Winning over your picky eater

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Most parents struggle at one point or another with a picky eater, and the most important thing to remember is to never give up! My youngest daughter frustrates me almost daily with her pickiness – luckily my older daughter is quite the opposite- but clearly since we are all doing the 100 Days of Real Food together I’ve had to try almost anything and everything to get my 3-year-old to eat whole foods. I hope some of these tips that I have learned along the way, which are all based my own personal experiences and observations, can help you make some breakthroughs with your picky eater as well. And of course please keep in mind that each suggestion is not necessarily going to work for every child out there, but you certainly never know until you try. And as always, if you have any additional tips or suggestions from your own experiences please feel free to leave a comment!

  • Take baby steps when trying to convert your kids to whole foods. First of all, start with some familiar foods by switching out the beloved processed version with a healthier alternative. For example, my daughters both used to love the white store-bought flour tortillas, so one of the first things I did was make them some homemade whole-wheat tortillas. I also switched out the boxed granola cereal we used to eat (that was full of sugar and other junk) with some homemade granola. Since the new tortillas and granola were so similar to what they used to eat those were some of the easier transitions for my girls. For more challenging situations (like the things that look totally “different” than what they are used to), one possibility is to break the habit by going months without giving them the problem food at all. Then introduce the whole food version. Take a certain macaroni that comes in a blue box, for example. I found with my girls that we went so long without even speaking the words “macaroni and cheese” that they were more than thrilled to eat my non-orange homemade version when it was finally offered.
  • Don’t always feel the need to reward with an unhealthy “treat”. Use a healthy food item they love as the incentive for them to eat the other stuff. I know my younger daughter loves cheese so I start her dinner plate off with a small piece of cheese, and then when she asks for more I tell her she has to take a bite of veggies first.
  • First impressions are important…even when it comes to food. With my own children I have found that the way I introduce a new food to them can make or break their opinion of it. For example, if you want your kids to like zucchini, first try offering them some delicious cake-like zucchini bread. Let them have it that way a couple of times to help develop a good impression of “zucchini”. Then eventually introduce it either breaded or with a sauce until you can work up to having them eat and accept it plain. Below are some other examples that can help with good first impressions, but for this to work you must always tell them what it is called the first time you serve it!
    • Sweet potato fries -> baked sweet potatoes
    • Chocolate covered strawberries or (real) strawberry ice cream -> plain strawberries
    • Carrot cake -> carrots
    • Banana pancakes -> bananas
    • Baked apples (with cinnamon and honey) -> raw apples
  • Lots of moms already know about hiding veggies in their kid’s food. While I am definitely a believer, I prefer not to do this more than half the time. My theory is that one day, when my picky daughter is 12, she might think that she has never eaten a carrot and doesn’t like it…now where is that going to get us? And on the occasions when I do hide veggies in their food I try to always tell them about it during (or afterward).
  • Get them in the kitchen to help you make some healthy meals. If you don’t already ask your children to cook with you it is never too late (or too early) to start! Even a 1-year-old can help you stir pancake batter. I learned a valuable lesson in this department with my youngest daughter. My husband, oldest daughter, and I (who all like sushi – with brown rice of course) were making homemade sushi. My 5-year-old was on a stool at the counter and had her own cutting board, rice bowl, soy sauce, platter of cut veggies, and bamboo-rolling mat. My 3-year-old desperately wanted to “play” along at the counter just like her older sister, but I told her she could only do so if she would eat the sushi that she made. I almost entered a state of shock when it worked…she not only chose vegetables to go in her sushi roll, but she ate it too! And thanks to that good first impression she will now eat sushi anytime and anywhere!
  • Get rid of the bad stuff. Whether you give it to a friend, donate it, or throw it away I guarantee that you will have better luck with any child in any household if the highly processed foods are no longer an option! This works with adults too. :)
  • Offer them the right choices. If you know that your kid likes apples then offer that to them instead of a bag of chips. There are a lot of kids out there who like a decent amount of healthy foods and in most cases would eat those foods if that’s simply what their parents offered them.
  • Last and probably the most important tip of all…have patience and do not give up on your picky eater! I like to joke that my younger daughter will eat 1 in 10 new meals that I serve her. Even though it is far and few between, the one meal that she does eat makes all my effort worthwhile. Even though I know she will rarely eat the new meal I am serving her I still always offer it to her anyway (with at least one thing on the plate that she does like). On a few occasions this has paid off when I least expected it…with green bell peppers (in fajitas), a bowl of chili, and even lima beans!

