Tired of Mealtime Battles? Learn How to Deal with Picky Eaters and Lower Your Stress

Is Your Child a Picky Eater?

Do you need help tempting a picky eater?
Do you need help tempting a picky eater? | Source

t's not easy dealing with children who are picky eaters. Some kids just don't have a large appetite, others could have their appetites suppressed by prescribed medications (think ADHD or autism), and there are those who are just plain defiant or rebellious! What's a parent to do?

Disguising healthy foods by pureeing them and combining them with other foods, learning new methods to introducing new foods, and setting appropriate boundaries are three ways to overcome food battles with reluctant eaters. Here's some tips that may help.


Small portions and several choices may be more appealing for picky eaters.
Small portions and several choices may be more appealing for picky eaters. | Source

Introducing New Foods to Picky Eaters

Introducing new foods can be challenging but it is necessary. Autistic children, in particular, can quickly become very narrow in their food choices if they are not offered a good variety of options. Try these tips:

  1. The first time you introduce a new food, simply put it on the table but do not insist the child try it. Let him or her see other family members enjoying the food. Offer it to them but do not force them to eat it.
  2. The next time the new food is introduced, put a small portion (think one teaspoon or less) on their plate. Let them try it or not; don't force the issue.
  3. The third time the food is introduced, encourage your child to experiment with it. This could mean tasting it or touching it with a fork or spoon or even just smelling it. The key here is to get them used to the food and desensitize their resistance.

Once they accept that food item, move on to introducing other new foods. When you start out, avoid foods like broccoli, cauliflower or cabbage, which have strong odors and flavors. Start with bland foods like potatoes and carrots and work up to other, more exotic foods.

Let the kids help prepare their food. By using plastic, serrated knives and with the help of an observant adult, most kids can chop or slice up foods like carrots, tomatoes or fruits. Set out a small dish of a kid-favorite dip - like ranch dressing or barbecue sauce - and let them dip and taste.


How to Handle a Picky Eater

Food Battles at Meal Times

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Add good-for-them ingredients like tomato puree, pumpkin, applesauce, wheat germ and flaxseeds to recipes for picky eaters.
Add good-for-them ingredients like tomato puree, pumpkin, applesauce, wheat germ and flaxseeds to recipes for picky eaters. | Source

Camouflaging Healthy Foods

Fruit and Vegetable Purees

Vegetable purees are a good way to incorporate healthy foods into other foods and baked goods while boosting nutrition for your picky eaters.

Simply puree vegetables like green beans, sweet potatoes, peas or carrots in a food processor and add them to other foods. Use them to substitute for part of the oil or shortening in chocolate based recipes (think cookies, cakes or muffins).

Tip: If you are pressed for time or don't have the freezer space to store purees, you can purchase baby food and use it to mix in recipes.

Fruit purees like applesauce or pear sauce are useful as well. The chocolate flavor of baked goods masks the taste of these vegetables, and by replacing part of the fat in the recipes with a vegetable puree, you boost the nutrition and lower the fat content.

You can add these purees to other foods and baked goods as well but it is sometimes harder to disguise their flavors so it's best to just experiment to see which your child likes.

Nutritional Add-ins

Wheat germ and flaxseeds: Add wheat germ and ground flaxseeds to smoothies, casseroles and baked goods to give them a nutritional boost. As a rule of thumb, start by adding a very small amount (about a teaspoon) and work up to a serving size of about one to two tablespoons. Wheat germ provides important nutrients like protein, dietary fiber, and vitamin B6, just to mention a few. Flaxseeds are a major source of omega-3 fatty acids and lignans (antioxidants).

Nonfat dry milk power: Finally, adding dry nonfat milk powder to soups, puddings and smoothies adds a healthy dose of calcium and protein in an easy-to-consume form.

Be creative with garnishes and cutting techniques to tempt appetites.
Be creative with garnishes and cutting techniques to tempt appetites. | Source

Mix It Up for Success

While keeping mealtime routines as consistent as possible is helpful, it doesn't hurt to mix things up occasionally. Sometimes a break from routine is just what picky eaters need to nudge their appetites and make food more appealing.

Picnic: Have breakfast for dinner or eat lunch as a picnic outside or on a blanket in the living room. This can be just what the "doctor ordered" to encourage them to eat more.

Food art: Use cookie cutters and other fun shaped food cutters to cut breads, cheeses and meats into shapes. After all, what's more appealing to a child? A plain old peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a dinosaur delight? The keys things to remember are to keep the goal in sight - getting the child to eat - and have fun with the process.

