Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Deal with a Picky Eater

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Winning over your picky eater is no easy task, but (in most cases) it can be done! Following is a list of tactics to hopefully convince your child that “real food” is good stuff. Also, don’t forget that it can take time for one’s palette to adjust to new tastes so if you experience some failed attempts at first don’t be discouraged!

Whole-Wheat Banana Pancakes

1. Start by switching out the refined and processed ingredients in meals they love for healthier ones. Some recipes to consider: Whole-Wheat Macaroni and Cheese, Homemade Chicken Nuggets, Whole-Wheat Pizza and Whole-Wheat Banana Pancakes (pictured).

2. Give your child a good first impression of the real food you want them to try even if it means deep frying sweet potatoes to make French fries, making sweet zucchini bread, or coating fish in almonds and topping it with a butter sauce. Once your child thinks they like “fish” you’ll have a better chance of getting them to eat it next time (even if you cook it differently).

3. If you like to hide veggies in your kid’s food please tell them about it while they are eating it (if you’re brave enough) or at least tell them afterward. They need to know the hidden ingredient isn’t so horrifying after all. Plus if when they turn 18 they still think they’ve never eaten broccoli, because it’s always been hidden it in their food, where is that going to get you?

4. Bribe them to eat real food with other real food. Most parents already know how to bribe on occasion, but remember it does not always have to be about sweets and junk food. For example, my 4-year-old daughter absolutely loves cheese sticks and will do just about anything for one…including eating a bite of her veggies!

5. Let them pick out their own fruits and vegetables at the store or farmers’ market. Better yet, let them help you grow some produce in a few pots or in a small garden in your very own backyard. Now is the perfect time to start planting for fall, and it would be very little effort and a lot of reward to plant some carrot seeds together in a little pot on your deck.

6. Get them involved in picking out dinner or breakfast recipes and helping you cook the meal. Even kids as young as one or two are great at stirring. I’ve started letting my 6-year-old flip pancakes on the griddle (with close supervision) and she feels like she is the “queen of the castle” when she’s cooking for the whole family! Most kids will at least have a taste if they helped to make the meal.

7. Make a strict “one-bite rule” that they have to at least try a food and remind them that it won’t hurt them if it tastes bad. This goes for each meal.  Also allow them to wash it down with their drink as opposed to spitting it out. You may only win them over 1 out of 10 times, but that one time makes it so worth it!

8. Do not pressure or upset your kids too much over trying a new food. There is a sweet spot somewhere between not giving up easily and not pushing them too hard. This is why I like our “one bite rule” because it is no surprise when I ask my kids to try at least one bite of something new.  You don’t want them to have any negative feelings toward food or mealtime. You should know pretty quickly when you’ve started taking things too far.

9. If your child is especially resistant only put one new food on their plate at a time along with other real food that you already know they like.

10. For older children talk to them about why it is important to make these changes and consider inviting them to watch the documentary Food, Inc. with you. You can also sit down and discuss our list of 10 reasons to cut out processed food. Most kids want to do the right thing and be healthy, and I promise you the transition will be so much easier if they’re on board with making changes.

11. Make sure you have the right expectations. Converting your child or your entire family over to real food is not supposed to be an easy or quick task. Buying, prepping and cooking wholesome meals is obviously going to be more work than ordering a highly processed pizza, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just remember that the changes you will see in the health of your family will be more than worth it in the long run!

12. It really does take a dozen or more times for a child to realize they might like a new food. It took a lot of patience, but I think I even offered my youngest daughter green bell peppers two or three dozen times before she one day decided she liked it (much to my surprise!). So remember…persistence is key so don’t give up!

 

If you have any additional suggestions you’d like to share please leave them in the comments below. Also, be sure to check out our family real food meal plans if you are looking for ideas on what to specifically feed your kids.

 

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133 comments to Real Food Tips: 12 Ways to Deal with a Picky Eater

  • I think the “one-bite” (two-bite rule in my family) rule is the reason I am not a picky eater today. My mother always made us try at least 2 bites of something before she would let us get up from the table. My parents had missionaries from our church over for dinner last night and one of them was a “picky eater” as a child. He said that it was his first time actually eating a tomato. His companion has learned to ask him if he has ever tried a certain food instead of asking if he likes a certain food because his initial response was no, until he realized that he had never tried it. I agree that having them try at least a bite and continually exposing them to the food will eventually result in them eating the food.

