Picky eating is 100% normal. Normal and insanely frustrating, that is! I understand this frustration first-hand, as my youngest is refusing most nutritious foods right now (at least it seems that way some days). When you go through the effort of making a nutritious, balanced meal, only to have your picky eaters turn up their noses, is defeating to say the least. See–even the pediatric dietitian’s kid can be picky! My professional self knows that he’s still likely getting what he needs nutritionally (and that this too shall pass), and I’m making sure to practice the Division of Responsibility in Feeding and stay the course, but my mom self is like… “f*$% this is hard”! So, I get you.
And I’m not alone–more than half of parents would classify their kids as being picky eaters. As a fellow picky-eating parent and a pediatric registered dietitian, I can say feeding kids is freaking tough. But if you handle typical picky eating in a positive way, it does pass (I’ve seen this time and time again in my own family as well as with clients in the nutrition counselling practice). Especially when you have a few delicious recipes, and a picky eating strategy to help your child become more courageous at the dinner table.
Are there magical picky eater recipes that my child will actually eat??
If you’re looking for magical unicorn recipes that your picky eater will happily accept 100% of the time, stop. Because you won’t find them. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but picky eating is normal, random, confusing, and non-sensical sometimes! There’s no silver bullet recipes out there that can be guaranteed to be gobbled up. There are so many reasons why a child may not eat well (or at all)–check out this blog post for the top 10 reasons kid’s won’t eat (and what to do).
Ok. So, what’s a parent to do? Keep reminding yourself that it’s NOT your job to get your kids’ to eat. And repeat. Over and over again. It IS your job to provide a variety of nutritious foods, at times and in places that you choose (the WHAT’s, WHEN’s and WHERE’s of feeding). It’s your child’s job to decide if they eat (at all) and how much they eat (when they decide to start eating).
Now, on the other (more realistic) hand, if you’re looking for a few recipes that often appeal to kids (even if they’re going through a picky eating phase), and will help your child become a little bit more confident at the table, you’re absolutely in the right spot. Below I’ve included 20 dietitian-approved recipes perfect for little ones who are learning to love a variety of foods, plus tips to help these recipes seem less scary to cautious eaters. Because mealtime should be more fun than frustrating.
A few general tips when serving meals to picky eaters:
When dealing with picky eaters it’s important as parents to remember to focus on the long-term feeding relationship versus the short-term. Often we stress about a particular meal, forcing or bribing (sometimes threatening) them to eat some of their dinner, because seriously – they need to eat or they’ll wake up in the middle of the night hungry, right?! Or offering a bedtime snack that is routinely their favourite because they ate nothing and going to bed with nothing in their tummy would mean a 2:00am knock on your bedroom door. Although this is quite possible, and that pressuring your kids to eat their meal NOW will probably result in them eating something, it will not help their long-term feeding relationship or make mealtimes enjoyable. Instead, try a few of these tips to help make mealtime a little less scary:
- Keep foods separate. Kids can sometimes feel like their favourite food is being contaminated by a new and unfamiliar food.
- Serve small portions. Too much food can simply be overwhelming… ie. “Mom expects me to eat all this!? No way!” Offering less means less pressure and less food wastage.
- Include a favourite food. All kids have a favourite, whether it’s apple slices at snack time or bread with supper. Having a familiar food available makes the other foods less scary.
- Keep a meal and snack schedule. Kids generally need about 2-3 hours in-between meals and snacks. Giving your child a snack every time they ask for one is not setting them up to be hungry for their meal. And grazing typically means less overall calories and nutrition! So set a schedule and stick to it!
Breakfast recipes for picky eaters
When picky eating happens, it’s important to maximize nutrition when possible. Kid’s have little tummies and big growth needs. Breakfast tends to be a great nutritional opportunity because chances are they didn’t eat much at supper and are hungry (am I right?), and breakfast foods tend to be less daunting for kids (more neutral-tasting, and less “scary”). So, for picky eaters try these recipes:
- Tropical Green Smoothie (& Smoothie Bowl) by Sarah Remmer, RD
- Quick and Easy Muffin Tin Omelettes by Sarah Remmer, RD… served with favourite fruit
- Whole-grain toast with natural peanut butter, favourite fruit, full-fat plain Greek yogurt with a drizzle of honey
- Oatmeal with toppings of choice. Let your child decide which toppings they want ie. peanut butter, coconut, maple syrup, raisins, etc. and let them do the mixing!
- Strawberry Banana Chickpea Muffins (Gluten-free) by Bucket List Tummy
Top picky eating tips for breakfast success:
- Make sure there’s enough time in the morning for breakfast: plan ahead as much as possible by making a big batch of oatmeal to reheat, chopping fruit, or setting the table the night before.
