10 Parent-Tested Strategies to Outsmart Picky Eaters (+ Recipes)

Heather Dessinger

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parent tested strategies outsmart picky eaters recipes

Look at any kids’ meal at a restaurant and you’ll see that there is a clear difference between the food kids are expected to eat and what adults are expected to eat. Take a closer look and you see that most of the food on kids menus are the worst foods for kids to be eating. Sugary, fried, and battered foods are pretty standard and there are virtually no vegetables offered. But giving kids “kid food” only makes them pickier. So here are some parent-tested strategies to get a picky eater to try new (and healthier!) foods.

Why Change a Picky Eater?

Some people might say picky eating is normal and there’s nothing you can do about it, but I disagree. There is probably some aspect of picky eating that is developmentally normal. But I don’t think that makes it okay, or something we should cater to. Kids, even more so than adults, need nutrient-dense foods to support their growing bodies. It doesn’t make biological sense for kids to eat nutrient-poor foods.

If we think about our ancestors, it’s pretty easy to see that picky eating couldn’t be normal or acceptable. Children wouldn’t survive if they refused to eat the healthy foods and their parents gave them. Ancestral kids probably even celebrated when they had meat and vegetables to eat during lean times.

The reason kids are picky today is that there are so many choices for unhealthy foods. There’s not much of an incentive to try something new when you know you can have your favorite meal instead.

Also, the chemicals, salt, and sugar that’s in most American packaged foods mess with the taste buds. Manufacturers spend a lot of time and money coming up with the perfect combination of salt, sugar, and fat that trigger what is known as the “bliss point”. As a NY Times article explains, the “bliss point” is a carefully engineered combination of flavors that cause the brain “bliss”. The brain will then crave the foods that caused the blissful feeling.

Additionally, the taste of junk food behaves differently than the taste of real food. According to a study commissioned by a Children’s food company, Organix, real food’s taste builds from the front of the mouth to the back of the mouth and then fades. Junk food, on the other hand, gives The taste buds immediate gratification. But the taste of junk food fades just as quickly, triggering the desire for more.

The good news is: food preferences are not set in stone and tastes can change. Ultimately, the best way to begin healthy eating is to no longer eat junk food.

How to Get a Picky Eater to Try Real Food

There are many things we can do as parents to encourage our kids to try new foods. These strategies can help even the pickiest eater become open to new foods (and maybe find a new favorite!).

Plan Ahead

Choosing healthy foods over convenience foods is definitely going to take more time. Making a plan is the best way to tackle this new transition. Having a plan in place will help you use your time as best as possible and reduce the amount of time you have to spend making meals. Using a meal planner like Real Plans is the number one way to make healthy meals every night. It does the planning for you. Add in one extra meal a week to stick in the freezer and you’ll be on your way to 100 percent healthy food every day.

Talk About It (But Don’t Preach)

Many adults don’t give kids credit for being as flexible and adaptable as they really are. Yes, there will be some protesting and whining, but they will adapt quickly.

Explain to your kids why you are making different choices. Tell them that food can make them healthy or make them unhealthy and that you are no longer going to be eating unhealthy food. Let them know that you will work together to come up with recipes that everyone likes.

Explore Flavors Together

As adults, we know that there are a lot of nuances to flavor. If we don’t like something we may take a second bite and try to figure out what it is we don’t like (is there too much oregano? Not enough? Is it too sweet?) Oftentimes when kids taste something new they immediately decide whether it is something they love or hate. Exploring flavors together (with a parent as the guide) can give kids a chance to experience flavor nuances and learn how to describe what they’re tasting. For example, if your child says something is yucky, you can ask him what part of the new flavor he doesn’t like. Is it too spicy? Too strong? Maybe he doesn’t like a certain spice or the texture of something.

Additionally, you can talk about how to make the flavor better for him. If the flavor is too spicy, tell him next time you make it you’ll put fewer spices in. This helps kids understand that just because they’ve tried it once and don’t like it doesn’t mean they can’t fix it for the next time.

Shop and Cook Together

One of the best ways to get kids on board with eating healthy food is to let them pick it out. Kids (and, let’s be honest, adults) want to feel like they have some control. If mom is buying and cooking the new food on her own, kids are less likely to eat it. They aren’t invested in it. However, if the kids pick out new foods and even help prepare them, they will be more excited to try it. If your kids ask for junk foods like chicken nuggets or french fries, find real food versions to make instead. I’ve found that they are much tastier anyway! Plus, if you can find recipes that sneak in extra vegetables, all the better. (Find some kid-friendly real food recipes below).

