If you have a picky eater on your hands this post is for you! It has everything from tips on how to deal with a picky eater to reward charts and easy toddler recipes the whole family will love.
As a mom of four, I am constantly trying to teach my kids good eating habits. From reading books like French Kids Eat Everything, to using sticker reward charts, and sneaking spinach into smoothies like this Spinach Berry Smoothie. I’ve tried it all! And honestly, I’ve had success with all of it – the hard part is consistency (and strong wills, but I digress!)
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Picky Eater 101
I remember years ago talking on the phone with my friend who was lamenting about how her son was such a picky eater. I was totally naive and I said, “really? Luke is a great eater.” She said something along the lines of, “yeah, just you wait.” Well, a few months later, my super great eater went all white bread and hot dogs on me and I couldn’t get a veggie in there if it was the last food on earth.
Talk about frustrating.
The boy seriously was on carb overload and went through like 3 boxes of noodles a week. No sauce. Only salt and pepper. Literally all three of my older kids have gone through this same stage when they were toddlers.
I would be lying if I said we were completely through it, but we have made great progress in the picky eating department and I have definitely found some good solutions that work well for us. Plus, I have become an expert at sneaking fruits, veggies and proteins into these little diets and I thought I would share in case any of you mamas have a picky eater on your hands as well!
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How to deal with a picky eater:
Do Not Give Up, and Stay Positive.
It takes time to cure a picky eater!
First and foremost, try not to get discouraged. The honest truth is, it can be a long road, and it can feel lonely. I learned early on, though, that if I cry or yell or try to guilt my kids into eating things it typically blows up in my face.
A factual approach has worked better for us, “I just want you to eat healthy things so you can grow big and strong,” or “if you eat too much of this food it could hurt your tummy and slow your body down” etc. always trying to be positive and up-lifting.
I believe in the power of positive thinking, and I noticed how if an older kid made a comment about dinner than right away the younger siblings decided they don’t want it either. We have a strict “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” policy around dinner.
I don’t punish my kids if they don’t want to eat something after trying it, but if they say a negative thing about it out loud they will have a consequence.
Non Food Rewards for Making Healthy Choices
Studies show that kids who are rewarded for trying vegetables with non-food rewards, like a sticker or verbal praise, eat and LIKE more vegetables. Check out this article for more info and citations.
We know sticker charts work, so we created some reward chart printables to use with our kids. You can use them too! One is rewards for trying new foods, and one is like a checklist for eating five different colors of food in a day.
We really want to go on a family vacation this year, but we wanted our kids to have to earn it in some way. Even though we’ve made great progress in the picky eater department, I still find myself frustrated at dinner time. Out of four kids there always seems to be someone who takes issue with what I make. It was driving me nuts!
So, we decided to tell our kids that if they could find 15 meals that I could make without notice and everyone ate it without complaining we would take them on family vacation! They haven’t met their goal quite yet (we’ve got 11) but having the list hanging up in the kitchen and something to work towards has helped turn our dinnertime into a much more positive experience for me.
Limit the Snacks
If your kids are snacking all day, they won’t be hungry and are less likely to eat meals. French Kids Eat Everything opened my eyes to how much snacking we were doing. I LOVE this book! While not every bit of advice in that book is going to work for me, it inspired me, especially to limit snacks.
Try to limit one or two snacks a day, and not within an hour of mealtime.
My kids are much more likely to eat their meals and try new things, when they haven’t had a snack for a while.
Continue to Offer Your Picky Eater Food Multiple Times
At one of my kids yearly well-check appointments I asked my doctor for advice about the picky eating situation and he told me to keep offering food to my kids, even if they adamantly don’t like them the first time. He told me that it can take 7-10 times of seeing something before kids will feel a desire to try it.
I was totally shocked by this, but it has proven true. The first time I made Cafe Rio Chicken (pictured above) my daughter immediately wanted nothing to do with it, but now it is one of her favorite meals! She just needed to get familiar with it first. The same thing happened with my youngest and mini oranges.
Sneak Fruits and Veggies into Things they Already Like
Smoothies are a big thing for us during the summer. We have a Chocolate Peanut Butter Power Smoothie that my kids LOVE. The peanut butter and chocolate mask the spinach and fruits in the recipe completely. They also love this Spinach Berry Smoothie and this Strawberry Oatmeal Smoothie.
One of my other favorite things to sneak fruits and veggies into is muffins! This Green Monster Muffin recipe is a major crowd pleaser at our house.
Butter. Ranch. Cool Whip.
When giving your picky eaters a fruit or vegetable for the first time there is no shame in presenting it in its tastiest form. Some examples of this may be Brown Sugar Glazed Carrots, a dollop of cool whip on some strawberries, Peanut Butter Dip with apples, Healthy Veggie Dip, or butter-coated green beans.
Yes, these things obviously minimize some of the health benefits of fruits and veggies, but a positive first experience can be priceless. My kids would then form in their head “I love green beans” and the next time they are presented in any form they are much more likely to happily partake!
Muffin Tin Lunches
Nothing could be easier than muffin tin lunches. Basically all you do is serve whatever you are wanting your munchkins to eat, right out of a muffin tray! I basically use a mix of whatever is in my fridge or pantry at the time, I usually just try to include each of the food groups.
My one tip for the muffin tin lunches (if your picky eaters are anything like mine) is DO NOT put a treat in one of the compartments. If your babe goes straight for the candy then the rest of the lunch will lose its cool factor because he will be just begging for more candy… I’m not speaking from experience or anything.
Everything is cuter/cooler when it is miniature, apparently. Mini pancakes, mini corn, mini oranges (cuties) mini sandwiches, the Mini Spaghetti and Meatballs pictured above, you name it.
A favorite of my kids is mini muffins (using the tin pictured above) and our favorites are Peanut Butter Muffins or Green Monster Muffins. The kids love them and they are actually really good for you! Win, win.
Toothpicks and Sprinkles Make Anything Cool
Sarah’s girls were not really wanting to eat breakfast (read more about it in this post.) She threw some sprinkles on top of greek yogurt, and voila! Suddenly yogurt was the new favorite breakfast. That takes practically no effort on Mom’s part, so it’s an automatic win.
Fruit bowls are a favorite with toothpicks but they work with whatever! If your kids are resisting eating a turkey sandwich, cut up a string cheese, roll up some turkey and cut into bite sized pieces. Then, cut up some bread and stick toothpicks in all of them. Suddenly a turkey sandwich is cool again!
Make Pictures with Food
There are so many creative ideas floating around Pinterest for making pictures with food. I love them. I especially love holiday themed ones, ’cause I’m not taking the time to do that every day! My kids loved this Turkey Cheese Platter, and this cute Apple Nacho Wreath or our fun Veggie Christmas Wreath are great too!
Cookie Cut it Up
This one may seem lame or obvious, but if I am being honest this has actually been really successful for my picky toddlers. Shapes are in, guys. I can basically get him them to eat any sandwich if it is cut into a cool shape.
The shape of choice these days is snowflake, recently graduated from pumpkin. Mama liked the pumpkin better, because it wasted less edges. We have this huge set of cookie cutters and the kids love them, whether it be for food, play dough, or tracing.
I hope that one of these ideas will help your most stubborn picky eaters accept a nutrient or two!
If you have any great tips we’ve missed, please leave them in the comments! We always love what you share.
This was originally published in January 2015, and has been updated with new photos and more detailed information.