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25 comments to Winning over your picky eater

  • Angela

    I am just getting started with reading all of your tips. I love the piece of cheese on the plate to start and more only if they try something new. My problem is that my 8 year old only eats grilled cheese, pb&j’s, cheesey tortillas, mac n cheese, cheese pizza, or plain noodles. EVERY lunch is pb&j and almost every dinner is either grilled cheese or noodles. Thankfully we haven’t had any health issues, but my “she’ll grow out of it” theory is getting pretty old. Any suggestions?

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      For starters you can make every meal you described with “whole” ingredients. So at least start switching out the processed/refined stuff in those meals with better ingredients (like whole-grain pasta/bread/tortillas/pizza crust, etc). And I would just start enforcing the 1-bite rule. Over time they will get used to it as a regular rule and eventually they will like something new that they try (let’s hope)!

  • I just found your website and I am excited. Our boys are 9 and 15 and admittedly not as picky as many of their classmates, but we are trying to get them to eat more fibrous veggies and it is difficult. I welcome your tips. We are fortunate that they like many, many fruits. Do you think fruits give comparable nutrients in general? I feel like broccoli may never get the chance it deserves with these two. My husband is Thai and we have taken our children to Thailand many times. They don’t like much Thai food, though their taste buds are changing and my older son is trying more options. Veggies are still a toughie around here. I always have fruit around and try to never buy too much processed stuff, though we have a weakness for Cheez-Its and ice cream. (red face) Also, I suspect my older son may have some food issues, as he often has an upset stomach after eating and upon waking. I am nervous that on our budget, specialty gluten free (if that is indeed the problem) items will be expensive and not accepted by the rest of the family (I include myself!) I apologize for running on. Thank you for your blog. Anne.

    • Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Anne. In response to your question, I think fruits and vegetables give different nutrients, so, no, I don’t necessarily think they would be comparable as you mention. I would simply focus on trying to eat as many different color fruits and vegetables as you can. Our team is glad you are enjoying the blog. Best of luck to you and your family. Jill

  • Sile

    I am also blessed with a picky husband! Luckily, I tend to make all of our baked goods, breads, pizza crust, and even ice cream from scratch, so I already have that going for me, and he LOVES them. He practically begs me to make bread if we’ve been out of it for a few days. I tend to oblige him because it’s pretty much 3 hours of me doing nothing thanks to the bread machine he got me a couple of years ago. ;)

    But his pickyness mainly centers around the textures of certain foods and sometimes the defgree of spicyness. Like he won’t eat mushrooms because of their texture, unless they’re cut up REALLY tiny and are in something like a stir fry.

    I also will ahve fun getting him off the processed foods especially his fruit snacks and granola bars. He does like apples, but it’s been hard finding other fruits that are acceptable to him. Did I mention he also hates nuts or seeds? Unless they’re ground down like peanut butter. Pain in the tush, this one. ;)

  • Elicia

    I read “French Kid’s Eat Everything” this year and thought it was a great book. I think the ideas go along nicely with what you’re doing and you should check it out if you haven’t already. I have very, very picky eaters and I’m struggling to get them on a better food track but I’m not giving up!

  • My boyfriend is a picky eater of a variety a bit different from most of those mentioned…He is completely on board with healthy eating, it’s just extremely difficult to find things he actually enjoys and will eat more than a few bites of. We have made serious progress – when he moved in with me he knew of no vegetables he likes, and now he adores asparagus, cauliflower and broccoli :D But it has been slow going. Much of his pickiness is based in extreme sensitivity to food, so finding things he likes the taste of and don’t make him feel sick in some way is a bit of a struggle. Going all organic and non-GMO helped a great deal with his sensitivity but he grew up eating nothing but chicken fingers, burgers and fries, mac & cheese – so he’s still trying to figure out what he likes.

  • Carrie

    I have a bit of a devious trick when switching kids from refined carbs to whole grain. Carb starve them for a few days. Let all carbs come from fruit and veg, add in meats. Leave out any grains, beans or dairy. I swear to god they will attack that whole wheat pasta, brown rice, whole wheat bread or buck wheat pancakes like they were the food of the gods…and not turn back. Well it worked for us :-)

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