Having picky eaters can be both exhausting and frustrating. This guide will teach you ways to handle the problem of finicky kids. Plus, how to get kids trying new things, and the best recipes for picky eaters. From handling dinner battles to hiding vegetables to when to know if there is a bigger problem, I’m covering it all here.
This post was originally posted in February 2019 and has since been updated.
I always thought that my boys would be great eaters. I was actually pretty determined.
But then my kids were born and they grew up and laughed in my face, as kids tend to do.
The Science Behind Picky Eating
The reality is that picky eating is actually an ingrained effort in self preservation in mammals. When mammals are infants their bodies reject unknown foods, bitter foods, and anything that looks different. This is an effort to avoid poisoning themselves and death.
So while YOU know that spinach will not kill your kiddo, instinct is telling them to be wary.
This does not mean all hope should be lost. It’s just me telling you that your kid is normal. Also, that this is a long term marathon of a journey, not a quick sprint.
Working past picky eating is a long process that takes patience and diligence. And here I’m sharing all of my tips, tricks, and advice.
Basic tips for picky eaters
Having a picky eater is tough. As a mom of 3, I’ve had my fair share of battles over food. Here are my favorite basic picky eater tips to get you started on making meal times more pleasant.
- Consistency is key. Being consistent with rules and expectations is a must.
- Make it fun. Simple things like adding eyes or coloring noodles can make a big impact on your picky eater’s willingness.
- Add some color! Try adding a rainbow of fruits and veggies to meals.
- No pressure. Making your child eat, forcing them to clear their plate, etc can be tempting, but it won’t help your situation. Chances are it will just add stress to your child’s view of meals.
- Bribery doesn’t work. Telling your kids if they eat a carrot they’ll get a cupcake just makes the carrot seem like a chore. Then the cupcake becomes a reward.
- If all else fails, hide it. I love hiding veggies into my kids’ food. It’s the easiest way to get them to eat well on days I have no energy to argue.
Getting that first bite with Picky Eaters
Recent data shows that it can take anywhere from 12 to 30 exposures of a new food before a child can decide they like it.
That might seem like an intimidating number is your kids won’t even take the first bite though. If you’re struggling to get your kid to try the first bite, here are some tips.
- Get them involved. Kids who help prepare a meal are more likely to be willing to try it. This is because it gives them ownership of it. Giving kids ownership allows them to feel more in control and less hesitant when trying new things.
- Give them the choice. Take your kiddos to the store with you and have them pick out a new fruit or vegetable. Don’t say no, “you won’t like that” or anything to discourage their choices.
- Put a new twist on something they love. My kids love fried rice, so I use it as a vehicle to try new things. Instead of the normal peas and carrots, I’ll swap in diced zucchini for the peas. The dish is familiar with only one thing different. We love this Mexican Fried Rice and Italian Fried Rice.
- Give it a new name. When I made spinach muffins, we call them “Spooooky Frankenstein muffins” and they get gobbled up. He may have side-eyed it before trying it, but sometimes you just need a different name.
FAQS about Picky Eaters
I always serve something they are comfortable with, usually some kind of carb. I then build upon it.
So I might serve pasta with a new sauce that is unfamiliar, or a new soup with a side of their favorite cornbread. By keeping a comforting food, we’re reducing the stress on the picky eater.
Try healthier versions of what they love. If they stick to bread, migrate to whole or sprouted grains. I always suggest trying things like hidden veggie recipes, or healthier homemade version of processed favorites.
Sometimes. Sometimes picky eating in children is linked to a sensory processing disorder or an issue that need a feeding therapist. Always talk to your doctor if you think there is a deeper cause to picky eating.
How to get your picky eater involved and interested
Sometimes getting a picky eater to eat can be as simple as getting them involved! This helps kids feel in control, which often is a reason they are picky. Here are my favorite ways to get kids involved and feeling a bit more in control.
Cook with them!
I love cooking with my boys. Yes, it can be stressful and messy, but there are definitely ways around that. I’ve found that if I have the boys help me cook, they’re more likely to try what we made. They’re proud that they had a hand in it!
