My biological children are not picky eaters. They'll eat practically anything you put in front of them. So when we began hosting orphans from Eastern Europe and I was told in our training, “Don't expect them to enjoy healthy food!” I thought to myself, “Boy Howdy! This might be HARD. How do you get picky kids to eat?”
Sure enough, the first morning of Christmas hosting found 3 children sitting at my table suspiciously eyeing this strange American food in front of them. But drawing on the same strategies I had used with my biological children (and others!) over the years, they were soon gobbling up everything I set in front of them. What great eaters those 3 turned out to be! When their little sister came with them this summer, she proved to be more determined than her siblings. She took one look at our food and loudly announced, “Me. No. Eat.” (She's not shy! And I couldn't blame her. When I traveled in college I remember thinking the same thing about some of the unusual foods I saw.) This little girl was going to put all my tried-and-true strategies to the test!
This blog uses affiliate links.
20 Tips To Get Picky Kids To Eat
But she did eat (and she ate well). With ten people in our home last summer, there was no way I was going to become a short order cook and cook separate meals for everyone… and if you've got picky eaters at your house, you shouldn't have to resort to cooking separate meals either! Here are some tried-and-true strategies that I have used
#1. It's Fair to Not Like a Few Things
Let's face it. Almost everybody has a few things they don't prefer. I'm almost 40 and I still don't like beets. I'll eat them, but **meh.** Olives, frankly, I believe are from the devil. To this day I will not even let my family put an open jar of olives on the table because to me, they stink. There's nothing wrong with olives. Everyone else in the family enjoys them, including the toddler. But I strongly dislike them. Most people have a thing or two that they strongly dislike. If grown ups can have a few things they don't like to eat, then why not children? But the key is that it should only be a few items that they have consistently not enjoyed.
#2 The Dinner Table Isn't the Place to Fight This Battle
Many parents complain that their children gravitate towards unhealthy food. (Sometimes it's not even that they like the food so much, but they like the packaging. Marketers are extremely good at what they do and they know how to make a package appeal to a young child.) The place to fight this battle is not at the dinner table, it's at the grocery store. No, I don't want you actually fighting with your kids at the grocery store! I'm suggesting that you be firm in the grocery store. Don't give in and buy food that you don't want your child eating. If it's not in the house, your children might ask for it, but it won't be available when they are hungry and they'll have to reach for one of the healthy alternatives you have provided instead.
#3 – Buy Fresh
Have you ever noticed that a tomato tastes way better if you eat it in the garden than if you buy it at the grocery store off-season? I remember the first time I ate a banana directly off a banana tree. I could hardly believe this was the same fruit I had been eating all my life. The taste was so much richer! It's not always possible to grow your own food, but see if you can purchase more of your fresh produce at farmer's markets, through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA's) or directly from a neighbor who has a backyard garden. LocalHarvest.org is a great resource to help you find local sources of fresh produce.
#4 – Include Your Kids in the Prep Work
If children are part of the meal preparation process, they'll feel a sense of ownership over the meal and be excited to eat it. Kids can be included in menu planning and grocery shopping (just don't buy anything you don't want them to eat)! They can help also help at home with the actual meal preparation. Handling, smelling, and touching new foods can help your child get comfortable with the idea of eating it. If they feel some ownership over the meal, they may be more likely to eat it. Katie Kimball offers a fabulous 30-lesson course teaching kids how to cook whole foods. She also has a free 3-video series teaching children how to safely handle kitchen knives.
#5 – Make It Palatable
If your child doesn't like their dinner, try to think of creative ways to make it more appealing. Think of it as a compromise: You give in just a little to make dinner seem new and yummy and your child is more inclined to eat it. We like to pour our favorite salad dressing on other foods (like rice or potatoes), or sprinkle “tasty powder” over our meal. “Tasty Powder” is just nutritional yeast, but obviously with a name like that, it makes everything taste better! Sometimes I will chop a particular food up in very small pieces and mix it with things they like.
#6 – Eat In Courses
In our home, it is a non-negotiable to me that my children eat a fresh, raw salad every night. To make sure this happens, I serve it first. They know there is cooked food coming, but they have to eat a serving of salad before they get the next course. We started doing this when our children are toddlers and now they just know it's a non-negotiable.
