I am often asked to share tricks to get picky eaters to embrace a wider selection of foods. Of these requests, dinnertime is often the greatest point of conflict. The following suggestions should make a single meal possible and ultimately enjoyable for the entire family.
I advocate preparing a single family dinner, as opposed to cooking additional “kid food” with the main meal. I admire the patience of my colleagues who present foods in adorable ways to entice picky eaters to take a bite. However, my approach is more along the lines of, “here’s the food I’ll enjoy it even if you don’t.” I am a mean mommy.
Sarcasm aside, I have five simple suggestions to ease the resistance from your picky eaters and bring harmony back to the family meal.
1. Make sure most of the foods are familiar
We all know what we like to eat and will happily return to those known foods over and over. If your picky eaters see mostly familiar foods on their plate it takes the pressure off the new food. You should also try different seasonings. If your picky eaters like certain spices use them to bridge the familiarity gap. This approach is a little like a good friend bringing an unfamiliar guest to a party vs meeting a blind date. At the party there is a stranger in the room but there are plenty of other friends to hangout with while you slowly warm to the new person. By introducing new foods slowly there will always be something on the table for everyone to eat – aka no one goes hungry.
This tip in action: I recently served my family baked salmon with kale-walnut pesto. I paired the pesto with salmon because our family loves fish. I, not so sneakily, used the salmon as leverage to entice my kiddos to eat the kale filled pesto. My two-year-old couldn’t get enough. My six-year-old poked the green topped fish skeptically. He ate the other food first but his love of salmon beat his suspicion and he ultimately discovered a new food to enjoy.
I preach mindful eating, it is a skill that has helped me lose and keep off unhealthy weight. I want my kids to learn the same skills. When picky eaters start to curl their lips at a mystery food I get excited. “Of course you want to eat lentils! They are full of iron and protein. Iron and protein will make your muscles strong like Batman!” I then list the spices I used or ask the kids to point out familiar ingredients. The suspicious food becomes the center of a game. Even if they only poke at it the first time the impression will be positive and carry over to future meals.
This tip in action: A few years ago, I read an article comparing the eating habits of children whose parents smiled while they ate vegetables to children whose parents grimaced, described the food as something they had to eat, or apologized to their kids for the food. Guess which kids were more inclined to eat their peas…?
3. Texture is important
The texture of food is a big deal for all picky eaters. I have a personal suspicion that texture issues are to blame in many (if not most) cases of picky eating. If a food feels unpleasant kids aren’t going to eat it – period. I can hardly blame them; personally, I have a hard time with super slimy or dry foods. Remember, liking a particular food is not a black and white situation. Personally, you may enjoy tomatoes in a salad but slide them to the side of your plate if they are cooked. I think kids get to make the same choice but only after they have had several experiences with an ingredient.
This tip in action: Hopefully you know what your picky eaters already like – crunchy, soft, chewy, etc. When you introduce a new food try to match the already approved texture. To start the new food might be cooked so it has a softer texture, next week it will be raw and crunchy or blended in a soup or smoothie.
4. No substitutions, exchanges, or refunds!
If you really want to begin enjoying dinner again – it is absolutely vital that everyone knows dinner is what is on the table. Period. There may be more friction initially, there may be a few hunger pangs to endure, but once the expectation is established dinner time will be much smoother. Kids are smart, like super scary smart, if they know clamping their jaw shut through dinner will lead to a peanut butter sandwich they sure as heck aren’t going to try a bite of chicken – would you?
This is not to say you can’t modify the way the food is presented. If your picky eaters prefer the sauce on the side that is usually a reasonable request. As needed, set aside a portion while you are cooking or serving and leave it plain. This is also the best way to work around a variety of dietary needs within the same family. When there are allergy or ethical reasons for avoiding a food serve the components separately to keep the meal healthy for everyone.
This tip in action: Taco night is one of the most successful dinners at our house. All the food is set on the table in a separate dish with many ingredients unseasoned until they get mixed together on each plate. The thing that makes taco night so popular is letting each person fix their taco exactly the way they like it – even the tortillas are optional.
5. Make the entire day nutritious
Most of us are eating multiple meals and snacks every day. Make sure all of those opportunities to eat include all types of healthy food. It is true bodies need a balance of foods to operate at their peak but the full spectrum doesn’t need to appear at every meal. If picky eaters have a chance to eat protein, fiber, fruits, vegetables, fats, etc throughout the day there will be far less pressure to eat all those things at any one meal – thus no need to fight.
Incidentally if you still have a clean your plate rule it is time to let it go. Trying everything is a great rule, consuming everything is not. It is okay not to feel the same amount of hungry everyday at the same times. Just remember to stick to rule number 4 for any meal skippers. If a picky eater is hungry later (and it is an appropriate time) offer the food from the previous meal or your choice of items.
This tip in action: When my kids start asking for snacks I always tell them they have to eat a plant first. This can be any fruit or vegetable but it must be eaten before any other snacks. After they eat a plant I may suggest some nuts, cheese, or yogurt. By encouraging nourishing foods through the day I don’t have to stress on the days they only want a piece of bread or a scoop of rice at dinner.
Please share! What has worked for your picky eaters? I’d love to hear your tips and suggestions.