Picky Eating Strategies
Yessss! Major picky eating win over here!
We have STRUGGLED with picky eating in our house over the past year. My 7-year-old, who has not always been a picky eater, decided last year that he wanted to eat basically nothing. I will spare you details of meltdowns at dinner. We have worked very hard on improving this over the past year and have found some small wins. However, I am currently on cloud 9 with how happy and willing he has been at dinner this past month.
So what did I do different? Nothing major, I'll tell you that. I made a small shift in my thinking which led to some changes that were apparently just what he needed in this moment.
I can't promise this will work for your picky eater, but just in case....
Step 1 - Meal Planning
I like cooking. I HATE meal planning.
Before kids I was (what I thought) a pretty adventurous cook and would make a new-to-us meal at least once a week. However, I have always been guilty of running to the store last minute to grab ingredients for a recipe I just decided on. Then we had kids, and I used Blue Apron for many years. The closest to meal planning I ever got. During this time, I would ask my son what day of the week he wanted which meal, and he seemed content with that level of input. Fast forward, and I went back to my old ways of choosing what I would make just hours before the meal. Let me tell you, a very picky child + not knowing what is for dinner until getting off the bus after a long day at school = no bueno.
Surly, meal planning alone is helpful. Exactly how we are doing the meal planning, however, is what has been a game changer for us. Keep reading.
Step 2 - Kids Pick
Ready for the big game changer? I asked the kids to do the meal planning for me. Woop woop!
Before I go on, I'd like to make a few disclaimers about how I felt I was doing a decent job serving foods that my kids would enjoy, even before we made these changes. Why do I need to defend myself? Because, I don't suck, ok. First, we have kids-pick night two nights a week (see below). Second, I always serve meals with at least one or two foods my kids like. Third, research shows that too many choices at meal times leads to more picky eating and poor nutrition in kids (1,2). That is a hard balance to find.
I recently decided that maybe my kids need to feel more represented at the dinner table. Maybe my kids need to be served more meals where every food on their plate is a food that they like (and chose), not just one or two.
New world of meal planning in the Ramirez house? On Sunday, the kids pull out the cookbooks, flip through, and choose a meal they want our family to eat during the week. Veronica (age 5) picks a meal. Roberto (age 7) picks a meal. Mommy (age bleep!) picks a meal. Daddy (lucky duck) picks a lunch he wants me to spoil him with during the week. KEY STEP, be in the presence of each other during this process. Be sure your picky eater knows what everyone else has picked for their dinner. There will be no surprises in our new world. Surprises are bad. One good surprise that has come out of this, however, is that Roberto has been open to everyone else's choices, whether he prefers them or not. I did not expect that. And it makes me want to dance around with a big smile on my face like a crazy lady.
One more thing that is critical in order for this process to HELP with picky eating. My kids are picking healthful, balanced meals. These meals are very different from our "pick nights" (see below).
Current Cookbook Favorites
* tell me your favorite cookbooks in the comments below...
** bonus points for cookbooks with pictures and kid/family friendly recipes!
*** yes, I love Chrissy Teigen
Step 3 - Kids Schedule
Then! I ask Roberto, my 7-year-old picky eater, which day he wants his meal to be served. His sister doesn't care, so thankfully there is no arguing over who gets what day. Planning out the days of the week helps him know when to expect each meal. Mentally prepared ahead of time = bueno. Plus, the more choices he makes around dinner, especially when they are choices that really don't matter, the more buy in we get. Once he chooses his day of the week, I ask his sister what night she wants. I get whatever remains. We write the schedule down on our white board calendar that sits in the kitchen. Boom. Meal planning done.
It gets better. Can you believe it? Keep reading.
Step 4 - Kids Cook
Don't think people are putting in orders in my kitchen without helping prepare the meals. Just kidding. I wouldn't mind cooking the meals alone. However, I wanted the kids to feel special about the their dinner choice. They pick the meal. They pick the day it is served. They also help make the meal and set the table. So much to feel proud of!
Pro tip: get your kids an apron and a chefs hat. Everything is better when in costume.
Suggestions for age appropriate tasks in the kitchen:
Picking herbs from the garden (one of my fav parts of having a garden this year!)
Pouring premeasured ingredients into bowls
Setting a timer
Taking orders for drinks
Setting the table
Tell everyone all about your meal including ingredients, how you made it, how delicious it is, repeat, repeat, repeat
Clear the table
Clean the dishes
Everything the younger kids do, plus...
Chopping (get a mezzaluna!!!! = best kid friendly addition to our kitchen
Turning on the stove
Cooking on the stove
Taking things in and out of the oven
Plating the food
Serve Family Style
Okay, this is not new for us, but one of those small wins we have found over the past year. Instead of plating my picky eater's food, I have been serving it family style and allowing him to plate his own food. It is just one more thing that gives him a tad more control. One more way he is feeling less put-on during a situation that feels stressful to him.
Tuesday nights for us have been a no-cook night for a while. This actually began years ago when our local Chick-Fil-A had "family night" on Tuesday nights. Kids meals were free, free ice cream cones, balloon-man was there making fun balloon designs, there was an art table, the cow was walking around, we often saw friends. And I didn't have to cook dinner. So many wins.
