How to Cut out Processed Food with Picky Eaters!

Over the last few weeks, as we’ve been sharing back-to-school lunch ideas, some commenters have said they don’t know how to get their kids to eat any of these healthy options. And the truth is converting a picky eater can take many months or even years – so patience is key! But don’t let that scare you away, because it’s incredibly worth all the effort in the end.

How to convince your picky eater to eat healthy lunches on 100 Days of Real Food

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So today I’m sharing some tips that I hope will help … in both written form (below) and video form.

How to cut out processed food with picky eaters

  1. First impressions count.
    Make veggies in a way that will give kids a good first impression. For example, bread cauliflower just like you would chicken nuggets (recipe can be found in my Fast & Fabulous cookbook) and make sure to call them “Cauliflower Nuggets.” Then, after that goes over well, try roasting the cauliflower without the breading next time and say, “Remember, this is the cauliflower you liked,” and hope for the best! Don’t be afraid to offer a yummy dipping sauce if you think that will help the transition. :)
  2. Try new foods over and over again (no matter what happened last time).
    I never say, “Don’t put asparagus on her plate, because she doesn’t like it.” Nope, she’s gotta try a bite each and every time because it’s never the same exact two pieces of asparagus, and it’s not always cooked the same way either. Also, spitting out the food is not allowed! I always tell my kids (and especially their friends), “It won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t like it, but it will hurt my feelings if you don’t try it.” And another helpful reminder for especially leery ones, “It won’t hurt if you eat a bite of something you don’t like.”
  3. Cook new foods many different ways.
    On the note of the dreaded asparagus, I do make my kids try a new food each time I make it, but I also make an effort to switch things up. If steamed asparagus didn’t go over so well last time, give it a rest and try it diced and mixed into some creamy risotto next time. That trick actually did finally win over my oldest daughter … and that was after many previous failed asparagus attempts!
  4. Get them involved.
    There are so many different tasks related to cooking and eating! Get your kids to help you pick out recipes, write out the shopping list, purchase items at the grocery store, prep cook, or even make dinner for you by themselves (depending on their age). My girls love when I give them their own shopping list and let them loose in the grocery store (they are 10 and 12 years old). These are all important life skills they don’t learn in school, although you can always sign them up for a cooking class or camp – we’ve done both and my kids really enjoy them!
  5. Only offer one new food at a time.
    Think of three foods you despise and how you’d feel if those were the only things on your dinner plate. Instead, help your little ones ease into trying new things by offering one unfamiliar (or unwanted) item at a time along with some old favorites.
  6. Don’t experiment with new foods in the lunch box (at least, in my opinion)!
    Some will and do disagree with me on this. One mom commented that since the pressure of her watching is gone, she thinks it works better for her kids to try new foods at school. For me I feel like the lunch period is short, and they are hungry, so I don’t think it’s the best time to take chances unless I’ve seen them eat it and like it at home first.
  7. Discuss the changes.
    Most kids want to do the right thing so if you explain that these changes will help make mommy and daddy (and their little bodies!) healthier and live longer, it might just be the wake up call they need. You can also look into watching some documentaries together (especially for older children) such as Food, Inc. and In Defense of Food. Michael Pollan even has a young reader’s edition of his Ominvore’s Dilemma book.
  8. Divulge the hidden food.
    I know many parents hide veggies and such, but when your child grows up and moves out – they’ll still think spinach is gross and that they’ve never eat it if it’s been “hidden” in their smoothies all along. I’m not saying you have to tell them up front, but please at least tell them about the hidden food afterward so they know it wasn’t so bad after all.
  9. Don’t harp – keep it fun and lighthearted.
    You know when you’re taking things too far, and it’s sometimes a difficult line not to cross. But do your best to keep things pleasant when it comes to trying new foods. Set a rule about trying things (see #2 above) so everyone knows what to expect and be sure to stick to it. And if you’re really desperate to lighten things up, consider the taste testing games I’ve shared (for kids of any age)!
  10. Be patient and don’t give up!
    Again, it can take many months or even years, and I’m here to tell you it’s not always easy! So I can completely understand why parents want to give up and just stick to feeding their kids favorite foods only. But the health of your child is important, so you’ve got to power through! I promise when you finally get some “wins” under your belt, it’ll be so worth it and rewarding. The only vegetable my younger daughter used to eat (before we cut out processed food) was frozen peas. But the minute we pledged to change our diets I started trying a lot harder, and I’m so glad I did. She now loves salad, broccoli, spinach and just about any veggie covered in cheese. :)

I’d love to hear your picky eater tips in the comments below!

