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What to feed a Picky Eater

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If there is one phrase I hear all the time, it has to be “I would love to cook that, but my kids are such picky eaters”. And I have to tell you that “picky eaters” are kind of my hot button issue. I often hold my tongue about my opinions on picky eaters, but I feel today is a good day to let them loose. So, if you are a parent of a picky eater, I apologize if this makes you upset. These are only my opinions and you don’t have to agree with them, or like them. I would love to hear your opinion, just keep it civil.

Okay, here it goes.

Picky eaters are made, not born. So, if you have a picky eater in your house, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Okay, take a deep breath…don’t get all riled up. I’m not trying to be mean.

When I say “picky eater” I don’t mean the kid who refuses to eat broccoli, but will eat a plate of carrots, or the kid who will eat apples and grapes, but not bananas. I’m talking about the kid who won’t eat any fruits, vegetables, or lean meats. The kid who subsides on chicken nuggets and goldfish alone. The kind of kid who grows into an adult with poor eating habits.

I say you have no one to blame but yourself because, as a parent, you are the one feeding that child. You put the first food into their mouth. Was it applesauce? Or was it a Goldfish? ( I’m sure it was rice cereal, but work with me here). This was something that became very important to me when my kids starting eating solid foods. I was so tempted by all of the Gerber pre-packaged toddler meals that I really had to step back and think through how I wanted to feed my children. Because what you give a child to eat in the very beginning will dictate what they are more willing to eat as they get older. So I made sure that my kids had carrots, and broccoli and zucchini and lots of fruit and yogurt when they were just starting to eat and now, I am proud to say, my kids are not picky eaters. Oh sure, Ella doesn’t like tomatoes and Jack won’t eat strawberries, but for the most part, my kids will eat whatever I put in front of them.

Now someone out there is saying, “Well, what do I do with this 3 (or more) year-old picky eater that I have now?” You may not like this answer, so brace yourself…

Serve that child whatever it is that the rest of the family is eating and don’t give them anything else to eat. If your family is having grilled chicken, mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli then the picky eater should also have grilled chicken, mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli. And make them eat whatever it is they don’t like, at least a few bites. If they refuse to eat all together, then send them to bed hungry. Snacks and meals should only be healthy options. Hide any kind of unhealthy snack from view. And don’t give in. The older your child is, the more a battle of wills it’s going to be.

Ok, deep breath.

Here’s the bottom line. Picky eating not only forms unhealthy eating habits, but it is also stressful and expensive. Having to work around a picky eater is a lot of work and throwing away the food they don’t eat is wasteful, and as a parent you should have more control over what your kids eat than your kids do. You are setting them up for life. You are showing them how to feed their kids someday. That is part of your job as a parent. If you have to send your kids to bed hungry a few times ( and it will take a few times) don’t worry. They will eat when they are hungry enough. They will eat what you put in front of them and before you know it, you will no longer have a picky eater.

{stepping off the soapbox}

Okay, now that that is over with. Here are a few dishes and fun ideas to help your child become a more well-rounded eater.

I have found that cutting food into fun shapes and providing dips for fresh veggies really helps kids eat more healthy foods.

Also try making all of the food you want your kid to eat with your child. Have them in the kitchen. Have them pick out what they are going to cook or prepare. Would you like to help Mommy make zucchini fries or apple bars? 

Offer a reward for healthy eating. If you eat all of your apples we’ll go ride your bike!

If you have a friend who’s kids are healthy eaters, drop your kid off for a playdate and leave! Ask you friend to offer nothing but healthy snacks. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing.

Make it a game. The person who eats the most beans wins!

Most importantly, make sure YOU are eating the foods you want your child to eat. You are their role model and they want to be just like you.

Good luck on your road to a non-picky eater. You can do it!

Starting at top, left to right: Baked Zucchini Fries, Elementary School Lunch, Salmon Fish Sticks, Chili Mac Skillet, Apple Oatmeal Bars, Ham and Egg Cups.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. What a great post! I completely agree with you. I would also recommend, speaking as a kid myself, feeding your kids fruits, veggies or other healthful foodstuffs that you don't exactly care for. They might hate it too, but they might love it! I mean, both of my parents hate brussels sprouts so my sister and I never got to have any growing up, and we actually "hated" them just because our parents do. I tried some for the first time late last year and LOVED them (so did my sister) which left my parents dumbfounded. 😛 It does kind of go against your advice to be eating what you want your child to eat, but your kid could be missing out on something healthy, so including something you don't like in their diet every once in a while to see how they react to it can't be a bad thing. If they don't like it, it makes grocery shopping easier, but if they do like it, it makes feeding them easier.

  2. Loved this and ditto, I completely agree with you too! You're right about peer pressure and it's also amazing to see picky eaters eat EVERYTHING they grow in their own gardens. Our local Master Gardeners host "Camp Dirty Knees" each summer for Junior Master Gardeners to learn about growing their own food. Some of the kids come to camp having no idea where their food comes from. I enjoy your blog and thanks for another great post! 🙂

  3. great post jodie! although i never had that problem, my brother-in-law is the pickiest eater i have ever met!! i've tried to introduce foods for him, but he has 6 decades plus 3 years of bad habits.
    oh well, not my problem….it's all up to my sister!!!

