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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24 comments to Winning over your picky eater

  • Jamie

    We made your tortilla and fajita recipes this past weekend and LOVED them! It’s shocking to realize how much better a homemade food tastes over it’s processed, store-bought counterpart. Thanks for sharing your recipes!

    We’ve been mostly organic for the past year, and even so, I look at my pantry and see things we can improve upon. I find your site very helpful!

  • Fiona

    One tip you already mention on your main blog: make kid centered meals for the whole family. I love cooking out of Mollie Katzen’s Honest Pretzels book. Lots of really delicious easy recipes that the kids can make themselves or help to make. I’ve never yet tried a recipe out of there that the kids then refused to eat.

  • We have often found that giving a new name to a food the kids didn’t previously like, when offering it a new way, often works. They know they didn’t like the over done green beans or peas Gramma made them eat at her house so you already have a strike against you when serving it at home. But, maybe they will be more inclined to try the “squeaky beans” or “sweetie peas” that are perfectly steamed with some butter.

    • Janet

      Just discovered this site – looking forward to reading through it!

      This post about renaming foods reminded me of an incident from my childhood. My brother and I refused to drink eggnog once we found out it had raw egg in it. Some months later, we came home from school to find our younger brother drinking an “ice cream drink,” and of course, we wanted one too…. Sneaky, Mom! :-)

  • Andrea

    What if your picky eater is your husband and he sticks his nose up at food? I struggle with my oldest and him! :)

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      You are the first of many to write in with this very same problem! Have you guys watched Food, Inc. together? Try educating him on the why behind all of this (if you haven’t tried that already!)

  • sherry

    Look for a book at the library called Hungry Monkey. Technically, its a cookbook, with lots of stories about the author’s child and his attempts to persuade her to be an adventurous eater. So many of the recipes in there are just awesome, particularly the vegetable and side dish recipes.

  • Cristina

    What about a picky husband? Well, he’s not really that picky, but sometimes it’s like, “God forbid he eat anything healthy!” He WILL NOT eat anything whole wheat (I love it). He loves Betty Crocker mixed cakes and Oreo’s. Anytime I make something from scratch, he’s like, well it is good, but I’m used to __________ brand.
    I end up having to make 2 batches of everything, because he won’t eat whole wheat, and I won’t eat white.

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      I would love to be inside his head to understand the reasoning behind it. Women actually write in a lot about their picky husbands and (un)fortunately my husband is quite the opposite so I don’t have any personal experience with that issue. I do think your husband would need to try more than 1 meal to give whole foods a fair chance. What if you bribe him with something he really wants (and you previously wouldn’t let him get) if he does the 10-day pledge or even a 7-day pledge? Tell him if he gives it this fair chance and still doesn’t believe in changing some of the foods he eats then you will leave him alone about it! The point is not to follow our real food rules for life, but for people to decide what changes you want to keep after gaining a new perspective.

  • What we name foods is always helpful, which lends itself to your tip of “first impressions”. We give all foods “super” names… sugar snap peas are “sweet treats”, frozen peas are “pea popsicles”, etc. We also identify the “super powers” associated with eating different foods: tomatoes give you super vision, asparagus makes you run fast, sweet peppers give you big muscles. The truth is that anything clean and whole we offer our children WILL make them faster, stronger, smarter – so we always build them up with how amazing they will be for eating the healthy choices we put in front of them. (We also do the same with junk foods, but in an opposite way: eat too much junk and you’ll feel sick, you’ll be weak, your teeth will rot.) Some may think this is extreme, but it is based in truth and presented in ways that children understand and can believe in. (What child doesn’t want to be faster and stronger? What child would choose sickness and rotten teeth?)

    As for husbands (LOL), we wives are blessed with the opportunity to build our men up in the same ways we want to build our children up. My encouragement to women is this: fight the good fight and don’t give up on putting whole food choices in front of your man. It will take more than one or two meals (as Lisa says) and you should communicate with him (in love!) that, for the benefit of the whole family and his health, it is important to you he is patient and willing and encouraging with your desire to feed your family better. Look for ways to compromise – if he doesn’t like one version of something you buy or make, try a different option. Moving from packaged foods to whole foods is a process of retraining the taste palate… but, once it is retrained with habit, the path will become much easier to walk. And don’t forget: you can always use “super powers” trick on him, too :) LOL!

  • Patty

    What do you do if your picky eater WILL NOT eat what is prepared? He is 4. I tell him what is for dinner or he sees it on his plate and he says he doesn’t like it. He wants something else. I usually don’t give in, but I want him to eat something. Dinner time is not always pleasent at our home.

    • 100 Days of Real Food

      I would recommend only putting 1 new/questionable item on his plate at a time (along with other healthy items that he likes).

  • One thing that worked for us with my 4 year old is that she LOVES the movie Tangled – she wants her hair “to be super long and drag on the floor like Rapunzel’s” so we tell her that eating her veggies will help her hair grow long and strong just like Rapunzel’s hair – it works! She eats a bite then asks us if her hair is longer, so we tell her to just eat a little bit more – and she does :)

  • 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.

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