#7 – Make Hor d'oeuvres
Is there anything more fun than eating pate on a cracker? 1/4 slice of bread with a scoop of mashed potatoes and a piece of parsley on top is the kids' version of hor d'oeuvres. Or a scoop of casserole served on a slice of tomato can be fun. This is time-and-work-intensive way to present an entire meal, so I generally reserve this method for young children who are struggling with what's already on their plate.
#8 – Consider Cutting Back on Snacks
Often, children resist new foods because they are simply not hungry. If you find that your child is not eating at mealtime, examine what they are eating throughout the rest of the day. Sometimes, we don't realize that our children are actually consuming calories all day long in the form of snacks and drinks and truly aren't hungry by dinnertime.
#9 – Set A Good Example
Children look to their parents to see what is normal and what is not and then copy the behaviors and attitudes they see. If you're wondering how to get kids to eat their greens, eat greens yourself! Let your children see you enjoying healthy food. In the same way that they mimic the way you talk on the phone or shop, they will mimic your attitudes about health food. Eating a wide range of healthy foods and showing excitement about trying new foods are good ways to make healthy eating part of your family culture.
#10 – Be Patient With New Foods.
Sometimes these things take time. Let your children try just a little at a time. It is said that it takes 10 tastes to “acquire” a certain taste so don't be discouraged if your child doesn't like something after the first try.
#11 – Make It Fun
There are so many great products available to make eating healthy food fun! You can use books at story time to encourage kids to “Eat Your Colors” (since eating brightly colored foods offers a good variety of nutrients) or “Eat the Alphabet.” Our family really enjoys using the Mrs. Funny Face Plate and Mrs. Funny Face Plate pictured below. The same company also has this super-fun Dinner Winner Plate which encourages children to try just a few bites of several foods. A cute and fun way to accessorize any plate is to use bento accessories or create fun designs using a bento vegetable cutter. Counting how many bites it takes to finish a certain food, singing made-up songs about finishing your dinner, and pretending the fork is an airplane flying into your child's mouth are all fun ways to get your kids to eat more vegetables.
#12 – The Red Plate
Our family has a single red plate. Eating off the red plate is an honor. If it is your birthday you get to eat off of the red plate. If you've done a really great job at something you get to eat off of the red plate. And if a child who is struggling to eat something manages to eat it successfully and with a good, adventurous attitude, that child would get to eat their next meal off the red plate! It's simple, but it's very effective!
#13 – Our Secret Family Rule
I used to struggle with finding a balance between teaching children to eat everything that was on their plate and teaching them not to overeat. We finally settled on a rule: If you serve yourself, you have to eat what you take. If you are little and someone else serves you, the person who served you has to eat what you couldn't. This has helped over-zelous little eaters not take too much food and waste it and it has also helped over-zelous older siblings not serve a child more than they can eat.
#14 – Have a Picnic
Somehow food is more delicious when it is served outside!
#15 – Start very small.
If you want your children to learn to like a particular food, try cutting it up very small and just offering them tiny pieces. Tiny pieces are far less intimidating than a large serving. It's hard to encourage your children to eat a plateful of something they don't like, but it's easy if the portion size is smaller and something they can easily eat in just a second or two. Then, at later meals you can increase the portion size of the new food.
#16 – Start Early
In our home, we exclusively breastfeed for a long time. Once we are ready to begin solid foods, we start with whole foods. We want them to develop a taste early for the foods that will help them stay healthy. Once our children have teeth (around a 12 months) we even grind salad in our mini food processor to give to them. You can pack a lot of raw greens into a couple of tablespoons if it is finely chopped! (This is the exact processor our family has been using for 12 years now.)
#17 – Does Your Child Have Allergies? Sensory Issues?
Sometimes children have physical/medical issues that interfere with their ability to eat. Do they have sensory issues in other areas? Do they have chronic diarrhea or constipation? These could indicate food sensitivities or gastrointestinal problems and warrant a visit to the pediatrician.
#18 – Respect Your Child's Appetite
You want your child to recognize their own body's cues and learn not to over-eat. It could be that they are getting sick and their body needs a rest. Don't worry, you'll know the difference.
#19 – Invite an adventurous friend
While parents are a huge influence over what a child eats, inviting an friend over who isn't shy to try these foods can lead to a huge win! If your child sees their friend enjoying these foods they may be tempted to try a new food for themselves. Inviting a friend over can get your child past the challenge of not wanting to try something. Once they have tried it once, they are more likely to try it again.
#20 – Don't offer dessert as a reward