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How to Convert a Picky Eater: Lessons Learned and Tips to Creating a Flexible Eater

Updated on July 22, 2013

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Picker Eaters (Them... or Me?)

When my first child was born, I swore I would serve my kids delicious, nutritious, home-cooked meals every night. Three years later, with a second child, a busy schedule, and a travelling husband, I found myself plagued with a continuous stream of pasta, mac n’ cheese, chicken fingers, and fish sticks. I was getting bored and I could feel my kids getting pickier and pickier.

In fact, I realized, I was creating picky eaters by giving them such limited options. How on earth could they ever learn to like new foods if they were hardly ever presented to them?

But could I break the cycle? Now my kids were used to “kid food” only and they would insist on it every night. I was sure I would never be able to get them back on track and was doomed to a lifetime of picky eaters. Or was I? What would happen if I stopped making them separate meals and began to serve them the nutritious, varied, homemade meals I made for mom and dad?

My Decision

After talking to a few friends who had more flexible eaters, I made an important decision. I decided to stop. Just stop making “kids’ meals” for my kids. It was scary, but I jumped in. No more separate meals, no more "kids foods," no more kids’ requests.

Now a few months later I’m happy to say that the old staples (chicken fingers, mac and cheese, and fish sticks) have become occasional meals and have been replaced by more truly family-friendly, healthy, home-cooked meals.

How to Convert Your Picky Eater

Here is my advice on how to get out of the “kid food” rut based on my experience with my kids.

  • Make one meal. Let’s face it - kids food is quick and easy. But when I started thinking about how to break my kids (and myself) of the kids’ food habit, I realized I would have to make one meal for the family. In the end, making one meal saves time and helps ensure that the family eats together, which in itself promotes food exploration and healthier eating habits.

Crudite Platter

If your kids are like mine, they MUST eat immediately when we get home. Most nights I put out a crudite platter - baby carrots, cucumbers, celery, and red peppers, with ranch dressing or hummus - to keep them occupied while I make dinner.

  • Compromise. Expecting kids who have been eating mac and cheese to suddenly eat clams, kale, and caviar is not realistic. But, I also love to eat healthy, interesting, and sometimes spicy food. I realized that just as I was asking my children to eat differently, I would have to do the same. Identify meals that will please all palettes, or adjust ingredients in some of your favorites to make them more kid-friendly (leave out that extra hot sauce). As your kids get introduced to more foods, they’ll be more willing to try things and hopefully you can reintroduce some of those ingredients. You can start by slowly introducing healthy ingredients into everyday options, like lasagna, see 10-Minute Prep Kid-Friendly Lasagna.
  • Have options. Everyone has different taste buds and preferences. When making meals, include various components so your kids have some choices. Having simple side dishes like steamed broccoli or corn, roasted cauliflower, a crudite platter, or rice pilaf (with peas), in addition to the main meal will help boost the odds that your kids will find something they like to eat at the table. One great way to have options is to have “Build Your Own” meal nights, like a Build Your Own Burrito Bar or Build Your Own Pizza night.
  • Have your kids help. My kids are much more likely to eat something if they've helped make it. Have them help prep by washing vegetables, cutting up one of the ingredients, or stirring ingredients.

Fruit Course Anyone?

In my family, we always have “fruit course” after dinner, partly to ensure fiber and nutrient intake, and partly to make sure the calories get in. What's better than digging out half a cantaloupe with a melon baller or having strawberries after dinner!

  • Let your kids serve themselves. My kids love using serving implements - spoons, forks, tongs. They are much more likely to take something (and eat it!) if they can serve themselves. Remind them that they have to try everything they take as they're dishing it out.
  • Assume they’ll like it! Too often, we assume that kids won’t like what we put in front of them, especially if it's healthy or considered "adult" food. I try to assume my kids will like everything. My daughter doesn’t mind spicy food at all and my son loves greens. They don’t like everything I put in front of them, but by assuming will like it, I have a more casual attitude towards having them try things. Just plop a handful of arugula on their plate and see what happens.
  • Be a more adventurous eater yourself. When I see kids who are adventurous eaters, I often observe that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The opposite is true as well. This is not always the case, but if your children see you enjoying foods and trying new things, they are more likely to do the same. Buy a new vegetable next time you're at the store and then search for ways to cook it. Or, try a new restaurant you haven't been to or a new cuisine. See Eating Out With Kids: Tips and Benefits.
  • Keep trying! Like most things, having a picky eater is often temporary. How many adults do you know that only eat Mac 'n Cheese and Chicken Fingers. Many children go through stages, sometimes insisting on certain foods and other times being more adventurous. Over time, they are likely to pick up new foods and over time will expand their palettes, so keep trying!

It can be scary to stop making meals that you know your kids will like. Some kids might kick and scream, others may be hungry and grumpy later. But in the end, by making one meal for the family, eating together, and exposing your children to different foods over time will lead to more flexible kids at mealtime and happier meals for all.


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