Take them shopping with you
Honestly, grocery shopping with my kids is so unenjoyable. I’m not going to sugar coat it.
BUT. Taking them with me and letting them pick out one new fruit or vegetable that we’ll try together as a family? Fun! They feel more comfortable trying it too, because THEY chose it.
Go through a cookbook together
Finally, grab a cookbook full of healthy or veggie-packed recipes. Then, have them pick a few out that they would like to try! Again, this is giving them control and making them feel like they are a part of the process.
Hidden Vegetables: the Saving Grace for Picky Eaters
I love hiding vegetables in my kids’ food. Some might call it counterproductive, but personally, I think there is a time and place for everything. When you’re looking to get those vital exposures to a vegetable into your kids nothing works better than sneaking them into meals.
Tips For Hiding Veggies
- Let them know if possible. Some say that hiding veggies
isn’tgood, while others believe that it still counts as an exposure. Personally, I fall into the second category, especially if I tell them the veggie is in there. Sometimes this means outright stating, sometimes it just means not hiding what I’m doing when I’m making it. It really depends on the day.
- Being sneaky is okay. That being said, I don’t believe it’s all or nothing. If your kids will not even try if you tell them a vegetable is in there, don’t tell them. Or tell them after. But there are days that I know it’s just not worth it – and that’s okay too. Do what works for YOUR family.
- Serve alongside the real thing. When possible, I like to serve the real vegetable with a hidden veggie dish. So if I add grated zucchini to meatballs, I’ll serve it with sauteed zucchini. They might not eat the “side” but there is still a connection that they are making.
- Use a puree. If the sight of the veggie is going to cause an issue, use vegetable purees. They blend right in and leave no sign of their healthy super powers. Learn how to make veggie purees here.
Hidden Veggie Sauces
Sauces are a great place to hide veggies. It takes a super familiar food (usually pasta with sauce) and secretly adds vegetables in an approachable and fuss-free way. Here are some of my favorites that my boys love.
Veggie Alfredo Sauce (with cauliflower)
I use this as a meal with fettuccine, grilled chicken and broccoli or peas. It also works great in Alfredo bakes, white mac
Hidden Veggie Spaghetti Sauce (with carrots and bell pepper)
It’s really just great on anything that typically calls for red sauce. I’ve also been known to blend some up with a splash of cream for a simple tomato soup.
Tip: make a ton and freeze it. I always have some on hand for easy meals in a pinch.
That way we always have some on hand. We use it with pasta, as a creamy pesto pasta salad, as a spread on sandwiches, and even as a fun alternative to chicken salad.
Almost every kid
Hiding Veggies in Dinners
Dinner time is rough in general. The timing is usually so stressful and if you’re anything like me, by the end of the day your patience is starting to thin. Here are some easy ways to sneak in veggies at dinner time.
- Use a hidden veggie sauce.
- Add riced cauliflower in a rice dish.
- Try spiralizing zucchini and adding to pasta.
- Chop veggies
fineand add to fried rice.
- Use puree as a coating before dipping in breadcrumbs, like when making breaded cutlets.
- Adding shredded veggies into meatballs or meatloaf
Our favorite Hidden Veggie Dinners
- Egg Roll in a Bowl
- Healthy Chicken Alfredo Bake
- Italian Fried Rice
- Cheesy Low Carb Pizza Casserole
- Chicken Teriyaki Meatballs
- Homemade SpaghettiOs
- Pizza Chicken
- Mexican Fried Rice
Dinner Time Battles with Picky Eaters
Struggling with dinner battles? If you feel like each night is a stressed out meal, you need these tips for how to handle dinner battles. Stop arguing with your kids and set yourself up for meal time success.
- Be consistent. Rules are rules. Make sure if you make a rule for one night that the same rule applies the next night.
- Be persistent. Recent research shows that it can take anywhere from 12-30 tries before a child can make a decision on a food.
- Keep trying. Tastes change with age – don’t write things off forever.