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19 thoughts on “How to Cut out Processed Food with Picky Eaters!”

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    I am glad for all the advice. My grandson is 10 years old and the only foods he eats is french toast sticks for breakfast, pizza, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese and fish sandwich. He sometimes eats pop tarts and cereal. We are trying to get him to eat healthy and it is difficult. He would rather starve then try a new food..

  2. These are some great tips. Having worked with preschool children for 10+ years, I have learned a few things about kids and food.

    1. Peer pressure can be positive. When all your friends are enjoying something, you are more likely to try it.

    2. It can take multiple exposures before a child (or adult!) Will try something new, and even more to truly like it. Keep seeving it, and dont bring up “not liking it” at all.

    3. Kids will have genuine like, dislikes and preferences just like adults.

    4. There is a differende between having preferences and being picky. If i ask my daughter what she wants to eat she will always say “hotdogs”. It doesnt mean she dislikes other foods, but she really likes hotdogs.

    5. Kids need choices within age appropriate boundaries. A toddler may help pick a vegetable from adult-chosen options (do you want carrots or beans with lunch?). A preschooler or young child may have choices at the store (what fruit do you want this week?) Or with supper (do you want bbq sauce on your chicken or just plain? Should we bake the chicken or grill it?) Older children and teenagers can have growing responsibility to make foods from what is available at home.

    6. If you mealplan, put your child’s meal ideas on the plan, even if they are not super healthy. When you are eating supper and your child starts complaining/whiningbthat they want such and such, refer them to the meal plan and assure then you will have such food. Preferences come in phases. We currently have hotdogs at least once every 2 weeks. Round out meals as needed. We get the least processed hotdogs we can. Add a salad (the kids can help make it).

    7. You decide what/when/where to serve. They decide what and how much to eat. If you are serving soup and bread for example- many kids would just eat a ton of bread. But only provide what you are comfortable with them eating. If you only want them to eat one roll eat, only bring out one roll each. If you dont want then to eat unlimited bread, dont provide it.

    8. Keep it light hearted. No pressure. Eat or don’t, no skin off your back. (Even if secretely you are worried they arent getting enough.)

    9. A healthy child will not starve themselves. If you have regular, set, meal and snack times. Trust your child when they say no or that they arent hungry. They will learn quick to eat or be hungry.

    10. Hungry children eat more readily. Limit grazing and drinks (aside from water) between meals/snacks.

    11. Hunger and starvation are different. A child may skip a meal/snack and be hungry at the next one. But truly starving children are not picky. A truly starving child will eat anything.

    12. Explain what you can in age-appropriate ways. Talk about the benefits of foods without pressure. As you make salad “we are going to add lettuce because it gives us fiber to help us poop (giggle with your kid), carrots because they help us see, chicken to help out muscles be strong”.

    13. Relax. Have fun. Be an example. Food shouldn’t be a power struggle.

  3. Great tips. I’ve fed lots of kids and had some picky ones as well. I think probably the best advice I ever got was that they will eat when they are hungry. Limiting snacks, keeping portion sizes appropriate, and cutting out processed foods is a great way to start the journey. Parents need to be involved and disciplined also.

  4. These are great tips! I didn’t buy your lunch plan because my daughter would only like maybe 10% of the things in it… maybe next year will be better!! Speaking of lunch, I agree with not giving them new things in their lunch. My aunt told me that when their mom would pack something icky in their lunches, the kids just threw it out at school.

    I am getting that young reader’s book!! I think it will really help her understand the good reasons for these changes.

    One thing that my daughter surprised me with is that she likes raw veggies better plain than with any dressing on them! Although we do always give her whatever we’re eating, I remember well that even though I absolutely hated lima beans (and still do) and couldn’t even swallow them, they were served at dinner at least twice a week. I just found out from my mom that this is because there weren’t many veggies my dad likes, and he did like limas! At least they didn’t make me “clean my plate.”

  5. I am so happy to read this to know that I have been on the right path! These are all the things I do with my kids and over time it does work! You are awesome for sharing this! People always comment on how they are so impressed that my kids eat vegetables. Lol!