- Serve your child’s favourite fruit alongside something new
- Let your child top their oatmeal or yogurt with their favourite toppings (set out 3-4 that they can choose from)
- Give them a structured choice – “would you like peanut butter or jam on your toast”… or “would you like toast or cereal”
Lunch recipes for picky eaters
Ever yell this from the kitchen as your kiddos are running around or busy concentrating on their latest LEGO tower only to be met by groans and whines? Expecting our kids to drop everything and sit quietly and politely at the table gobbling up their lunch is unrealistic. Give your kids (especially those who are picky eaters) plenty of warning time that a meal is about to start. This will help them get the wiggles out and to put their project on pause before starting their meal. A few of my favourite lunch ideas are:
- The Best Butternut Squash Soup Ever by Sarah Remmer, RD
- Healthy Fruit Pizza with Cream Cheese by Amy Gorin Nutrition
- Trail Mix Pita Pizza by Mamma Knows Nutrition
- Protein Mac and Cheese by Nourish Nutrition
- Easy and Nutritious “Superhero” Green Pasta Recipe by Sarah Remmer, RD
Top tips for a lunch success with your picky eater:
- Let them help out in the kitchen! Kids feel proud and more adventurous when they contribute at mealtime.
- Add toppings to homemade pizza
- Help stir the pot of soup
- Add ingredients to a homemade smoothie
- Let kids have a structured choice. ie. “would you like hummus or ranch dip with your carrot sticks”
- Repeat exposure of previously rejected foods. It can take picky eaters multiple attempts to accept new foods. So don’t give up! Try serving the same food, different ways. For example:
- carrot sticks and carrot coins
- red and green apples
- toast with peanut butter or almond butter
Dinner recipes for picky eaters
Mealtime rules and behaviour are important because we want our kids to come to the table and to feel like it is a safe place. Dinner time is the best meal to make a family meal – which means everyone comes to the table – because it’s an opportunity to chat about your day. So ditch the bribing, coaxing, or two-bite rule. These strategies may work in the short-term, but feeding is a long-term relationship. Keep the pressure off of the food, have a conversation and listen to your picky eater. Let them be brave! Here are some great recipes that your child might like to explore:
- Build Your Own Burrito (Family Style) by The Domestic Dietitian
- Spinach Sweet Potato Tater Tots by Bucket List Tummy… kids LOVE dipping!
- Creamy Lemony Chicken Zoodles by Little Eats and Things… try making with half regular pasta and half zucchini noodles.
- Easy Open-Faced Enchilada Quesadilla by Sarah Remmer, RD… easy meal to make family-style!
- Weeknight One-Pan Burrito Bowls by Sarah Remmer, RD… another family-style meal that is super easy to make (and clean up)!
Top tips for dinner success with your picky eater:
- Ditch the “picky eating” label all together (especially in conversation where your child can hear you). Labelling your picky eater as a picky eater will only enable the behaviour and decrease their confidence.
- Keep the conversation fun and the focus off of food. Instead of saying “broccoli is good for you” play a game of iSpy and look for something green!
- Offer dip! Bring on the condiments!
- Set a timer. If you’re having trouble getting your child to stay at the table set a timer for 10 minutes. Let them know they don’t have to eat, but it’s important to stay for family time!
- Serve meals family style!
- Offer dessert WITH dinner. You’d be surprised!
Snack recipes for picky eaters
What kid doesn’t LOVE snacks!? Snacks are important for little kids (and picky eaters) because they’re an opportunity to provide nutrition that might be lacking. For instance, if dinner time tends to be a meltdown meal aim to have a more nutritious snack like veggies and dip, or yogurt and hemp-hearts! Most kids love snack foods, so make them extra nutritious.
- Strawberries and Cream Energy Balls by Dishing out Health
- Banana Blueberry Muffins by My Cape Cod Kitchen
- Flourless Chocolate Lentil Protein Muffins by Sarah Remmer, RD
- Chai Yogurt Fruit Dip by Laurel Ann Nutrition
- Green Monster Blender Muffins by Sarah Remmer, RD
Top tips for successful snacks with picky eaters:
- Offer 2-3 options at snack time. For example:
- cheese, crackers and fruit
- yogurt, fruit and hemp hearts
- smoothie (multiple ingredients) and a muffin
- Don’t just say no! Kids have big opinions when it comes to snack foods. So instead of always saying no, let them know you hear their request and offer an alternative time. For example… “how don’t have any animal crackers right now, but why don’t we add them to our grocery list”.
The best thing you can do to help your picky eater is to take the pressure off!! Stop pressuring your kids to eat their broccoli and stop putting pressure on yourself, because – getting your kids to actually EAT is not your job. Kids are naturally equipped with all the skills they need to grow into happy, healthy and independent eaters. Trust them! Because a successful mealtime isn’t an empty plate. A successful mealtime is one where your child felt confident in their own ability, and safe enough to try!
This post was written in joint effort by Lesley Langille, RD and Sarah Remmer, RD
If you’ve got a picky eater on your hands feel free to reach out for some one-to-one counselling with The Centre for Family Nutrition. We are here to help!