  4. I have to say . . . I know a family in which the mother prepared entirely separate dinners for her picky eater and that picky eater is now an adult who HATES the food aversions they have, and has been trying to branch out with great difficulty. I do think there might be some OCD here (as is behind some of the worst picky eating) so maybe it's not the best example, but I do think the family could have helped when the person was little…

  5. you bet I have an opinion… as a child, I hated english peas, Momma still placed a good spoonfull on my plate and I had to eat them before I was excused…. today I love 'em – Great job and somewhere along the way, somebody (maybe yourself) has taught you how to be a responsible parent….

  6. I wish my parents had seen this way back when. I'm now a 40-something adult who likes no vegetables and next to no fruits. It's really hard to change that, too!

  7. I have to say that I used to agree with you that picky eaters are made by their parents until I had a picky eater myself. My DH and I are the farthest thing from very picky, and our 2 year old has been picky from the start. 🙁 She gagged the first time I gave her rice cereal at 6 months old, and feeding her purees was always painful. She picked and chose the ones she liked, and the rest she refused to eat.
    She was extremely picky about texture and taste from the beginning despite my efforts to give her a huge variety of foods. Like I said, we are not picky eaters in the least, and we had her try everything we were eating.
    For awhile, we were forcing her to eat three bites of her meals, but it was making meal times a giant battle, and it was miserable.
    Our current strategy is to make sure that there is one familiar item on her plate, and if she wants more of this item she has to take one bite of the other food first. If she decides she is done, she is only required to taste the main dish or side she won't eat.
    I agree that including her in food prep definitely helps, and we also find that cutting down the snack volume makes her hungrier at meal times and more adventurous.
    Having a picky eater is honestly a nightmare for us, but we are hoping that things will get easier as she grows and tastes more foods…

  8. I think you are doing a great job Megan. At two years old your child is trying lots of new foods because you are making it a priority. When my twins were two years old, getting them to eat new things was a HUGE challenge. HUGE! Some days it didn't end well at all. Ella in particular does not like the unfamiliar, but as they have gotten older ( almost 4 now) meal times have gotten easier and they have developed a pretty good palette for a toddler. I commend you on your efforts and wish you luck in the future.!

  9. Jodi! Thank you for being bold and writing this. I can't tell you how many times I have to bite my tongue when I hear "oh my child won't eat that, or that, or that.." We did not allow are children to be picky, and they are such wonderful, adventurous foodies now! I have come to realize that often my friend's children who are picky, are picky because their parent's are picky eaters too. Not always, but often. I know there are exceptions to this and that some children have true food aversions BUT if the only thing they like are fried chicken nuggets, kraft mac n cheese, and plain enriched white pasta..there is a problem. I am so thankful that my children eat well, appreciate quality food, like to help prepare food with us and enjoy trying new things! Gotta love kids who like brussels sprouts, rutabaga and sushi!


  10. My 5 yr old son was refusing to eat dinner one night (stir fry)… I told him that his options were to eat dinner or go to bed. He chose to go to bed, but then proceeded to cry upstairs. After a few minutes, I walked upstairs and explained that there would be no crying. He was the one who made the decision to go to bed. His other option was to eat his dinner. He said, "but I don't like it." I said, "that doesn't matter. It's what I made for dinner tonight. If you don't like it, you can ask me not to make it again, but if you want to come downstairs, you need to finish your dinner." After one more sniffle, he asked if he could put some more of that "salty stuff" (soy sauce) on it. I agreed, and he came down and finished his dinner.
    He is now 13- skinny as a rail- but a great, healty eater who will try anything once…. and does tell me if he doesn't want me to make it again!

  11. The problem isn't just with children. Read the reviews of any recipe on a cooking site and you'll hear raves about a dish that some adult (who is always a picky eater) really liked. It seems to be a badge of honor to have a picky eater in the house today, but when I was younger, no one would admit to the shame of having a picky eater to deal with. What has changed?

  12. Hi, just want to say I completely agree!
    I was lucky enough as a child to have a foodie family. Im 18 now, I've worked full-time in kitchens, I am self proclaimed obsessed with food and cater on a regular basis.
    I particularly hate how "kid's meals" at restaurants meals chips with lasagne/nuggets/fish. Eating is supposed to be an adventure, why would you prevent your children from experiencing food? Why not have kid meals as tiny portions of main meals…isn't the whole point of restaurants to explore something new and exciting. Okay, sorry, I rant a little, it's just I remember most of my fondest childhood memories have been of eating. I was completely addicted to Pho Bo (vietnamese soup, the greatest thing in the world) by the time I was three, all the locals would laugh at me- this tiny white girl adding ridiculous amounts of chilli to her pho and eating with chopsticks.
    So rant over. I want to thank you for posting this because I think it's really important to encourage kids to eat a broad range of foods and not only for obvious health reason.

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Jodie is a wife, mom, writer and lover of chickens and gardens. She runs her family's winery by day and cooks and writes by night.

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