Cook Only One Meal

One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents when we’re trying to change eating habits is to make kids a separate meal. It’s understandable of course, but may be causing more picky eating. Providing only healthy food is the best way to get kids to begin eating it. Choose at least one healthy food that each family member likes for each meal along with new healthy foods. That way they have something to eat even if they don’t like the new food.

You must be confident though. When you decide to stop making extra meals or allow junk food, you have to commit. You also need to be able to deal with your kids not being happy about it. They will test for the first few days. they may even skip meals. Just keep reinforcing that what is being served is what is available to eat. If they’re hungry they can have it and if they’re not hungry that’s okay too.

Don’t Keep Junk Food in the House

Having a drawer full of junk food is a recipe for disaster. You will just have to say “no” all day long. A better alternative is to not keep junk food in the house. You don’t have to say “no” if there is nothing to say “no” to. The kids will get used to not having junk food around and will stop asking ( for the most part).

Play With Themes and Get Creative!

If your kids are into dinosaurs, for example, make your meal into a dinosaur meal. Chicken drumsticks can be dinosaur legs. Broccoli can be plant-eater food (they look like little prehistoric trees!). If your young children are into princesses, make a princess-inspired tea party with healthy scones and herbal tea. Additionally, you can have regional themes like Mexican food,  Italian food, or you can try more adventurous fare like Ethiopian or Albanian food. This makes eating unfamiliar foods more exciting and less scary.

If your kids love the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story, tell them their green beans are his magic beans. There are so many ways you can make eating new foods an adventure.

Model it Yourself

“Do-as-i-say-not-as-i-do” isn’t going to cut it. Kids’ eating behavior will model our own. Parenting experts agree that children learn much more from what they observe from their role models than from what they’re told. One of the best ways to improve kids’ eating habits is to eat healthy yourself. If you don’t like certain foods, make an effort to eat them anyway (you’d be surprised how cooking vegetable in a new way can make them tastier). Remember, we don’t want our kids thinking healthy eating is something you have to endure until you’re an adult and can stop eating vegetables. We want them to know it’s a lifestyle choice with huge rewards.

Grow it Yourself

When kids have a hand in growing their own food they’re much more likely to eat it. Because you can’t grow pizza or chicken nuggets in the garden the things that they grow are almost always going to be healthy. Try planting vegetables that the kids already enjoy. Most kids like carrots and tomatoes. Consider planting some interesting varieties like rainbow-colored carrots or yellow cherry tomatoes.

Go one step further and take a foraging class. Learn what you can eat that’s already in your yard. Kids will love the idea of going to the backyard and having a snack. It will also help them learn to try new greens.

Don’t Use Food as a Punishment or Reward

When parents are desperate to get their kids to eat vegetables they may resort to using dessert as a reward for eating vegetables. But this kind of coaxing won’t help kids learn to like vegetables. It will only teach them that vegetables are something to endure so you can get the good stuff (dessert). Avoid all forms of manipulating or cajoling kids into trying things. This just invites a power struggle. Put healthy food in front of them and expect them to try it. It should be very matter of fact — This is healthy food, we will eat it. Don’t make a big deal of it. No guilting, shaming, or enticing.

Picky-Kid-Friendly Real Food Recipes

Encouraging a child to eat new foods is often about presentation. If it looks like something they’ve eaten before, they’ll be more likely to try it. I put together an extensive list of quick healthy meals kids love. These meals are family-tested and kid-approved.

Picky Eater? Not For Long!

If your picky eater is driving you nuts, these tips should help make mealtime less stressful for everyone. it will also help your kids learn the importance of nutritious food and that nutritious food can and should be delicious!

Do you have a picky eater? What has worked in your family?

  1. Moss, M. (2013, February 20). The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html

Processed food is having a sinister effect on our taste buds. (2016, February 02). Retrieved from https://health.spectator.co.uk/processed-food-is-having-a-sinister-effect-on-our-taste-buds/

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Heather is a holistic health educator, herbalist, DIYer, Lyme and mold warrior. Since founding Mommypotamus.com in 2009, Heather has been taking complicated health research and making it easy to understand. She shares tested natural recipes and herbal remedies with millions of naturally minded mamas around the world.