6 Creative Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

You want your kiddo to eat nutritious foods, but kids are notoriously fussy. Stop wheedling and bribing and get creative about exposing your kids to all kinds of healthy options.

Cheryl Butler
7-minute read
Episode #598

I'm one of those adventurous people—I've always been willing to try any new food at least once. (Within reason—I don't do insects and liver!) I'm especially adventurous when it comes to vegetables. The presentation of color, texture, and even smell rarely dissuades me.

Because of my willingness to eat a pungent mystery food, I was cautiously optimistic that my eight children would follow in my footsteps—or should I say palate?—and give most foods a try.

Forget it!

When I became a mom and had three kids with sensory issues who couldn't tolerate certain textures, I discovered a whole new world of food pickiness. I had to get creative to make sure my kids ate healthy foods, and I can honestly say it wasn't always easy.

RELATED: 12 Tips to Get Your Picky Toddler to Eat

Eight kids and 25 years later, I've learned a few tricks to help entice even the pickiest taste buds. Today I have six helpful tools to help the fussy eaters in your household expand their culinary horizons and try new foods.

1. Give up the power struggle

My number-one tool to ease your journey with a picky eater might surprise you. Are you ready? It's you!

As parents, we'll do anything to make sure our kids feed our kids nutritious foods. We prepare leafy green salads and whole grain pasta topped with fresh veggies and low-salt marinara sauce, opt for the leanest proteins, and even encourage dairy alternatives like almond milk.

But what do we do when our best efforts don't cut it with our kids?

No, we don't force them to eat what we've made. We do the opposite—let them decide if they'll give it a try.

It's perfectly normal for kids to be unsure of new foods.

Dina Rose, PhD, a sociologist and author of It's Not About the Broccoli, sets us straight by stating, "A lot of the time it's a control struggle, not forcing them to eat the last two bites of green beans." In an NBC news article about kids who are picky eaters, she stressed that kids are wise to the fact that mealtime is something their parents care about. But Rose says that it's perfectly normal for kids to be unsure of new foods. Nutrition science research, she said, shows that it can take kids up to 12 exposures to a new food before they decide if it's something they like.

The next time your little angel wants nothing to do with the veggie casserole you lovingly prepared, don’t sweat it. Instead of taking the "eat-it-or-else" approach, take Rose's advice and simply expose your child to the new food.

What does "exposure" mean? Rose said, "An exposure might be looking at food in the serving dish, listening to a parent talk about eating it, helping prepare the food, feeling the food, or trying a nibble of the food."

Brilliant! You quickly put the ball back in your child’s court. Rather than forcing her to try the food, which ultimately takes away her control, you offer her an alternative. Give up the power struggle and watch your child’s negativity take a positive turn.

2. Maximize mornings

Breakfast is the perfect opportunity to set your kids on a healthy track for the day. While a plate of scrambled eggs might not entice a picky eater, an egg sandwich might do the trick. Mini bagels come in healthier options such as whole grain or high fiber. Add an egg and a slice of turkey bacon or cheese, and you've got a filling and nutritious breakfast. 

I add extra fiber, flax seed, and even shredded zucchini into my pancakes to sneak in more nutritional value.

Whole-grain pancakes and waffles are also an easy fix in the morning, especially if you make a batch or two ahead and freeze them for a quick treat on a busy school morning. I add extra fiber, flax seed, and even shredded zucchini into my pancakes to sneak in more nutritional value. Offer a couple of different toppings besides syrup, so your kids feel like they have a choice. These can be cinnamon, fat-free whipped cream, sliced strawberries or bananas, and even peanut butter.

When my kids were toddlers and pre-schoolers, I invested in large cookie-cutter shapes of dinosaurs and teddy bears and poured the pancake mix directly into the cutter to make the pancakes even more fun to eat. 

3. Meal planning is a win-win

When busy parents scurry through the door at the end of the day only to find an empty fridge and hungry kids, we often fall into the trap of heating frozen chicken nuggets or whipping up a box of mac and cheese. And we all know those aren't exactly the most nutritious options. 