  6. I noticed your daughters are 10 and 12 but the tone of your suggested dialogues sound like they would be directed to a much younger child. My daughter is 12 going on 17 and is insulted if I speak to her like anything but a fellow adult. She has always been beyond picky–I could keep a literal list of everything she was willing to eat. I believe she possibly had/has some sensory issues too mild to diagnose but real enough to make her actually gag and even throw up when we insist she try something the second time that she has declared a “NO” and she has only recently begun to be more tolerant of giving things a first try…90% of which she doesn’t like. Her doctor says by all standards she couldn’t be any healthier than she is and when I “gave up” a bit, at least ceased trying to establish some rule about the effort she had to make, our relationship improved drastically. I now live by “we provide, she decides” and hope for the best. Many evenings she gets her own supper because she won’t eat anything we are eating. But her body is healthy and our relationship is healthy. I guess I’m just seeking a little understanding for those of us who have TRULY picky kids.

    1. Your daughter may actually have a mineral or vitamin deficiency causing food to taste bad or not have any taste. It could be she is lacking in iodine, copper, iron or zinc but I guarantee your traditional doctor may not even know this. I would research these various minerals and see if anything rings true for your daughter’s pattern of eating. My youngest stopped eating all of the sudden when he was a toddler and the nutritionist told me to give him liquid vitamin drops with zinc and within a week he was eating again because he could taste food again. It is amazing how our diet affects so many things in our bodies. don’t be fooled by your daughter’s good health now, if she isn’t eating a well-rounded diet, she will eventually have issues; her body needs a variety of nutrition and I know you know that so I am just supporting what I think your momma intuition is telling you. Good luck, teens are challenging when it comes to good diets!

    2. This has been my experience as well. My daughter just turned 13. I put healthy food in front of her, threebite rule, since day one, blah blah blah. When she threw up in a restaurant when eating broccoli after I succumbed to the imagined parent pressure to be the drill sergeant parent (to enforce/stick by “adventure bite” type rules, I decided enough was enough.

      I instead focus on her eating protein to balance carbs, lots of fruit, lots of water, no junk food, etc. She is more likely to try something from her dad or my mom or a friend, but not really. I was just like this (only sneakier to avoid getting hit) until I was in my 20s.

      It is not a sign of her “ruling the roost” or spoiled as many like to preach. She doesn’t like being like that, which I also understand. When I was in my 20s, I made a conscious choice to expand my food repertoire because it is hard to be so picky: nothing to eat when at someone’s house, anxiety anout food at friend’s house, neing hungry, feeling like I was missing out. I was able to talk down some of the internal reactions because I had more brain development, desire, choice, and logic. I’ve talked anout this with her when she’s been in tears about it so I know it’s real and she knows I understand.

      I just wanted to give you that validation. I think what you are doing is probably following your mommy intuition.

      1. @BadMama Thanks; it can feel pretty lonely seeking out healthier eating options when you have a truly picky eater. Several people have told me about growing out of similar limitations, so that is comforting. :)

    3. Michelle, I agree with you that most posts I read about picky kids don’t necessarily apply to those of us with sensory picky kids. There is a major difference, unfortunately. My son is almost 11yo and the only veggie he eats is raw carrots. It used to be only cucumbers, but now he switched. Once in a blue moon we can get him to put a new veggie in his mouth, but it so far has not ended in him actually ingesting any. I agree that try, try, try is all we can do regardless of why the child won’t eat something and that setting a good example is never a wasted effort. Occupational therapy/speech (feeding therapy) can help if it’s a really severe issue. I will say that I think we have also been lax with making our kids eat things they didn’t want to (vs. us sitting at the table all night till we ate it as kids), so that might have contributed as well. Sorry, not much help, but know you aren’t alone.

  7. Lindsay Untherbergus

    Do you think that the younger you start feeding kids healthy foods, the more adventurous they will grow up to be? For example, putting vegetables on their plate as soon as they are old enough to eat them. I’m not a parent, just curious.

  8. I love this! We use the same policies… even calling the first bite the “Adventure Bite!” The thing that helps our kids is knowing they don’t have to force it all down if they don’t like it. They just keep in mind that tastebuds change, and they may finally like it the next time they try it! Thanks for the post :)

  9. These are very smart tips, especially the breaded nuggets to roasted cauliflower progression. Lots of likes/dislikes are psychological.
    In that vein, I have found that when the adults swoon over something, kids want in on it. We would gush over wild asparagus, and our kid would be reaching to the plate to get some. Attitudes help a lot.