Food safe markers and fun toppings can encourage reluctant eaters to take a bite.
Food safe markers and fun toppings can encourage reluctant eaters to take a bite. | Source
Think out of the box and look for ways to make food look tasty and appealing to kids.
Think out of the box and look for ways to make food look tasty and appealing to kids. | Source

Setting Boundaries and Routines for Picky Eaters

Set your boundaries early on and make sure all the adults in the family are aware of these boundaries and agree to respect them. For some families, this may mean agreeing to let the kids "play with their food" or have different foods at mealtimes.

While most experts agree parents should not become short order cooks, when you are dealing with special eating issues such as those associated with autism, you may have to be more flexible in working with your child.

For example, it has taken us about eight years to get our son to the point of eating and enjoying the same foods we eat at meal time - but we did succeed!

The bottom line? Parents should devise rules and conditions that work best in their situation and with their children. What works for my family may not work for yours as everyone is a unique individual.

Here are some general guidelines to help you formulate a system for your family:

  1. Serve three regular meals and one to two snacks at about the same time every day. If the kids don't want to eat at a particular meal, remove their food but have them stay at the table and socialize with the family.
  2. Keep the focus on the enjoyment of the mealtime and the family relationship, not the food. It's better to have them nibble a few bites of carrot or fruit, eat some protein and drink some milk than to insist they finish every bite.
  3. Keep portions small and use smaller size serving dishes. A small portion of meat (about two or three cubes, cut up), two tablespoons of vegetables, and a small piece of fruit served on a saucer does not look overwhelming to a child. Let them ask for more if they choose.
  4. Limit snacks and drinks between meals. Serve water between meals rather than milk or juices, which tend to fill up the stomach and fool kids into thinking that they are not hungry.
  5. Don't use food as a reward (i.e. "you can have dessert if you eat all your chicken"). Bribing them to eat by offering sugary or high fat foods can contribute to other problems such as childhood obesity.
  6. Turn off the television and eat meals at the kitchen or dining room table. Consider playing some soft music to create a relaxing atmosphere and keep the dinner table conversation light and non-stressful.


Offer your picky eater a small portion of these pie spiced baked beans for a nutritional taste treat.
Offer your picky eater a small portion of these pie spiced baked beans for a nutritional taste treat. | Source

Free Recipe: Apple Pumpkin Pie Spiced Baked Beans

These taste tantalizing, made from scratch baked beans are loaded with high value nutrients like wheat germ, flaxseeds and molasses. The applesauce and pumpkin adds antioxidants and the beans are a good source of protein.

You'll need:

  • 1 can (15-ounces) mixed beans of your choice (I used a blend of pintos, black beans and Great Northern beans)
  • 1 can (6-ounces) tomato paste
  • 2-ounces diced ham
  • 1/4 cup each no sugar added applesauce and pumpkin puree (not pie mix)
  • Bean liquid from can (I used a brand with no added salt so the sodium was low)
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons mild molasses
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 tablespoon wheat germ
  • 1 tablespoon ground flaxseeds
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • dash nutmeg
  • 2 to 3 onion slices for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine all ingredients except onions in a 9-inch baking pan (spray or grease pan to prevent sticking). If your child doesn't like onions, remove a small portion for him or her at this point and refrigerate. Garnish top of casserole with onions. Bake for 30 minutes; serve warm with whole-wheat rolls or cornbread, and reheat the reserved portion for your child by heating on high for 10 minutes to blend flavors.

Handling Picky Eaters

It's normal to be concerned when your child won't eat. Most parents know their kids well enough to determine whether there is an issue regarding food and nutrition or just an occasional bout of poor appetite.

Most kids eat less when they don't feel well or if their routines are upset. Kids, particularly toddlers and preschoolers, have an innate need for consistent schedules. You can avoid or eliminate many mealtime battles and food related issues by establishing a set schedule of three daily mealtimes and one or two snack times early in childhood and adhering to that routine consistently.

There is a segment of children with medical or physical issues that contribute to their lack of appetite. Autistic children or those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, may have appetite problems if a medication is also an appetite suppressant.

If you suspect your child has a true eating problem and is not just avoiding food because of a minor illness, have him or her evaluated by your healthcare provider as soon as possible. If, on the other hand, your child is not eating well because of taking a medication for autism, ADHD or some other medical condition, keep reading! You'll find lots of tips and suggestions gleaned by the mother of an autistic boy in her quest to provide him with nutritious and taste-tempting meals and snacks.

Utilize Kids' Cookbooks

Most cookbooks for kids contain tasty yet some simple recipes that will tempt the pickiest of eaters to gobble down. Most are simple enough that the kids can prepare them with just a little adult supervision and encouragement. Some of our favorite recipe books are:

  • Better Homes and Gardens New Junior Cookbook
  • Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up
  • Good for Kids

By allowing the kids to be part of the preparation process, you not only encourage better nutrition and get them to eat more, you teach them important life skills that will be helpful to them throughout their entire lives.


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