We finally got sick of Chick Fil A (I know, is that even possible?) and shifted to having a "kids pick night" on Tuesdays instead. I needed to not cook every day during the week. And it made sense to just let the kids pick whatever they wanted for dinner this night. Anything reasonable is fair game. Cereal, yep. Spaghettio's, sure, must have a huge pile of freshly shredded parm on top, so fancy. Pigs in a blanket, a fav for my kids. Yogurt and fruit, win. Grilled cheese. Cheese and crackers. Peanut butter banana. Chicken nuggets, must be dinosaur-shaped, with a huge pile of ketchup on the side.
We also added Friday night as a second pick night in the recent years. My husband and I typically order out on Fridays and the kids can either order out with us, or pick whatever from home.
Doing this alone did not solve any picky eating problems. Actually, we were already doing this when the picky eating began, so? I think it is nice to have a couple low stress meals where the kids can pick whatever they want. They don't need to try anything new during these meals. They don't need to manage any emotions about what is being served at dinner. It can just be dinner.
When your kiddo doesn't want to eat what you serve...
There is very consistent research (3,4) that shows no pressure is best when it comes to foods your kiddo does not prefer. A few ways you can respond when your kiddo refuses a certain food...
"No worries, you don't have to eat it."
"You don't have to have everything on your plate. Just pick what you want."
"You only want to eat the rice? That's fine!"
"You don't like anything that is being served? No worries, you can have a big breakfast in the morning."
Not everyone likes their food cooked the same way, adults included. It is OK serve the components of your meal deconstructed to your child.
A few suggestions...
An ingredient you serve can be given in any form to your child
Ex: Cheese: melted, shredded, cheese stick, slice of cheese, flavor of cheese, combined with other food, separate from other food
Ex: Tomatoes: tomato sauce, tomato slices, whole cherry tomatoes, halved cherry tomatoes, only a certain color cherry tomatoes, cooked tomatoes, raw tomatoes, tomatoes combined with other food, tomatoes separate from other food
It is fine to serve a component of the meal in a slightly different form to your child... if cheese is part of the meal but he doesn't like how it is served... allow your kiddo to pick what form of cheese he wants.
Keep ingredients separate as you are making the food
Ex: Casserole: keep portion of rice/noodles separate, keep sauce separate, keep protein separate, keep veggies separate
take a portion of each food and put it serving bowls for the kids to plate from
then combine ingredients to complete the dish
kids have the opportunity to choose either deconstructed or combined foods
Separate ingredients after making the food
Ex: Chili: beans in a bowl, meat in a bowl, cooked tomatoes in a bowl, shredded cheese in a bowl
Add spicy seasoning after removing your child's portion
Be Flexible, But Plan Ahead
If you are cooking a food you know your child doesn't like, has never liked, probably will never like, consider being flexible. The KEY to this is to compromise ahead of time. Avoid letting your child negotiate as you are sitting down for the table every night. This will become exhausting and never ending. If you notice that your kiddo hates pesto, but loves tomato sauce, and you are okay with substituting the pesto for the tomato sauce since you are also serving some other form of fat/protein, then put a bowl of tomato sauce on the table and let him choose which sauce he wants to put on his pasta. This allows you to control the compromise. Instead of engaging in a long negotiation or allowing him to think that fussing, throwing a fit, or being exhaustingly persistent will lead to a compromise, you can give it to him happily as a sweet gesture.
A few examples
Serve a different sauce (tomato, pesto, cheese, butter, olive oil)
Cook a different way (grill, bake, pan sear, microwave)
Offer a fun dip (ketchup, hummus, yogurt, nut butter)
Add yumminess on top
Cheese on veggies
Sugar on veggies (brown sugar on acorn squash, yum!)
Marshmallows on veggies (my kids fav from a local restaurant is the carrot casserole with lots of marshmallows on top)
Fingers crossed, this is just what your kiddo needed too! Let me know if it works!
1 - Hennessey, E., et al. Permissive Parental Feeding Behavior Is Associated with an Increase in Intake of LowNutrient-Dense Foods among American Children Living in Rural Communities. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112:142-148.
2 - Cole, N. C., et al. Home feeding environment and picky eating behavior in preschool-aged children: A prospective analysis. Eating Behaviors 30 (2018) 76–82.
3 - Moroshko, I., & Brennan, L. (2013). Maternal controlling feeding behaviors and child eating in preschool-aged children. Nutrition and Dietetics, 70(1) 49–53.
4 - van der Horst. (2012). Overcoming picky eating. Eating enjoyment as a central aspect of children’s eating behaviors. Appetite, 58(2), 567-574.
Katie Ramirez, RN, BSN, CLC
Born Happy, Owner and Coach
Katie Ramirez is a Registered Nurse, Certified Lactation Counselor, and Coach for parents of babies and toddlers. She has spent more than a decade serving patients at major university hospitals such as Vanderbilt University and Penn State University Medical Centers. Katie now spends her time supporting and empowering parents of babies and toddlers as owner and coach for Born Happy.
Katie is the proud mother of two beautiful children, Roberto (age 7), and Veronica (age 5). She has a passion for health, wellness, and happy children, and believes that, with the necessary knowledge and support, all parents can live happy.
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