Tips for Raising Picky Eaters: What’s a Parent to Do?

If your child prefers bags of chips to healthy meals and boycotts vegetables most nights, then you may be the parent of a picky eater. While raising picky eaters is certainly a challenge, there are steps you can take to point your children in a more balanced direction.

The idea of encouraging your kids to consider new foods may seem daunting. Picky eating, however, is far from uncommon. A longitudinal study published in the Eating Behaviors journal revealed that 8% to 50% of children between the ages of two and 11, depending on the sample, are reluctant to try new ingredients, unwilling to consume the recommended amount of healthy grains and produce, and inflexible at mealtimes.1

To persuade your kids to consume consistent, wholesome meals, you may need to be creative. Here are some strategies to help your picky eaters expand their dietary horizons:

  1. Engage your children at the grocery store.

    • If your kids scoff at the produce on their plates at home, take them on a “field trip” to the grocery store or farmer’s market, and ask them to pick fruits and vegetables that appeal to them. Vibrant options like rainbow carrots and watermelon may help them view certain food groups from a new perspective.
    • You can also pique your kids’ interest by discussing the unique benefits and flavors of the ingredients on display. Then, have them identify their favorite items along with something new they would like to try. Encouraging your children to voice their opinions and participate in the food selection process can help reduce pickiness at home.
  1. Incorporate healthy ingredients into your kids’ favorite dishes.

    • According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), fruits and vegetables should account for roughly half of what’s on the plate.2 But nutrition authorities haven’t said anything about ensuring these items visibly take up half the plate.
    • With this in mind, consider combining healthy ingredients with your kids’ favorite foods—doused in tasty sauces, for example, or mixed into dishes they like. Here are a few options:
      • Add blueberries or oats to pancakes
      • Serve fresh cabbage or other greens with tomato sauce
      • Stir finely chopped broccoli into a bowl of macaroni and cheese
      • Add a powdered probiotic to a drink to help support gastrointestinal health
    • There are countless options in this vein. The point here is to show your picky eaters that even the most intimidating ingredients can taste delicious when prepared in familiar ways.
  1. Blend fresh produce into a nutritious smoothie.

    • One surefire way to lessen picky eating is to blend fresh produce into a nourishing burst of flavor. Transforming raw fruits and vegetables into a smoothie is especially effective for children who dislike specific food colors and textures.
    • For instance, if your kids refuse to eat leafy greens, consider preparing a kale smoothie masked behind a swirl of colorful berries and a smooth consistency. Here’s a sample list of ingredients that will yield two servings:
      • 1 cup apple juice
      • 1 cup kale
      • 1 cup blueberries
      • 1 banana
      • 2 tablespoons ground chia seeds
    • If you’re worried the taste of kale will overwhelm your picky eaters, start by blending a single stalk of the vegetable with the other ingredients. You can always add more kale as your kids adjust to the flavor.
  1. Put your children in social situations with nonpicky eaters.

    • Parents who want their kids to broaden their dietary horizons should consider subjecting their picky eaters to peer pressure. While this may sound counterintuitive, children are more likely to sample new foods when they observe their peers eating nutritiously. Research indicates that peer pressure can help promote cooperation in the long term.3
    • Of course, there’s no need to view this approach as pressure—at least not explicitly. Rather, simply make an effort to place your children in social situations with nonpicky eaters. Do you have a friend or relative whose kids will try anything? Invite them over for lunch or dinner, and by the end of the meal, your children may end up reaching for an extra helping of quinoa.
  1. Create a salad bar for supper.

    • The USDA states that getting kids involved in the meal prep process can help cut back on picky eating.4 Creating a salad bar is a seamless way to have your children put together healthy, colorful plates of food.
    • Similar to taking them along to the grocery store, this tip gives kids a greater sense of agency. So, with this in mind, lay out a spread of fresh spinach, cherry tomatoes, corn, kidney beans, chicken, and other wholesome ingredients. Then watch as your children take pleasure in eating a balanced meal they’ve “created” themselves.

Above all else, make sure your children understand the importance of eating healthfully and mindfully. Encourage your kids to stay at the table until mealtime is over, and ask them to try at least one bite of everything on their plate. By implementing the abovementioned tips, and by being flexible and understanding in your approach, you may find your children will outgrow their picky eating habits as they mature.

Reference:

  1. Mascola AJ et al. Picky eating during childhood: a longitudinal study to age 11 years. Eat Behav. 2010;11(4):253-257.
  2. USDA. MYPLATE. http://www.choosemyplate.gov/MyPlate. Accessed March 16, 2018.
  3. Mani A et al. Inducing peer pressure to promote cooperation. Sci Rep. 2013;3:1735.
  4. USDA. Healthy Tips for Picky Eaters. https://choosemyplate-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/audiences/HealthyTipsforPickyEaters.pdf. Accessed March 16, 2018.

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