15 Secret Weapons for Parents of Picky Eaters

Free your kiddo from her steady diet of fruit punch and Ants on a Log. These slick tricks help picky eaters learn to love food-no tears involved (for either of you).

Mother eating cereal with her daughter at the breakfast table

Shutterstock / wavebreakmedia

Life as a parent is a juggling act. Making sure your child has warm clothes to wear, gets to school on time and has good food to eat can be a handful. But when the kid boycotts everything you put on the table, it’s downright maddening. Here are 15 ideas that’ll make both you and your picky eater happy.

1. Show her where her food comes from.

Whether you’re planting a backyard garden or browsing the produce section of your supermarket together, make choosing which vegetables to grow or buy a family affair. If your child gets to help plant the seeds and tend the veggie patch-or even choose which butternut squash to put in the cart-there’s a good chance she’ll be more invested in the final product. Speaking of which, ask her how she thinks you should cook that squash. Whirred up into a bisque? Roasted with Parmesan cheese? Now see step 2.

2. Let him help with meal prep.

From the time he could walk, my son has helped us cook. First, he would carry things from the pantry to the counter. Then he started helping add ingredients to the mixing bowl. Now, at 2-1/2, he’s also into weighing things on the kitchen scale. Yes, it’s messier and takes longer than if we just did it ourselves, but he loves telling my husband and me about the dishes he helped prepare-and he’s quick to sample his work. Here’s the Taste of Home guide to kitchen tasks for kids of every age.

3. Keep calm.

Kids start rebelling way before their teenage years (ex: “What did I just say about drinking your bath water?”). So many parents suggest wearing a poker face when sitting down to eat. If he nudges his broccoli around the plate, brush it off. He might just be working up to it, not trying to get a rise out of you. When he does take a nibble, a low-key “Isn’t that broccoli delicious?” will do. Treat your little like the human he is, and he might just start eating like a big kid.

4. Start her on grown-up food early.

When you think about it, it isn’t really grown-up food, it’s just food. Kids can eat everything you can. Simply make sure things are cut into appropriately sized pieces so they’re easy to eat. You won’t believe what you’ll see go down the hatch. I know kids who love quinoa, asparagus, Swiss cheese, salmon and the like.

5. Use reverse psychology.

Having trouble instilling the grown-up food thing? Beloved chef Alton Brown offers another trick. He tells the story of how he encouraged his young daughter to broaden her diet: When she asked why he was eating a different dinner than she was, he told her his food was only for grown-ups. Boy, did she get interested quick.

6. Serve family-style.

When we were really struggling with a picky eater, my husband realized that kids love to feel in control, and serving family-style is a smart way to give them a say about dinner. While we’re dishing up, our son decides where we plop each item on his plate. He may not be able to eat the orange Jell-O he saw in the fridge, but he does wield the power over his plate-and that’s usually enough for him.

7. Dress it up.

Cookie cutters aren’t just for Christmas anymore…or for cookies, for that matter. A star-shaped sandwich is way more enticing than a bread-shaped one (and you can make other shapes with the scraps). Same goes for square chicken nuggets, heart-shaped quesadillas-just about anything flat can take on a more exciting shape. Consider size, too. Muffin-cup meals are always a hit. Or take a cue from the state fair and serve dinner on a pop stick. Have extra time? Try these fun food ideas, from veggie rainbows to teddy bear cookies. These kids charcuterie boards may also be enticing.

8. Hide the nutritious stuff.

Toss carrots into pasta sauce, mix pumpkin into sloppy joes or stir mashed sweet potatoes into waffle batter. You’d never guess this slow-cooker lasagna is full of veggies or that these freezer-friendly zucchini muffins are loaded with protein and are just sweet enough to be a yummy after-school snack. Win-win…win!

9. Change the texture.

Does she push away mushy peas or gluey mashed sweet potatoes? Try them another way. Stir peas into mac and cheese, or cut sweet potatoes into planks and roast them. A hunk of steak may not be appealing (so much chewing!), but a pulled brisket slider could disappear in minutes.

10. Take your vitamins together.

Every morning, my husband, son and I all take our vitamins before we eat breakfast. Even if the day’s food choices don’t wind up being particularly balanced, our little guy has a pretty good baseline. And he’s so proud to be included in this daily ritual.

11. Instate an “adventure bite” policy.

I’ve also heard this dubbed a no-thank-you bite, but some chefs cringe at that subtle slam on their cooking. Whatever you call it, the principle suggests that the child must sample everything on his plate no matter how unfamiliar it is, hence the adventure. One bite doesn’t seem like enough for your 6-year-old? Ask her to take six bites, no matter how tiny, to equal her age.

12. Have fun with food names.

At our house, Squeaky Beans are a gobble-up shoo-in. They’re just steamed green beans-no crazy recipe prep, no long ingredient list. Rename roasted carrot sticks Carrot Fries, cucumber semicircles Cucumber Smiles and pork chops Protein Power. Oh, and don’t forget condiments. A little blob of ketchup turns mere hamburger sliders into Hamburger Sliders with Sauce, which sounds infinitely more tasty.

13. Remember, the Clean Plate Club isn’t a thing anymore.

Experts at the American Academy of Pediatrics have found that kids instinctively eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Requiring your child to eat everything on his plate may ignite the habit of overeating. Instead of measuring his food intake meal by meal, track it over a few days instead. If he isn’t eating three square meals a day even though you’re offering, don’t worry-most likely, it’s natural.

14. Hit up the library.

Your child isn’t the first to turn up her nose at carrots. Kids’ authors have tackled this issue time and again with classics like Bread and Jam for Frances, Green Eggs and Ham and I Will Never Not Eat a Tomato. Sneak a few new books into your bedtime rotation and you just might have a little foodie on your hands by turn-in time.

15. Rest easy, Mama.

Your kiddo won’t starve.* Lots of kid-friendly foods are vitamin-fortified, including many store-bought breads, breakfast cereals, juices and pastas. There are plenty of ways to get the nutrients we need, so take another route if you need to. Not a meat eater? Serve Greek yogurt with dried apricot for protein and iron. Hates milk? Maybe she’d prefer to get her calcium from almonds or roasted edamame instead.

*If you’re genuinely worried about your child’s eating habits, see your pediatrician. She can suggest even more tactics for helping your little ones get the nutrients they need, or look into underlying issues that are causing the hunger strike.

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