Picky eaters have to be one of the biggest challenges of parenting. My gut instinct is to say, “Eat what I prepare or don’t eat,” right? However, I’ve learned that sometimes picky eating isn’t about a simple, willful refusal to try new or different foods. It can be anything from parent modeling, to a lack of exposure to different foods leading to difficulty in chewing, to—counterintuitively—forcing the child to eat, to depression and anxiety, to actual physical reactions (gagging, vomiting) caused by certain textures, tastes, or smells.
While it can be a phase for some children (usually starting around 18 months) who will grow out of it, for others, it’s not that simple. Regardless of the cause, the big problem to solve is how to accommodate a picky eater while still ensuring they get enough nutritious food to stay healthy and to fuel their growing bodies. Below you’ll find some foods to tempt your picky eater. And some awesome news: you’re not restricted to plain “white foods”—remember, sometimes it’s a flavor or texture thing so play with those.
Tomato Soup: I can personally vouch for this one! I hate actual tomatoes, but love everything from salsa (non-chunky salsa, that is) to tomato-based sauces and soups. So try some tomato soup with your picky eater. You can serve it with croutons, oyster crackers, or even Goldfish or other fun shaped crackers.
Glazed Carrots: When I make these, I just steam the carrots then add honey and brown sugar to them. But you can fancy the meal up and introduce some new flavors with this recipe. (And if you have a child who won’t eat that recipe because it has green flecks in it, omit the parsley or set some carrots aside before you add it to the dish.) Cooking the carrots changes their texture, and the glazing makes them even more sweet. I kind of cheat and refer to them as candy carrots. And if you have a child who won’t eat that because it has green flecks in it, omit the parsley or set some carrots aside before you add it to the dish.
Food on a Stick: Okay, this is more of a tip than a recipe, but being playful with the food can help. It’s also a fun way to try new foods. If your child likes chicken nuggets, try cutting grilled or baked chicken into cubes and putting it on a stick. You can also cut up fruits and veggies and turn them into food on a stick. (Just remember to trim the pointy part off the stick before you give it to your child!) The sticks are a fun way to dip food and explore sauces, too.
Hummus: This is a great option for kids who only eat “white food.” It’s full of protein, fiber, and vitamins. It works as a dip for just about anything and is yummy as a spread on sandwiches—or you can just eat it plain with a spoon. But not only is store-bought hummus expensive, it’s also usually got a lot of salt in it. Make your own hummus at home with just a few simple ingredients. (Pro tips: The chickpeas have a really unattractive smell when they’re boiling. Don’t be afraid to play with the amount of lemon juice—use lemons, not juice in a bottle—garlic, and salt to get your perfect flavor. Also, sprinkle ground sumac on top before serving—yum!) If you want to step away from traditional hummus, check out recipes that incorporate foods like roasted red pepper. I don’t like peppers at all, but in the hummus, I can’t even taste them!
Rainbow Chard Ravioli: Yay: a more nutritious take on buttered pasta! And kids are more likely to eat a food if they’re involved in its preparation, so getting their help to make the ravioli can lead to the actual eating of said ravioli. Making your own pasta not your thing? Look for a veggie-stuffed store-bought option in the deli or the refrigerated case at your local grocery store.
Sweet Potatoes: That sweet potato casserole doesn’t have to be a holiday-only food! Sweet potatoes are full of vitamins and packed with fiber, and the marshmallow topping of a traditional sweet potato casserole could convince just about any kid to try it. Once you children know they like sweet potatoes, you can try serving them baked with butter and brown sugar, mashed (sweet or savory), as baked fries, or as the base for a great quinoa chili dish.
Fried Broccoli: Or any veggie, really. Bread it and fry it, and even I’ll eat it! Seriously, though. You can do a batter-dipped baked vegetable, a splurge-worthy deep-fried veggie, or a healthier air-fried recipe. But my kid who refused to so much as look at broccoli for years scarfed down half of my appetizer when I decided to give fried broccoli a try, so I know this works. If your child is weirded out, call them vegetable chicken nuggets or something.
Customizable Meals: I’m sneaking in another tip here, but this is too good to keep to myself. Whether you’re doing a taco bar, burrito bowl, buddha bowl, or baked potato bar (lucky you—my kid refuses to eat potatoes), letting your child create their own meal gives them a sense of control while you have the comfort of knowing they’re picking from the healthy selection you’ve provided. When we do burritos, my daughter rarely takes the meat, but she has a meal full of cheese, tomatoes, olives, beans and rice, and avocado. I know she leaves the table full. Oh, and it’s a great time to introduce a new food (corn salsa, fish, a new dressing, etc.)!
Having a picky eater can be tough, but have patience and keep trying new recipes to expand their palate. Learn what they like and build from there by changing up flavor, texture, and main ingredients, encouraging them to try stuff that’s similar to things they do eat and enjoy. And if you have (or had) a picky eater, do share your favorite foods and recipes with us all!
BONUS: If you want to make mealtime fun for your picky eater, try this Dinner Winner Plate.