hear this: your kid will be okay. They will not starve. They will not grow a third ear because they refuse to eat their broccoli. Let’s have some perspective on this.
One thing my doctor mom would always say: eating is not a learned behavior.
We are not taught to eat, it is something that we are biologically programmed to do. Yes, we learn bad behaviors and unhealthy habits – but starving ourselves is not typically one of those!
Recently, we realized that dinnertime had become a struggle for us with the kids. They just weren’t eating their food! We bribed them, cajoled them, throttled them (just kidding)…after weeks, we decided that they simply were not hungry at that time. So we adjusted their snack schedule and then finally made the decision that they did have to sit with us during family dinner, but they didn’t have to eat at that exact time. However, they couldn’t choose to eat something else: they had to eat a reasonable amount of dinner if/when they wanted a bedtime snack or treat.
I can’t tell you what a stress reliever this has been for our family. We’re able to have fun, light-hearted meals without battling over food. The kids still eat their dinners – albeit, later than we would like – but they eat when they’re hungry and oftentimes they eat ALL of their dinner and more!
This all started with us taking a deep breath and gaining some perspective. What mattered was that our children ate and that they ate reasonably healthy, filling foods. It doesn’t HAVE to be on “our” schedule and it may not look like what we want it to, but we’re accomplishing our goal: happy, healthy children.
Tip #2: Don’t bring food into the house that you don’t want your child to eat.
If your kid only wants to have hot dogs and macaroni for dinner and cocoa puffs for breakfast – just don’t buy it anymore. If they fill up on Doritos and Chewy bars all afternoon long and then aren’t hungry for dinner – there’s a simple fix for that.
Look, I’m not saying this is easy to do…but I am saying it’s simple.
We recently stopped purchasing applesauce pouches – not because they were unhealthy, but because that was the only thing my son wanted to eat! We were spending more money on pouches than on any other category of food each week. So, I stopped buying them.
Now, let me tell you that at first he was devastated. It broke my heart. But, as kids do, he moved on. He doesn’t even ask for them anymore and is perfectly happy with the other snack choices that we offer him.
Tip #3: Have your picky eater eat what you eat but allow for flexibility.
I once heard a mom share how she got her child to eat a healthier breakfast: she made herself the healthy meal and gave her child something relatively bland/boring. Within seconds, the child was leaning over to see what her mom had to eat. Before the mom could take more than one bite, the child had commandeered the healthy meal!
This just shows us how much our kids look to us. If they see us eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains, they will be more likely to do the same.
Also, this is just a sanity check: don’t make a separate meal for your picky eater! This is a slippery slope. If you have 5 picky eaters in your family, will you make separate, customized meals for all of them?! Please stop this habit before it becomes a mom’s worst nightmare.
So, how do you do this?
By making balanced, healthy meals with flexibility.
Here’s an example: I’ll make this meal frequently in our household. However, we all eat it differently. I like to squeeze lime over mine and sprinkle some cilantro. Tyler likes to cover his in cheese and sour cream and then eat it with tortilla chips. Finn and Justus get a dollop of plain Greek yogurt to make theirs more creamy and get cheese like Papa. I’ve made one meal, but everyone gets what they like.
(By the way, here are some of the meals that I make frequently for our family. They’re healthy but relatively simple and flexible.)
Figure out what your mealtime boundaries will be and stick to them. For example: I won’t make separate meals for everyone in our family, but I will allow my child to slather their vegetables in cheese.
Tip #4: Plan your meals AND snacks AND desserts.
If you don’t have a plan, it’s so much easier for meals to get “blurry.”
What I mean is this: if you don’t know what you’re going to eat for breakfast (or lunch or dinner…) then we usually gravitate toward what’s easiest and what we’re craving in that moment. But that’s not always the healthiest option for us! However, when we plan ahead, we know exactly what we’re going to eat and it helps us to make better decisions.
The same goes for our kids: if we know what we’re going to feed them, it’s so much easier than staring into the fridge/pantry and asking them what they want to eat! That never goes well.
So that’s why I make a meal plan for the week on Sunday evenings. I sit down and plan out what we’re going to have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day and make sure I have a plan for snacks and treats. I try to do some batch cooking so that I’m not making meals from scratch for each and every meal of the day! For example, on Sunday nights I usually make a large batch of steel cut oats to feed us breakfast through the week (Monday-Friday…weekends are for pancakes 😉 ) and I’ll throw some sweet potatoes into the oven to feed us lunches through the week. For dinners, I generally try to make a meal that will feed us for two nights in a row so that I can have a little break from cooking.
Check out my healthy week-long meal plan. It includes a plan for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and desserts for 7 days – that’s 35 meals planned out for you along with recipes, tips and tricks for your picky eater, a grocery list and more.
It’s super important to have balance and a healthy perspective with our food choices, which is why I think it’s good to incorporate treats and desserts into our diets. It’s nice to have something to look forward to after a long day or week. Generally speaking, I try to have “healthy” desserts and treats for during the week and reserve the splurges for the weekends. For example, my four-year-old has a small handful of dark chocolate covered almonds during his quiet time (AKA little brother’s nap time) each day and then we usually have ice cream or roast marshmallows on Saturdays or Sundays. This gives us all something to look forward to and provides a nice balance in our diet.
A word on snacking for picky eaters…
In our house, over-snacking has led to many food battles. Dinner time was ROUGH until we figured out that we need to schedule our snacks. So, each day we have snacks at 10:00am and at 3:00pm. The boys’ snacks typically consist of one pantry item such as a Larabar, whole grain crackers, dried cranberries or popcorn AND one or two refrigerator/produce items such as a clementine, apple, grapes, cheese stick or goat cheese with their crackers.