That's why another of my favorite strategies—both for feeding picky eaters and creating money-saving, delicious menus—is meal planning. Meal planning can help soothe the fussy tastebuds in your midst as well as pull your family meals out of a sorry rut.

If your kids already like baked chicken, think of a new side dish they could try with it, like fruit kabobs with yogurt dipping sauce.

Start with 2-3 meals so you don't get overwhelmed planning out an entire week. If your kids already like baked chicken, think of a new side dish they could try with it, like grilled vegetables sprinkled with parmesan cheese or fruit kabobs with yogurt dipping sauce. Try and have at least one item that you know your kids will eat, and then mix it up with a new side dish like couscous or whole-grain rice pilaf with pieces of grilled fish. 

Even if they only have a little taste of the new dish, that's something to build on next time. This way, if you add something new into the repertoire every week, you will substantially expand their palates in a short time.

RELATED: Why Meal Planning is Essential to a Happier Family Life

4. Hold auditions for new foods

When my kids were younger, and I wanted them to try new food, I created a ritual called "Food Auditions." I made mini-posters and put them up around the dining room table to look official. The kids were the judges, of course.

Each judge had to take some time to look at the new food, ask questions, and even try a few bites.

Then I put a little bit of the new dish onto everyone's plate. Each judge had to take some time to look at it, ask questions, and if they were able, to try a few bites. Once they tasted the food, they would let me know if the contestant landed the role as a new family dish or if it didn't cut it.

Even if a dish got axed, I kept it in our meal planning mix for at least a couple of months. That's because, as I've already mentioned, research shows that kids need repeated exposure to new foods before they really form preferences and are more willing to try it.

Food auditions are fun, and I had great success with using them to encourage my kids to at least try new foods. Thanks to our family’s food auditions, items like kale chips, lettuce wraps, and spinach and berry smoothies have become staples in our family's regular menus.

5. Helpful phrases make a difference

When I desperately wanted my fussy eaters to try something new, I thought sweet-talking them was the way to make it happen.

“Just one tiny bite will make Mommy so happy.”

“If you finish your spinach, you can have an ice cream cone for dessert.”

The list of bribes was endless.

Then, a friend of mine shared a constructive tip that made a huge difference. She told me not to plant the wrong phrases in my kids' minds when I was coaxing them to test new foods. Instead of pleading with my kids and offering bribes, my friend suggested I watched how I worded my requests and used a more positive approach.

Bingo! As straightforward as that advice sounded, I hadn’t realized how successful it would be.

With some positive reframing, "See, that didn’t taste so bad, did it?" becomes "Which one is your favorite?" Instead of saying "No dessert until you eat your vegetables!" you might say, "We can try these veggies again another time. Next time, should we try them raw or cooked?"

Visit www.choosemyplate.gov and check out this fun and supportive list of phrases that help and hinder when trying to guide your child to try new foods.

Bon apetit!

6. Eat together as a family

Today's overscheduled families find it more challenging to gather around the table every night to share a meal. Yes, mealtime is about feeding every one to satisfy their hunger, but it's actually about much more. When we sit down with one another at the end of a hectic day and share stories about what went on at school, work, or sports practice, we're staying connected with the ones we love.

Allow each child one night a week to plan and help make dinner.

Make a loving ritual out of dinner as often as possible. Allow each child one night a week to plan and help make dinner. When kids get involved, they're more apt to eat what they prepare. Have them make suggestions about some new foods they'd like to have served at a family dinner. Let them choose something from all the food groups. If salad isn't popular in your household, how about a Greek yogurt parfait to start the meal?

There are lots of newfangled options for pasta, including whole grain and omega-3 versions. Kabobs are also a fun twist on introducing new veggies when paired with grilled meats or tofu. My kids were always more inclined to try fresh meats or veggies if a tasty dipping sauce was part of the recipe. If you get your family into the habit of eating together regularly, you can also use that as a catalyst for introducing new foods.

Constantly expose yourself to a variety of recipes that could become a fast family favorite! This YouTube video has some delicious options that are sure to please.

Image from Shutterstock (All_About_People). 

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.