Do you have a hard time finding healthy food for the picky eaters in your home?
Are you at a crossroads with what to feed them so they get the nutrition they need? Are you tired of the battles when you try to get your kids to eat real food?
Good news! In this article, we’ll take a look at common causes of picky eating and the consequences of a limited diet. Then you’ll learn some tips for expanding your family’s palate (picky eating isn’t just for kids).
I’ll leave you with helpful strategies and simple recipes that you can implement today to reduce the frustration many of us parents face when it comes to mealtime.
Healthy meal ideas for picky eaters to the rescue.
What causes picky eating?
There are many factors at work when it comes to picky eating. If you have more than one child you may notice that one is picky and one is not, even though you raised them the same.
How can this be?
Young taste buds
We all have a natural preference for sweet-tasting foods, and an innate sense to avoid bitter flavors. Evolutionarily, this helped protect young ones from eating potentially poisonous things until they learned from their parents what plants are safe.
While protective by nature, this trait presents a challenging obstacle today. Processed, highly palatable, and sweet foods are available and advertised everywhere.
We are born with about three times as many taste buds than we end up with as adults, so children may be more sensitive to tastes.
As parents, our job is to be patient and teach kids that vegetables are safe and contain critical nutrients that will help them grow into strong and healthy adults.
Fear of the unknown
With so much to explore in this big world, young kids may be hesitant to try new things out of fear of the unknown, or neophobia. This is true of food as well.
As we eat first with our eyes, even the look of a new food or dish can clamp a mouth shut. If you are lucky to get past the visual fears, your kids may get stuck on unfamiliar textures.
Just as Gretchin Rubin’s four tendencies impact how adults make decisions and proceed with daily challenges, personalities can influence food choices in kids.
If you have a budding rebel on your hands, they may put up more of a fuss than an obliger. And a tiny upholder may approach food very differently than a questioner.
When does picky eating rear its head? Most commonly between the ages two and four.
Guess what? This is also the time when toddlers are learning control. Your two year old may be realizing that they have control over their body and what they put in their mouth.
The struggle comes from parents also wanting control over what their little ones eat. Naturally, we want our kids to grow and develop properly and establish a healthy relationship with food.
Kids can sense the angst around meals, and the power struggle begins.
Consequences of a limited diet
It would be easier for parents to remain calm and patient with picky eaters if the consequences were negligible, but a limited diet can present lifelong effects.
Very selective limited eating over a long period can result in short and long-term nutrient deficiencies. Just because your child’s weight and height is tracking okay on the growth chart doesn’t mean what’s going on inside is ideal.
Picky children become picky adults
Picky eating that continues into adulthood can result in more severe health issues and social anxiety around food.
When young children are given the green light to avoid all foods they are unsure about, chances are their habits will continue into their grown-up years.
Family conflict at mealtime
Beyond health consequences, picky eating can also result in family conflict. The battles, negotiations, and tears around mealtime can build up.
This puts strain on the relationship and creates a negative association with food for your child.
Tips for expanding your family’s palate
Keep in mind that picky eating is a normal part of childhood development, so how you respond to it is most important! Along with teaching kids about nutrition, making these habits part of your routine will help them feel more comfortable eating a range of healthy foods.
Model a healthy attitude around food
Kids pick up much more from what they observe than what they hear. The more your children see you eating and enjoying healthy foods, the more they will follow in your footsteps (if not right away, then down the road).
When all adults in the home are on the same page, it makes modeling one of the most effective techniques for establishing a healthy food environment.
Offer healthy food choices to build creative plates
Meals at home don’t need to be complex, but they can be creative. As a parent, you are responsible for what foods are available and when mealtimes are, but you can give your kids the autonomy for how they build their plate and how much they eat.
Use foods that your kids already enjoy alongside new foods that you want to introduce. A great way to do this is through “creative plate” meals. I use this term to describe dishes where everyone can create their own meal from a handful of selected ingredients.
Examples include a:
- Taco bar
- Burger bar
- Baked potato bar
You set the base and offer a variety of ingredients they can add. Set some guidelines, such as your plate needs to include a source of healthy protein, a vegetable, and a natural fat.
Be consistent and calm around food choices
Whether talking about the family dog or our children, my husband always says, “Either we’re training them, or they’re training us.”
Our kids look to us for consistency and boundaries. We can hold to our expectations and maintain a calm temperament.
When consistent messages about the importance of eating healthy foods are met with patience and love, your child’s defiance may ease. Speaking of patience, it can take children fifteen to twenty exposures before they accept new foods — it’s a normal part of growth and development.
