7 Tips for Getting Picky Kids to Eat Healthy, From a Nutritionist Dad
As a parent and nutritionist who works from home, I deal with picky eaters at work and in my family life. daily. Mealtime seems like a constant battle to get my 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son to eat more vegetables. A recent poll reveals I’m not alone in my struggle, showing that 97 percent of parents are concerned about their children’s diets and agree that eating habits during childhood have a lifelong impact on their health.
In fact the latest research shows that the earlier in life you adapt a mostly plant-based diet and avoid saturated fat (in meat and dairy) and eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legume, nuts and seeds – and less junk food – the healthier you will be in the future. A mostly plant-based diet has proven to help lengthen longevity!
Sadly, only a third of parents polled felt confident they were doing a good job shaping their children’s eating habits. I empathize with these parents because I’ve experienced all the challenges of encouraging picky kids to eat healthier, even with my nutrition background. I’ve learned to take it one meal at a time and have a long-term mindset regarding my kids’ diets and health.
10 Tips to Get Picky Eaters to Eat Healthy Foods
1. Introduce a wide variety of healthy foods
The more whole foods you offer your kids, the more likely they’ll find something they enjoy. The key is consistency and not pressuring them to eat foods they dislike. Research indicates the most successful way to get picky eaters to try new foods is a combination of consistent daily exposure, giving non-food rewards, and parents modeling healthy habits.
“One of the best things parents of picky kids can do is to have a wide variety of different healthy plant-based food choices in the house,” explains Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes, Ph.D., MPH, RD, a registered dietitian, plant-based mom, and the author of Recipe For Survival. “[That way], if your child doesn’t want a particular item, there’s an equally healthy alternative at their fingertips.”
Be sure to start small and introduce new foods slowly. Offering too much too soon can cause a picky eater to regress and become more stubborn in refusing new foods. Even a tiny bite of new food is a step in the right direction for many picky kids.
2. Give them the power to choose
Giving kids autonomy can go a long way to getting them to try new foods. A helpful tip is to provide them with options. For example, try asking, “Would you like veggies and hummus, a smoothie, or peanut butter toast?” Ultimately, kids are the ones who choose whether they’ll eat a particular food.
“Picky eating is often a way for a child to exert her individual opinions or control over his food choices,” says Dr. Ellis Hunnes. Providing options gives kids a sense of autonomy while giving you peace of mind knowing they’re eating healthy foods.
(Need some meal inspiration? Here are 5 Healthy Lunch Ideas Kids Will Actually Eat.)
3. Make mealtime fun and stress-free
What you consider picky eating may be different from another parent, so stop putting so much pressure on your kids (and yourself!). Instead, remain neutral and make mealtime stress-free to help encourage your child to try new foods. If family mealtime is fun and enjoyable, your picky eater will be far more likely to try healthy foods. As parents, we’re the ones whose perceptions dictate the emotional atmosphere and quality of family mealtime.
4. Get them cooking with you
Including your kids in meal prep and cooking is an excellent way to get them more interested in trying new foods. After all, kids are more likely to eat something they helped create. In addition, kids who frequently help cook family meals have been found to have higher fruit and vegetable intake, according to a 2020 study published in Current Developments in Nutrition.
If they’re old enough, have them chop fruit and veggies or help combine ingredients when baking. Bring them grocery shopping and let them pick out the produce or a new vegetable they want to try. Feeling included in weekly meal planning can help stoke their interest in trying new foods.
“One of the most important things parents can do to help children have healthy relationships with food is to involve them in food choices,” states Dr. Ellis Hunnes. “For example, in our house, we each get a vote on what we’re eating for the week. That way, it’s guaranteed we all get to have something we want.”
5. Avoid dishing out snacks and drinks before mealtime
Every parent has heard “Can I have a snack?” enough times to be driven certifiably insane. But permitting too many snacks or drinks before meals can fill up their little stomachs so that when it comes to mealtime, they’re not hungry and therefore less likely to eat whole foods. It’s essential to keep your kids on a somewhat regular eating schedule every two to three hours so they’re hungry at mealtime and have time to burn off all that energy.
(Check out these 5 delicious vegan snacks to pack on your next family road trip.)
6. Do let them play with their food
I’m as guilty as anyone of demanding my kids use utensils and minimize their mess at the dinner table. But I’ve realized this isn’t a realistic expectation of young, curious kids. Sensory exploration increases fruit and vegetable intake among preschool children, says a 2017 study published in Appetite. So let your kids get messy and play with their food. If they want to eat with their hands or mix several foods, so be it! It’s all part of their learning and getting familiar with food.
7. Model healthy eating habits
For better or worse, kids will ultimately model their parents’ eating habits. So show them how you can nourish your body by listening to it, eating when you’re hungry, sensing when you’re full, and choosing whole foods over processed junk food.
Research shows that parents modeling healthy eating habits has a more significant influence on kids’ eating habits than the quality of parents’ diets. “Letting the child figure out when they’re full instead of telling them to clean their plate is another way of helping the child have a healthy relationship with food. Let their satiety rule, not authority or guilt,” advises Dr. Ellis Hunnes.
Bottom Line: Help guide your kids in cultivating a healthy relationship with food.
Parents have a strong influence over kids’ eating habits. Don’t stress over a single meal that your child refuses to eat. Be patient and remember you’re in this for the long haul. If you consistently offer your kids healthy options and they eat mostly whole foods, they’ll be fine.
For more expert health advice, visit The Beet's Health & Nutrition articles.