I talk to parents of picky eaters every day about the struggle to get their children to eat healthy, and different, foods. Parents come in to my office defeated and deflated as they share their mealtime “war” stories with me: their children won’t eat anything that isn’t beige in color (like milk products, rice, pasta and other carbohydrates); they spit out all vegetables; they won’t let anything go in their mouth that isn’t on their list of 10 preferred foods that week. The struggles and stories are endless from parents trying to ensure their children get the proper amount of nutrition each day.
Even as a pediatrician, I faced the same struggles as a mom of three boys. Here are seven ideas that I explored to introduce new foods to my children when they were small and make mealtime preparation more fun:
- Make grocery shopping a family affair. I know this takes more time, but every so often, I took my kids with me to the grocery store and gave them an active role. Ask your kids to help by tearing off the produce bags, and let them pick out a few fruits and vegetables for your meals that week—one can be their favorite and the other has to be a new one to taste test, but let it be their choice.
- Put a new spin on breakfast. I started a weekend tradition where my kids and I made fruit and veggie breakfast smoothies together. The little ones helped choose the ingredients and poured them into the blender. Try mixing in things like plain Greek yogurt and baby spinach to add essential nutrients that can be easily camouflaged by the sweet tasting fruits.
- Give them the freedom of choice. Sometimes my children were more inclined to eat healthy foods if I gave them options instead of simply making their plates. For dinner, try arranging a mini buffet of your meal, and include three or four fruit and veggie options, allowing your kids to choose what they’d like on their plate.
- Skewer the snacks. A popular new idea to explore is kid-friendly foods on a stick that you can either make quickly or allow your kids to help prepare. All you need are some toothpicks of skewers, and the menu options are endless from breakfast kabobs to a sandwich on a stick.
- Make believe at mealtime. Most kids, including mine, have endless imaginations, so you can imagine the fun we had when our pasta noodles become “worms” or our broccoli turns into a tree and we’re the hungry giant. Your kids might love to use cookie cutters for sandwich shapes, and melon ballers to create watermelon “soccer balls.”
- Invite adventurous eaters to your dinner table. I have a friend whose child will eat anything that’s placed on his plate, and talks about how much he enjoys the meal. If you have such friend, invite him over for dinner at your house every so often. You can create some positive peer pressure, and his enthusiastic spirit for trying new foods may rub off on your picky eaters.
- Praise your little ones for trying new foods. The rule in my house was that my kids needed to try at least two bites of a new food on their plate. Depending on what the food is, sometimes it worked, and sometimes I found myself pleading with a stubborn child to no avail. When your kids do try a new food, even if they don’t like it, make sure to tell them how proud you are of them for trying it.
Here’s the key to all of these ideas: Get your children involved in the process and allow them to feel empowered in making healthy food choices. And, never give up on introducing new foods, over and over again. It often takes multiple tastes of a new food before your picky eater might accept it. Tastebuds adjust over time, and when your child’s preferred foods list changes next week for the umpteenth time, be excited and ready to offer a new option for adventurous palate.
I would also encourage parents to talk with a pediatrician about your child’s eating habits if you haven’t already done so. After all, there are some situations where children have an extreme eating disorder that may need to be addressed, or you may want to incorporate certain supplements into your child’s diet to ensure proper nutrition.
Sandra Mathur, DO, is a board-certified pediatrician at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group.
Do you have other ideas to help children overcome being a picky eater? Share it with us in the comments below.
Read more about healthy food options for your little ones:
- “Make Veggies the Star of the Show on Your Kid’s Plate”
- “Healthy—And Tasty—Snacks for Kids”
- “Five Ways to Pack A+ School Lunches”
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.