Involve picky eaters in the kitchen
When your kids are involved with the food they are much more likely to try it and even enjoy it! From meal planning to grocery shopping to food prep and cooking, kids can be included in the process — even toddlers can learn kitchen skills!
Giving them a voice gives them a sense of control, which is an important part in their expression and willingness to partake in trying new foods.
Cooking gifts for kids like kid-sized tools, and fun gadgets can help get them excited to participate.
Get your kids cooking with Kids in the Kitchen!
Kids in the Kitchen is a comprehensive digital resource with everything you need to get your kids involved in cooking and food prep, learning valuable hands-on skills that will last a lifetime.
10 Healthy eating ideas for picky eaters
Don’t turn into the family’s short-order-cook! Instead, find ways to make food appealing and fun for the whole family.
Here are ten of my kids’ favorite recipes that will appeal to many fussy eaters. These ideas encourage some choice, an element of fun, and ways to include your children in the process.
1. Taco salad
This Taco Salad recipe is a great option for kids who like to keep different foods separate on their plate! It’s one of my favorite healthy gluten free lunch ideas. They can select the parts and the rest of the family can combine ingredients into a big salad or actual tacos.
2. Burger bar with rustic sweet potato fries
Most kids like a good burger. Setting up a burger bar gives them control over toppings, and gives you control over healthy options.
Try poached eggs, sliced avocado, tomatoes, roasted peppers, purple onions, lettuce, and healthy condiments such as Primal Kitchen brand.
Pair burgers with Rustic Sweet Potato Fries to boost the nutrition level and get the kids’ stamp of approval.
3. Coconut chicken tenders
Taking a “kid-food” favorite and turning it into a healthier version is the perfect solution for some picky eaters.
These Coconut Chicken Tenders do just the trick to replace battered and fried restaurant or frozen nuggets.
4. Chicken teriyaki bowls
Chicken and rice is a safe go-to for little taste buds. This Chicken Teriyaki Bowl recipe takes the basics and adds a couple twists to expand horizons. Mild, colorful vegetables paired with sweet oranges and soy-free teriyaki sauce is a win.
Mixing in a little cauliflower rice with traditional rice will add a punch of nutrition — comfort in what kids know opens space for trying something new.
5. Hawaiin meatballs with roasted broccoli
Kids love sweet tastes and they love to dip their food! This Hawaiian Meatball recipe offers both. The addition of pineapple adds interest, and when these tasty nuggets are served with BBQ sauce, they’ll keep coming back for more.
If you can involve your kids in mixing and rolling the meatballs, they’ll be even more ready to pop the final product in their mouth.
We love to pair this recipe with Roasted Broccoli. Different cooking methods bring out different flavors. If your kids are used to their “trees” steamed, try roasting for a caramelized taste many kids prefer.
6. Crispy drumsticks
My kids always love to eat meat off the bone, and when we give the go-ahead to enjoy them “caveman style” (also known as with their hands) the excitement level escalates.
These Crispy Drumsticks are mild and buttery and have the meal appeal picky eaters need to take a bite.
7. Slow cooker steak fajitas
The crockpot can be a helpful tool for tenderizing textures and creating mild flavors of foods that may otherwise turn up the noses of finicky eaters.
I love this Steak Fajita recipe for how easy it is to make, and my family loves it for how delicious it is.
8. Apple dippers
A new presentation of familiar foods can be just what your family needs to encourage a healthy meal or snack. This Apple Dippers recipe is a perfect example.
Kids can try new textures and flavor combinations in a fun, experimental way, and you have a better chance of filling them with healthy foods.
9. Blueberry sausage
Sweet blueberries, which are full of antioxidants, bring this sausage to life. Think outside the cereal box when it comes to healthy breakfast options and try this Sweet and Savoury Blueberry Sausage with Rosemary recipe.
A tiny drizzle of real maple syrup on top may be all your kids need to take another bite.
10. Egg muffins
Egg Muffins are so easy to make and the flavor combinations are limitless. The best thing about a recipe like this is that you can engage your kids by having them select the mix-ins.
What three ingredients do they want to add? Have them help you prep those ingredients, stir them into the egg, and add the mixture to the muffin cups.
While introducing new foods and textures to kids, especially picky ones, is more of an art than a science, hopefully this article gave you some specific strategies to try today.
With a better understanding of what causes picky eating, why it’s important to encourage a varied diet, and recipes that lend themselves to the tendencies of picky family members, you are ready to take action.