Tips for Dealing with Picky Eaters

Since I’ve started going back to school, my grocery budget has shrunk significantly. The result? I can’t afford to feed picky eaters. We need the most bang for our buck, which means we eat lots of vegetables, cereals, and leftovers. Luckily the kids are adjusting. Here are a few tips that seem to have helped over the years. I’ll be kicking them into full gear now πŸ™‚

Try it and you may, I say!
This one’s obvious, but to start simple: Read “Green Eggs and Ham” to your children, and then establish a rule that, short of food allergies or other special diets, each child must try the food they are served. And since prejudiced first bites rarely render an accurate flavor, the child should chew and swallow a small bite for each year of their age. If you’re lucky, by the time they’re to bite 4 or 5, they’ll find they like the food after all.

Eat In More Often
The more you go out to eat, the more your kids will think they should be able to eat whatever they want, whenever they want it. I realize some schedules make eating-in really difficult. But eating in does have its benefits, and this is one of many.

Avert Texture Aversions
My son, like his father, complains more about texture than anything. Cooked and canned fruits, coconut’s flakiness, chunky spaghetti sauce or salsa, and cooked greens were all taboo. Oddly they seem OK with some textures; just not these. My solution? If they want babyfood, so be it. For example, blend up your veggies in a soup before adding the chunks of veggies they WILL eat. A submersion blender works perfectly for this. Or throw the spinach in the blender with cream of chicken soup and Parmesan for a great green pasta sauce that’s full of nutrients too. And if you put it on Rotini, it sortof looks like caterpillars. Which is a horrible thing for some people, but think from a kids perspective and it’s fun! Speaking of which:

Make it Cute
Remember making broccoli trees on a mashed potato hill? Try playing with the food BEFORE you serve it. Kids aren’t used to whole wheat bread? Try using a tiny cookie cutter on one slice before making a sandwich. Amazing what a little design work will do to a kids appetite.

What they don’t know won’t hurt them
The blender is of course an excellent tool for spiking the food with nutrition kids might avoid otherwise. You’d be surprised the veggies you can sneak into a dish (soup especially) if it’s more or less invisible. Or spike your muffins with canned pumpkin for vitamin A.

Share the apron
Speaking of meals YOU cook, why not let them cook? Every now and then I teach my kids how to make a new dish. In my experience, at least with younger children, they will ALWAYS eat what they cook so long as you’ve showed them how to cook it well. Yes there is an initial time investment involved, and you will need to supervise them even after they think they know what they’re doing. But there’s also a payoff when you can tell your eight year old to go make dinner, and better yet when they eat food they would have readily refused without a healthy dollop of their own heart and soul. And with very young children, just make a big deal out of how they’re helping you cook. It will make a difference.

Make Fun of the Menu
Letting the older children help with the planning can be empowering and educational if you let them plan a meal that fits within the dietary and budget boundaries you set. Kids get a sense of control from being picky. I mean, think about all the things they actually have some control over β€” and it’s really not much. So if you let them help plan the menu and cook the meals, you redirect that need for control, and they get that little bit of autonomy they crave. And they’ll have fun, too, as they get to use their creativity and grow their technical skills as well.

Give them a little guidance as needed, but let them do as much as possible with this process on their own. They’ll really enjoy the activity and be more likely to support each other’s meal choices. One rule with this one: they DO have to actually eat whatever they plan. So do you, so try not to pass judgment. The dinner might not be your favorite, but hey, maybe you’ll like it too after so many bites πŸ™‚

The List
When all else fails, or perhaps before it fails, set up grounds for fair food refusal by allowing each person to make a list of three foods they may refuse to eat. No broad categories like ‘vegetables’ allowed. Then if the family has a meal containing an item from a person’s list, they can opt out from that item. Otherwise, if an item isn’t on a person’s list, they have to at least taste it as per the rules I mentioned above.

If you’ve got fickle kid you may feel tempted to laminate the list. Instead, simply make a rule as to how often list items can change, and how many days before any changes take effect so they can’t refuse every meal you cook.

No Substitutions
If you give a child a peanut butter sandwich or cook them their own separate meal every time they complain, you’re teaching them that they can easily get whatever they want by whining, and also that your home is a restaurant. Just don’t do it. The child will survive. You don’t have to make a big emotional deal out of enforcing this rule either. You could say, for example, “Oh, well this is what we’re having for dinner. Let’s just wrap it up and put it in the fridge in case you get hungry.”

Eating & Emotions
Whatever happens at the dinner table, try not to make a big bad emotional blowout over food. Family meals can be great sources of bonding, but the effect can be quite the opposite when you lose control over your own thoughts, feelings, and words. Guilting your kids into eating is a bad idea. You also don’t want to give into whining or giving them the food they want as some sort of emotional reward. Need I explain why?

When you run into problems with picky eating, you’ll get best results with being firm AND compassionate. If they come in crying at 8pm, still refusing to eat their leftovers but complaining of a hungry stomach, sympathize with them. Maybe tell them about a time you were hungry or had to eat something you didn’t like – not a story of superiority, mind you, but a story of bonding. Assure them that they’ll be able to get through this one way or another, and that if nothing else, a few bites of their dinner might tide them over till morning.

But my Kid will Starve!
If you suspect your child isn’t eating due to a physical or emotional problem, don’t force feed them: take them to a doctor. We are all wired to survive. People will eat all sorts of things if they’re truly starving, and if you’re using the ideas I’ve listed here, your kid will still have all kinds of opportunities to eat the things they like. Yes they may occasionally go hungry for a meal, and that’s no fun for anyone, but they will make it, and they’ll be likely to make a more responsible choice at the next meal.

And that’s it for my list… What’s worked for you? Do these ideas help? Feel free to dish up some feedback — I eat it up πŸ™‚


  1. Jonathan

    Excellent post! Good job. I am anything but a picky eater. I love to try new things. However, at least one of my children could benefit from some of these ideas. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Jonathan

    Excellent post! Good job. I am anything but a picky eater. I love to try new things. However, at least one of my children could benefit from some of these ideas. Thanks for sharing.


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