Tip #5: Give some choices…and take some choices away.
It’s a give and take here. Literally.
One of the silliest things I do is ask my four-year-old what he wants to eat for lunch.
I know exactly what he wants to eat for lunch: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Every time.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good ole pb&j – but when I ask him what he wants and it’s not: a. what I want to give him or b. all that healthy for him…then we’ve got problems.
One of the goals here is to de-pressurize our meals. We don’t want our kids to pick up on our anxiety over their eating – that’s never good.
So, stop asking your kid what they want to eat. Instead, pre-determine what you will feed them, and THEN give them options. For example:
Would you like cinnamon on top of your sweet potato?
Do you want blueberries or strawberries on your yogurt?
Would you want your avocado on your sandwich or on the side?
You see what I’m getting at here?
Tip #6: Involve your picky eater in the meal prep process.
One way that I get my four-year-old to try new foods is by having him cook alongside me. When he was first starting to eat solids, I would let him play with the spices and we would do the “smell game” where I would let him sniff various spices. As he got older, he started to help me do some basic measuring, scooping and mixing. He cracked eggs and whisked them. Now he peels potatoes, chops zucchini, and adds seasonings to our meals.
We’ve started keeping a garden and it’s been wonderful for getting him to eat vegetables! After all, they’re the work of his own hands.
Tip #7: Mix new, healthy foods with old favorites
If you’re trying to get your kid (or picky eating husband!) to eat broccoli, for example, try mixing it with other foods they already like to eat. If you leave the broccoli on its own on their plate, it’s much easier to push it to the side than if its covered in cheese and mixed with macaroni!
This works all of the time with my husband. He has a very limited number of vegetables that he likes, but if l chop up onions, bell peppers, zucchini or other veggies small enough and mix them with the “approved” foods, he either won’t notice them at all, or only grumble slightly as he eats them.
Tip #8: Regularly introduce new foods to your picky eater
Each weekly, as I’m grocery shopping, I try to choose one new fruit, vegetable or whole grain to try. I like to treat this more as an experiment than as something I expect my family to happily devour. I choose foods that are in season, inexpensive, and interesting.
Together, we learn how to prepare and eat our new food. For example, a few months ago, we purchased one pomegranate. I didn’t even know how to cut up a pomegranate! So Finn and I watched a video together about how to cut one up. He helped me pick the seeds out of the pomegranate and we remarked on the color and texture, how interesting the fruit was. It was fun!
Now, fast forward several months and pomegranates are one of their favorite fruits!
On the other hand, a few months ago we tried pitaya (also known as dragon fruit). It was a super neat looking fruit – but none of us loved the taste. It had the texture of a kiwifruit, but to us, it didn’t actually taste like much. We had a few small bites and put the rest in a smoothie. No harm done – it was a fun experiment for the family. No pressure, just an interesting experience for all of us.
Another example of this was when we purchased an eggplant. Finn and I scrolled through Pinterest searching for “eggplant recipes” and I let him pick the recipe for us to make together. We made eggplant pizzas and it was fun!
I’m not advocating for us to come up with unique meals every night of the week – that’s not realistic or sustainable. We all tend to eat the same meals and foods over and over again – which is totally fine and normal! – but it’s helpful to introduce new foods in a fun way with no pressure.
Tip #9: Consult with a pediatric dietitian
If you’re at your wits end with your picky eater, I highly recommend consulting with a pediatric dietitian. This is someone who knows a ton about nutrition, healthy eating, a balanced mindset when it comes to food AND knows about kids.
These days, lots of pediatric dietitians are doing online or phone consults – so you don’t even have to leave the house. For example, Betsy Britt at GroWell Nutrition has an online picky eating course – or you can do a personalized family consult via Zoom.
Tip #10: Don’t Give Up.
Having tension and difficulty during mealtimes with a picky eater can be SO challenging. But don’t give up, mama! Think of this as an exercise in growth, just like working out: when you first start to exercise, it’s hard and you’re sore and tired. But after a while, it becomes easier and easier. You get stronger, have more energy and feel more confident. It’s the same thing with parenting! Choosing to do the “hard things” for and with our children is draining at first, but over time it becomes easier and we all reap the benefits.
Dietitian and mother of two, Betsy Britt of GroWell Nutrition, says that it can take 20-30 introductions for a child to accept a new food. That’s A LOT of tries! So don’t worry if it doesn’t go well the first time, or the second time….or the fifteenth time.
I heard this tip from Betsy last year as my youngest, Justus, was starting to eat solids for the first time. This has been instrumental in helping him to become a well-rounded eater.
I will also say that physical growth and the natural process of maturing will help our kids as well if we’re consistent and patient. For example, there were foods that Justus did not eat last year but now (because I kept introducing those foods) he loves them!
Also, it’s hard to explain to an 18 month old why they should eat their veggies, but it’s much easier now with my 4-year-old. I can explain to him the benefits of each food and he really likes that!
These carrots are filled with beta carotene which help keep your eyes really healthy – it especially helps you to be able to see better at night!
This chicken has lots of protein to help build your muscles up so you can be strong like mama!
Your avocado that you’re eating has some really healthy fats – that helps your heart to be even more powerful! Can you feel your heart beat?
Those blueberries have tons of antioxidants in them, which helps your body have more energy to fight off bad-guy germs!
With three boys around our dinner table, there’s a lot of muscle-showing, karate-chopping, and pirate-like ‘arrghh’ going on while we eat. It’s a little chaotic, but it’s also fun and makes our meals way more interesting.
Well, friend, I hope this is helpful for you in your journey toward better health and more sanity! Don’t forget: you are not alone. Always feel free to reach out to me for prayers and support. I’d love to pray for you!