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My 7 Tips for Picky Eaters (proceed with caution)

Posted by Claire | Wednesday July 4, 201222 comments

My brother and his family came for a visit recently.  As the first in my immediate and extended family to marry and have children, it's inevitable that my advice is sought by new parents on one topic or another.  I generally sit there with a sympathetic look on my face, and after hearing whatever sorry tale, I proceed to comfortingly dispense my thoughts based on years of trial and error and an innate sense of knowing entitlement. (Hey, I'm still alive, my kids are still alive; I must have done something right.)

This was not one of those times.

I watched with increasing astonishment as my niece and nephews shunned my carefully selected chicken nuggets ("All Natural Breading!" "Trans Fat Free!") in favour of raw asparagus and pureed avocado with greek yogurt.  Meanwhile, my children were busy whining about the High Fructose Corn Syrup-free ketchup I had purchased instead of their regular brand.

But then, you already know that my parenting style is more Survival of the Fittest and less Survival of the Perfectly Behaved Vegans and Pacifists

It was time to eat some humble pie and ask my sister-in-law for some advice instead.  Except for the part about eating raw asparagus and green beans.  That's just a recipe for unstable natural gases, but I digress...

She simply explained that their children were raised from Day One to eat these foods with strict but loving reinforcement from Mom & Dad.  So that's when I tuned out because hey, it's clearly a fluke that they were blessed with the only 3 kids in the entire universe who fall for that trick.*

*obviously I realize that there are more children out there who have great eating habits, but since I'm feeling a little testy about the subject just roll with me, 'K?

However, I forced myself to acknowledge some small improvements could be made in my household.  Returning to some of my mother's tried-and-true advice, conducting research (a.k.a. polling my Facebook mommy friends), and asking my children (more on that in a moment), I came up with 7 easy tips that have managed to become part of our regular routine.

#1 - Use Trickery and Deceit

Many parenting books and experts will advise you not to hide veggies in your regular foods and instead serve them openly at the dinner table.  These folks (let's call them "people who clearly don't have children themselves") say that the discovery of new foods, flavours, and textures is a wondrous journey your children will be excited to embark upon.  This, of course, is total crap.  Puree, chop, and mince those veggies right into your spaghetti sauce - 9 out of 10 kids* will never notice the difference.

*yes, I made up that statistic.  Deal with it.

I also switched over all of our regular pasta to whole grain pastas and accidentally-on-purpose forgot to mention this.  It took my kids about 6 months before they finally clued in by which time the issue was completely moot.

#2 - Serve Only The Foods You Personally Are Willing To Eat

Kids are sponges and they will inherit a parent's dietary hangups.  Even if I can bravely gag down a spoonful of garden peas, they will notice my sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, and pupillary constriction and know to avoid the offending food.  I stick to the veggies my husband and I enjoy, and if that means a lifetime without peas and brussel sprouts, well... there are worse things.  Like having to eat liver. 

#3 - When Introducing a New Food, Don't Make Your Kids Finish the Serving

I make a deal with my kids that they only have to try one bite (a proper one).  If they hate it, they don't have to continue.  If they can handle it, they are asked to finish the small serving I've given them.  If they do like it, SCORE!  I always serve several vegetable options at any meal, including one I already know they like.  This way, if they hate the new veggie, I can always rely on them to eat a few carrot sticks or green salad.

When I'm introducing a new main course, I don't cook an alternate entree.  Period.  This is why I make sure to include healthy side dishes they are willing to eat.  The same rule of "Try One Bite" applies.

#4 - Allow Your Kids to Help Decide the Menu Options

Sometimes my kids will refuse a menu item they used to love, not because they genuinely dislike it but because they've grown tired of eating it.  I have a list posted in the kitchen that my children made and signed, naming 5 vegetables (each) that they agree to eat without complaint.  This list may be edited at any time as long as there is always a minimum of 5.  I refer to this list when creating my weekly menu.

Some experts will say to take your children grocery shopping or to community farms and have them pick produce themselves. (Colourful peels! Attractive displays!) However, my kids are smart enough to realize that there is no correlation between taste and sight.  Otherwise eggplant would taste exactly like grape Jolly Ranchers, wouldn't it?  It's false advertising if you think about it. 

#5 - Bribery (also known as "more carrot, less stick")

I don't know where I first saw this tip but it's pure genius.  Put dessert on the table at the same time as the main course.  Importantly, no one is allowed to take a serving of dessert until later, BUT it does provide a  powerful incentive for obeying the table rules. 

Please note: I don't serve a typical dessert every evening (probably more like once a week), nor would I suggest you have dessert every day.  However, there is a wide range of sweet-tooth-friendly options that will work here like fruit salad with a sprinkling of cinnamon sugar, rice pudding with berries, or fresh bread with jam - relatively wholesome treats is the key.

#6 - Make Up for Nutritional Gaps Wisely

When forcing your child to eat a food they hate, you are using negative reinforcement that could lead them to associate that food with a bad outcome (I believe the technical term is "scarred for life").  If you carefully evaluate the foods your children will eat and can identify areas of nutritional shortfall, do your homework to find an alternative source for those vitamins/minerals.  For severely picky eaters, this may require the help of a professional dietician.