    • I struggle with this. My oldest is three, and I don’t want to make food a fight so I just keep offering foods (that he doesn’t necessarily try) in hopes the he eventually will eat it. Sometimes I wonder if I should make him try a bite, but I want to go down the path of least resistance, with most success. I guess what I am trying to say is I don’t want to force him to eat a bite of everything on his plate if it is likely to have the opposite effect (making him to refuse it JUST BECAUSE!). Get it? What are your thoughts?

      • angela

        Jennifer,
        I work with young children who have feeding issues…more than the usual toddler picky…and I have found a few things to work pretty well with most kids. i tend to think of a hierarchy of exploring food: food on plate -> touch->pick up (to put in a “no thank you” spot->kiss->lick (or “tickle with tongue”)-> bite-> chew and swallow. You don’t necessarily have to go through each step, but often I have found that once kids know that my only expectation is that they have to kiss something then it is less scary and threatening to them and they try it and will often take a bite on their own as if it was their idea (which is one of the key factors to shared control). I make it fun and non-pressure filled, but make my expectation clear. I also be sure to use the language “You can __ (take a bite, kiss the ___, etc) or “Touch __” rather than “Can you” (where the answer can be “no” and then you have set yourself up for a power struggle) or an emotional plea. Studies have shown that It can take 5-16 times of exposure to a new food before a child truly accepts (or can officially reject and say that they don’t like it). I also talk a lot about the properties of the food while I am eating it (color, shape, crunchy, temp, etc) to take the unknown out of it. Have him help with food prep (even just washing) and choosing a new food to try at the store. Ellyn Satter has good info on her website about ways to encourage healthy eating habits from a young age. Hope you have some success with one of those ideas:)

        • Jen

          Thank you for your post Angela! My 6 year old has been in feeding therapy for about a year and it has made all the difference in the world in our family! The “picky eating” just got to be more than we could parent (the tip off was that he would “lose his lunch” if he put something in his mouth that was not to his liking). After reading more about resistant eating and sensory processing issues, I decided to have my son evaluated and he began therapy for his feeding issues using the same exact methods you have described (tolerating it on a plate, touching, playing, kissing, licking, and ultimately chewing). I just want other parents dealing with similar situations that there is help out there for dealing with these issues and that you’re not alone. I love this website and was so excited to see a post on picky eaters, but not all picky eaters are created equal.

        • Elizabeth

          Thank you! My son is autistic and we’ve been struggling with feeding issues since he switched to solids…about nine years ago. I’ve been wringing my hands for years with worry because he will gag and sometimes lose his food over textures. Thank you for the “just touch it” approach. It is something that he already does naturally, so I will begin to use this tactic instead of the “one bite” rule that I’ve been trying(and failing)at. The poor thing is anxious over any new item that appears on his plate because he’s afraid it’s going to make him sick.

      • Lee Anne

        I have a two year old and we have a one bite rule. My husband came up with it, but he takes the one bite and takes it off the plate so it is the only thing in front of him. Not exactly sure why, but when little dude knows exactly what he has to eat he tries it every time! Often he’ll keep going! That’s what works for us. Also if I let him help so he sees what the food looks like as I’m cooking he gobbles it right up and often tries a bite while we’re cooking. he won’t touch a green pepper on his plate, but he’ll eat half of one while hanging out in the kitchen as we prepare dinner!

      • 100 Days of Real Food

        I totally hear you and agree it is important not to make big a fight. I do think that you can start a new routine though that involves the one-bite rule where it won’t necessarily be a fight because they will come to expect that rule and it won’t be a surprise. It might be tough for them to get used to the new habit at first, but the thought is eventually they will do it for you just like they make their bed or brush their teeth (even if they don’t like those “chores” either)! If you use a star chart or something to track other chores consider adding the new “one-bite rule” to the list. Try to figure out a way to add it to your reward system and just call it “being an adventurous eater.” I always compliment my older daughter for trying new things and tell her I love it when people are adventurous and aren’t scared to try new foods. Make sure your kids know it is a good and desirable character trait and reward them for it (with something other than candy)! :)

  • Jan

    I think the one bite rule is a good one- the other stuff about helping prepare the meal or helping choose the recipes or ingredients does not work with my daughter.

