Raising adventurous eaters with well-rounded, healthy food habits can seem like an impossible task if you look at the way food is generally marketed toward children. The thing is, kids are often not given enough credit for what kinds of foods they might be willing to eat, if given both the chance and atmosphere to explore those tastes and flavors.
I feel like I’ve picked up a lot of tools over the years from fellow moms, a few of whom are dietitians. These tools enable me to better set my child up for success with healthy eating habits long term. While I enjoy spending a lot of time in the kitchen making most of my family’s food from scratch, I realize not everyone has an interest in this. These picky eater tips can be helpful no matter where you find yourself on the foodie spectrum, so read on for my 9 favorite tips that can be implemented right away, no matter where your child is on their food journey.
Involve kids as much as possible in preparing meals and snacks
Children are curious creatures and they love to help. I find that taking advantage of this in the kitchen is not only a lot of fun (and sometimes messy – let’s be honest), but it can help loads in building confidence around food and get kids to feel a sense of ownership and pride in what they’ve helped to make.
Kids can help in a lot of different ways, depending on their age. Younger children can dump pre-measured ingredients into a large bowl and mix them up. Kids that are a little older can help do the measuring. Children can help chop veggies and fruits with “kid safe” knives. They can operate the buttons on blenders and food processors or doll out muffin batter into the tin. Options here are almost endless!
Don’t hide vegetables
Being sneaky undermines your long-term goal, which is to raise a healthy eater who enjoys a variety of foods. If your kid has an aversion to veggies mixed in their meals, this will only be amplified if they find out you’ve been tricking them. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be adding vegetables to all kinds of foods like spaghetti sauce, tacos, burgers, smoothies, oatmeal and so on – we definitely should! Let’s just be open about it and see how our kids react.
Having our kids help in preparing the food makes not hiding the vegetables really easy. Talk about why you are adding certain ingredients. If you’re making a smoothie for example, you can talk about why you’re adding spinach to it and the fact that the color of the smoothie will end up being green, just like Baby Yoda. Take something they are interested in and make it relevant (what kid isn’t loving The Mandalorian these days?).
Exposure, exposure, exposure
Don’t let your kiddo’s refusals get you down. Many dietitians report that it can take dozens of exposures to a food before a child decides whether or not they like it. Try, try, try again. I know from experience that it can be so frustrating to have your efforts in the kitchen refused, but it’s important to try to tamper those frustrations and not make a big deal about it, which leads to me to one of my favorite tips…
Offer controlled choice
A common mantra among nutritionists is the idea of the “Division of Responsibility”. As the parent, I choose when our meal and snack times are AND what is served. It’s my son’s responsibility to decide what and how much to eat from what is offered.
That said, children want to feel like they have a bit of control over their lives and one way that’s often manifested is through picky eating. Offering choices, on our terms, can help mitigate this. A few ways to offer choice without actually changing what you offer at mealtimes can be simple. Ask your child if they want the orange plate or the red plate, for example. Or if you’re making a smoothie, ask if they want strawberries or mango. Or if you’re having leftover taco meat for lunch, ask them if they want a crunchy taco or a melty quesadilla. Or if you’re serving raw carrots at snack time, ask if they prefer carrot sticks or carrot coins. You get the idea. Offer controlled choice, with just two options. Don’t ask “do you want carrots with dinner?” because it’s too easy for them to answer with a resounding “no!”. Instead ask, “Do you want carrots or broccoli with dinner?” Preserving some autonomy for our kids through this process and allowing them the power to choose can decrease the likelihood of flat refusals to eat.
Include a liked & familiar food with each meal
A completely brand new or not well liked meal can be too off-putting for a potentially picky eater. I always try to have at lease one item included in a meal that I know my son likes. Since I decide what is served and my kiddo decides what to eat from what is offered, there are no alternate meals. Including a liked food at each meal ensures he’ll eat at least something. And if he doesn’t eat much? That’s okay. The next meal or snack won’t be too far off.
Take the pressure off
Unfamiliar foods can be intimidating. Sometimes it helps a new food seem less scary if only a tiny amount is offered initially. Are you serving sugar snap peas for the first time? Instead of piling them up on your kid’s plate, just put a pod or two. Ask leading questions like “what does it feel like?” or “are there little peas inside?” or “what does it taste like?” Let your child explore the food on their own terms and don’t necessarily expect them to eat a whole bunch of a new food on the first try.
Let hunger be the sauce
I don’t remember who first coined this phrase, but I find it really helpful. If you’re noticing that your child isn’t eating much at mealtime, try to reevaluate your feeding schedule. How far apart are snacks between meals? If your kiddo is complaining of being hungry thirty minutes before dinner is ready and they’re given a snack, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when they don’t eat much of their dinner and aren’t as willing to try new foods. Alternatively, if they’re offered a snack two hours before dinner and that’s it until the evening meal is ready, they’ll likely have more of an appetite and will feel more motivated to eat what you offered at the dinner table.
Model healthy eating habits
Our kids are watching us and learning from us all the time. We can use this to our advantage when it comes to picky eating. Sit down and eat together as often as you can. Model the eating habits that you are wanting to instill in your child. Are they resistant to salad? Show them how much you enjoy yours. Be a little over the top. Talk about what you like. For example, “This romaine lettuce is so crunchy and fresh” or “I really like how the shredded cheese tastes on here” or “Mmmm, I love sunflower seeds on salad!”. This technique likely won’t have them gobbling up a bowlful of salad after the first try, but overtime when they see how much you enjoy eating certain foods they might consider yucky looking or unfamiliar, they may come around and want to try some.
Vegetables shouldn’t just be an expected side at dinner or an occasional choice at snack time. Offer them often and in different ways. Have them at breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner. Put veggies in all kinds of foods, even unconventional things like pancakes, oatmeal, and applesauce. If you make oatmeal in the morning with your kiddo and put carrots in it, offer carrots again at the later meal in a different way. Remind them how they liked the sweet carrots in the oatmeal and ask what they think of them now. Help them make the connection to the food.