For example, we recently started eating edamame which is low in sodium and a fantastic source of fiber, protein, iron, folate, Vitamin K and much more (nutritional info via USDA), plus its neutral taste allows it to be incorporated into almost any main dish.  This pretty much solves my spinach problem with kid #2.

My children will also eat almost any fruit, but due to the high natural sugar, fruit should be consumed in moderation.  We prioritize high fiber and antioxidant-rich fruits like apples and berries over emptier nutritional choices.

#7 - Make Your Nutritional Strategy Achievable

This is probably the most important point I'm going to make.  Any plan you try needs to have a decent chance of success with minimal stress.  You can talk to your kids until you're blue in the face about calories, carbs, and starting good habits at an early age, but it won't work.  Trust me, I've tried.  Unless your children are particularly easy-natured and you are particularly stubborn, a complex strategy is doomed to failure. 

Be prepared to make adjustments as you go along and brush off anyone's criticism of your child's non-brussel-sprout-eating ways.  They are also the people who had to walk 5 miles to school in neck-deep snow and uphill both ways (a.k.a. liars).  And while some will offer the sage wisdom of "they'll grow out of it", I can assure you that this is not always true either.  My husband only agreed to eat my Chocolate Zucchini Cake very recently.  He thinks it's cheating to hide veggies in dessert--pfft.

Do you have a fool-proof trick for picky eaters?  Share them with us in the comments!

Disclaimer: I am neither a nutritionist, dietician, pediatrician, nor voodoo priestess.  My comments here are not meant to take the place of professional advice, so please consult a licensed expert for your specific nutritional needs.
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on April 13, 2017  Tpynn  3,168 said:

These are great tips, my twins have recently decided to be picky and it's been driving me crazy!

on July 20, 2012  Tiffmorris  1,792 said:

I think all kids become picky eaters at some point, but it doesn't always go away, ever. My sister for instance has always been someone who refuses to ever try anything new, or different, and as a kid she wouldn't eat anything but burgers, chicken, pizza (pep & mushroom only) and certain veggies. She is still that way. I've watched parents trying different methods to get their kids to try something new, and ultimately there is no guarantee, you have to go with what feels right for you. My parents gave us one meal, no other options and if we didn't eat it we didn't eat. My sister is still the picky eater she always was, I still don't like liver, but I've always been willing to at least try the food and I still am. I go out of my way to try new and interesting things, alligator was one of my more recent new experiences, and its pretty good.

on July 11, 2012  bubbles77  28,042 said:

Have gone through this myself, and you do what you have to in order to get something into those picky eaters. Great tips, and advice. It's not easy having picky eaters..

on July 11, 2012  mamaluv  STAFF said:

@Tynk - I promise you that most of that really is "just a phase", though your son will probably keep some of his food aversions for a while yet. When they refuse a food that you know they generally like, then it's either an issue of being bored with that food, being distracted by wanting to go play instead, or testing his boundaries (all of which is completely normal and something you just have to wait out). If he's refusing a certain food consistently, I'd suggest you let it go. There are so many food options out there, and that's just not a battle I personally would bother fighting.

on July 11, 2012  Tynk  2,174 said:

Great tips! I'm struggling with a 3 year old who would rather starve then eat something he doesn't like. One day he likes something and the next time around he wants nothing to do with it. Going to try your tips!

on July 05, 2012  KatelynRose1984  20,704 said:

I was so lucky with my daughter, as she's not a picky eater at all. This would scare me!

on July 05, 2012  farouknabela  3,469 said:

Haha these are great!

on July 05, 2012  mamaluv  STAFF said:

@Creamsicle - I love the idea of having multiple side dish options (including raw fruits/veggies/nuts)! I already serve 2 or 3 sides at any given meal for this very reason, but as you say, perhaps upping the quantity even more will help. I'll definitely give that a try.

@Jessi - yup, I've done that too and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Ah, these little goofballs sure keep us hopping!

on July 05, 2012  lawrencesharon  1,325 said:

These are really great tips, would love to try this out in the near future.

on July 04, 2012  Creamsicle  60 said:

a good idea is to put a large number of healthy options on the table - more than you need - and let the kids (to a certain extent) choose what they want to eat. For ex., if you have a plate of 5 or 6 different raw veggies cut up and let them take whatever they want, odds are they'll eat more veggies in total than if you just have one veggie course and force them to eat it. when dinner is done, you just throw the leftovers in the fridge till next time. as another example, often for breakfast we will put out 4 or 5 different kinds of nuts and let them choose which nuts they want to have with whatever else we are having. If you can come up with a good variety of simple to prepare, healthy foods to add to the table they are going to find something they like. And as noted, this does not mean you have to cook 10 different things for every meal. If you keep on hand a decent variety of fruits, veggies that taste good raw and nuts you can easily add a whole pile of options to any meal. While i believe that it is important to have your kids eat some of the 'prepared' dinner, having these other healthy options that they can choose takes a lot of the fight out.

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