- Follow your own rules. If your kids need to try everything on their plate, so does your picky husband.
- Include something they like. When trying new foods, always include something familiar that they already enjoy.
- Bribery doesn’t work. Teaching kids that carrots should only be eaten when cake if offered as a prize is never a good option.
- Save it for later. If your child isn’t interested now, save it for when they are hungry.
For more tips and tricks for handing dinner time battles, head over to the full post.
How to know if it’s a bigger problem
You guys, I am not a doctor. I am not a nutritionist. I am not an eating therapist. What I am is a mom who has had experience with her own kiddos and picky eating. I’ve also read way too many books, studies, and resources on the topic.
As parents, it is our job to make sure we are trusting our guts and trusting them often. If you think your kid’s pickiness goes beyond growing pains and age, make sure you bring it up to your pediatrician.
There are occasionally underlying issues to picky eating that stricter table rules and hidden veggies will not solve. It’s always great to have these ideas and skills on hand, but make sure you talk to a professional if you think it’s needed.
Here are some great resources I found on the topic of clinical pickiness.
- Picky Eater vs Problem Feeder
- Picky vs. Problem Eater: A Closer Look at Sensory Processing Disorder
- More than Picky Eating
My favorite books on picky eating
Reading is always my first choice when it comes to learning (or teaching!) something new. Below are my favorite books about picky eating.
Some are for mom, with everything from recipes for picky eaters to book written by doctors to explain the best tactics for avoiding picky eating. Others are for kiddos to help them understand their own picky eating better and try to overcome.
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Picky eating books for parents of picky eaters..
- Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater: A Parent’s Handbook. This book takes you from the very first bite through feeding “big kids” in a healthy way. The book focuses on cultivating a love of eating well at all ages. It’s also written by a pediatrician and feeding therapist.
- It’s Not About the Broccoli. This is one of my FAVORITE books about picky eating and jumping the hurdle of it. It’s written by a
PhDand tackles common issues like what to do at birthday parties, new foods, moderation, and proportions.
- The Picky Eater Project: 6 Weeks to Happier, Healthier Family Mealtimes. I loved the recipes in this book! I will say, while a lot of the ideas are so fun (fun games, tasks, etc for kids) it came off being for kids who aren’t currently SUPER picky. More how to encourage explorative eating.
- Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food This is an interesting cookbook based solely on sneaking vegetables into food. I like to use it as a jump point, but honestly, I’m not the BIGGEST fan of the recipes. A lot of them are based on being low fat/low calorie which I don’t focus on with my own kids. So I tweak the recipes.
- Weelicious: 140 Fast, Fresh, and Easy Recipes The recipes in this book are both beautiful and delicious. Some of it is a little too crunchy for me. But with recipes like chicken fingers on a stick and chicken and wild rice casserole, there are lots picky eaters will love.
Books for picky eating kids:
Reading isn’t just for mom! These books written for kids tackle subject of picky eating in a kid friendly way.
- Green Eggs and Ham
- Picky Eaters
- D.W. the Picky Eater
- I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato
- But I Don’t Eat Ants
- Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli
- Black Belt Bunny
My favorite picky eating tools
There are a ton of ways to get kids interested in
- Fun plates. Don’t underestimate a fun plate! I love this
consturctionplate set that comes with construction vehicle utensils.
cups. Mini silicone cups can add fun to a boring plate. Use them to hold dip or even to separate foods.
- Solid colored cups. This is my BIGGEST hack to veggie smoothies. If they’re ugly or green, I put them into a solid colored Camelback cup so they have to taste and not see. These are also insulated so they keep the drink cool longer.
- Food Picks. Adding these fun picks into foods add just a bit more fun. My kids love the eyeball ones and will laugh about a cucumber with eyes and then munch away.
- Cookie cutters. Plain old cookie cutters add a ton of fun to things like sandwiches, pancakes, and even fruit. I let my boys choose the cutters to get them involved.
- Small cutters. I like the smaller cutters for vegetables and harder foods. I do these myself because they are a bit sharper.