  • Sarah

    I wish my mother read these when I was a little “picky eater”. I may have come out of my food coma before I was 25! (I stress may, I was pretty determined to be picky.)

  • I love these tips! So many great ones. I especially love getting them involved. If they help with picking out and preparing something they’re much more likely to get excited about it and try it.

    One of my favorite tips(mostly because people don’t usually think of it) is presenting new foods at different times during the day instead of at dinner time. My son is very much a morning person and not a night person at all so offering him something new at lunch time always works better than offering something new at dinner. Of course leading by example is really important too so it’s so important to get both parents on board!

  • Stephanie

    My husband is an incredibly picky eater, and I came from a family where you tried everyone at least once (and there are very few items I won’t eat now). His family says that he’s tried more food in the 5 years we’ve been together than in the 23 years prior to that lol. Mostly because I just make something and he tries it. If he doesn’t like it, he can make eggs or toast or cereal, but I don’t cook 2 different meals.

    Now, if only I could convince him to make a vegetable each time he cooks…

    • Jessica

      I wish that worked for my husband! He will not try something if he didn’t already think he would like it. And if I try to make something someone else does that I know he likes, he doesn’t think it will taste the same. I am at the point where i am just letting him fend for himself because nothing I try seems to help. I too came from a family where you had to try everything that was on the plate…his mom fixed the same tasteless food on the same day of every week, so there was no variety and the food wasn’t very good to begin with.

  • Jana

    I am so happy i found your blog. I have been trying to switch over to no processed food but i am feeling frustrated with the lack of recepie blogs to back that. I have found a lot of raw food blogs but nit many whole food blogs. We are slowly making the transition but i feel this will help us greatly. Thank you

    • I’m right there with you. Plus, PLUS, so many people use sweeteners, when they don’t use sugar, that do not appear to be natural. And I guess that if you are not doing the processed thing, the last thing you want to add is truvia or something, right? Who knows. Anyway, I found this last night (via comments on this lovely site) that will hopefully help you too. I haven’t had the time to check into h(is)/(er) style but I don’t think it’s raw food.

      http://www.foodrenegade.com/

  • LOVE this! It just so happens that yesterday I posted on my blog about getting kids to like vegetables – and I had a number of similar methods that you mention. :) I especially like the part about telling kids about the hidden foods, which is something I mentioned in my post, as well. We do hidden foods, but the kids are *always* in on the secret. If they’re going to learn to like and appreciate those foods, they have to know they’re eating them! ;) I also talked about our “one-bit” rule, which not only encourages more exposure, but it also teaches them to tolerate a food enough to be polite (esp if they’re away from home and are given that food!), repeated exposure, getting them in on the action w/ planning, prep, cooking. Lots of similar things. Love it! :) I also added our new secret that has really gotten the kids (and us) eating even more veggies, which is really simple. :) http://bit.ly/nTdIz6 Thanks for posting such great tips! Love your site and what you’re doing to help others! :)

  • Jen - Personal Trainer Miami Beach

    Those are great tips! It is very hard to convince “the little ones” to switch to a healthier diet. Especially when they see what other children get to eat.

    I definitely like the idea to let them participate in the process of growing your own veggies. That makes it more fun for them. Isn’t it exiting to try something you have “created” yourself?!

  • orchid

    i regret all those years i wasted being a picky eater because my parents are limited eaters and never made me try anything new. i didn’t eat a salad until college, try mushrooms until i was 25, try seafood until my late 20s… now i’ll eat anything (except i’m allergic to salmon & hate (after having tried repeatedly) olives) & LOVE tongue, foie, rabbit, etc. trying to get my parents to start eating “crazy” foods too, but they won’t even try things as basic as–gasp!–dark meat chicken.

    • Jennifer

      I think that is very true. When kids see parents eating limited foods they tend to develope the same routine. It’s good for kids to see us try new foods and eat a few bites of food that we might not like, it helps to ease the frustration in our house. Plus we have all been able to try many new and exciting foods that we may have otherwise passed up:)

  • Rebecca ~ Sweet Baby Yams

    My mom always allowed me to pick produce at the store when I was younger. I always had to take a bite of new food before leaving the table. I don’t recall ever being a picky eater, but it’s probably because of the work she did to teach me about real food. Great tips!

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