6 Tips Every Parent of a Picky Eater Will Appreciate

Most busy parents have put in at least a few shifts as (unpaid) short-order cooks. When time is in short supply and the kids wrinkle their noses at the "icky" casserole you’ve prepared, it can be tempting to heat up some chicken strips and macaroni and call it a night. Yes, it goes against all of the experts' recommendations, but sometimes the desire for smiles and full bellies trumps the long-term goal of getting everyone to eat the same meal.
But what if there was a dietary middle ground: A way for even the most finicky kids to eat what's served, minus the icky factor, and without the need to prepare a completely separate dish? Meal modification, if you will. Below, we've whipped up a list of tips for making grown-up meals more palatable to even the pickiest young eaters.

Create a DIY Food Bar

Kids are curious, hands-on explorers by nature, and most children love to have control of what goes on their plate, which makes them ideal patrons of "food bars." When all of the colorful ingredients are laid out for them to see, build and sample, they get excited about putting them together and, ultimately, tasting some new flavors they wouldn't have otherwise tried. Below are some quick ideas:
  • Taco Bar: Spark editor Elizabeth created a taco bar for her family, complete with grilled chicken, grilled steak, grilled shrimp, peppers, rice, black beans, onions, guacamole and a variety of other toppings.
  • Potato Bar: If you serve most kids baked potatoes pre-dressed with toppings, chances are they'll object to at least one ingredient. But if you switch it up and serve the potatoes bare and put the butter, sour cream, cheese, bacon, chives and other ingredients in small bowls, it turns into a fun culinary project for them to dress up their own spuds.
  • Salad Bar: Struggling to get stubborn kids to eat more greens? Set up a salad bar and they'll see lettuce in a whole new light. Provide various types of greens—romaine, spinach, iceberg, mixed baby greens—and colorful toppings, such as peppers, carrots, tomatoes and nuts. To make it a more fortifying meal, you can also offer lean meats and fruit as toppers.
The beauty of a food bar is that it's completely customizable to your tastes, time and budget. And if the weather permits, you can move the bar outside to make cleanup a breeze.

Dial Down the Spice

Hot spices are often an age-acquired taste. Many people don’t start appreciating the heat of spicy seasonings or cayenne pepper until adulthood. Although there are exceptions, it’s a pretty safe bet that most kids would prefer tamer dishes that don't cause them to break into a sweat. If you like your tikki masala at a seven but your kids would prefer a zero, just adjust the spices. With some subtle, simple spice modifications, the whole family can enjoy the same dish.
"Sometimes I'll make a recipe as far as I can without adding hot spices, if possible. I’ll then dish it out for the kids and finish the recipe, including the spices, before serving it up for the adults," says SparkPeople editor Elizabeth.

Wrap It Up

If your kids are resistant to trying a certain dish, consider whether it would work as a wrap. For example, your children might not be too excited about the chicken and rice casserole on their plates, until you set out some whole-grain tortillas. This simple option can transform how the meal is perceived, and you’ll be surprised by how fast they load up their wraps.

Share & Share Alike

If your picky eater insists on having peanut butter and jelly for every meal, meet him halfway. Announce that tonight's dinner is grilled salmon and wild rice (or whatever dish you've got planned) along with mini PB&J sandwiches. You may not find the combo to be particularly appetizing, but the addition of his favorite food will pique his interest, and he may be more willing to try the other stuff you're serving. To master the art of the compromise, be sure to include the PB&J on your own plate. Seeing you enthusiastically enjoy "his" food, he may be encouraged to return the favor.

Cook Against the Clock

Certain foods generally fall into the buckets of breakfast, lunch or dinner. Kids love nothing more than bending or breaking the rules, so why not ditch the timetable and let some meals cross over into unchartered hours? Delighted by the "naughty" novelty of eating breakfast for dinner, even the pickiest eater may surprise you by trying the turkey bacon, scrambled eggs or veggie omelet that she may have refused first thing in the morning. (Check out our dozens of healthy breakfast recipes.) Vice versa might work, too: Try introducing lunch or dinner fare in the morning and see if it's better received.

Appeal to Food Sensitivities

Studies suggest that some pickiness may be hard-wired or genetic. In these cases, you can make modifications to accommodate those sensitivities. For example, many kids have an aversion to their foods touching. If your family is having chicken and veggies over rice, you might want to try separating those foods on your child's plate to make them more palatable. If certain textures are troublesome, choose a different form of a food that appeals more to your child, such as apple slices instead of applesauce, or scrambled eggs instead of fried.

Cater to Meat-Free Eaters

Got a child who has decided to embrace a meatless diet? It is possible to accommodate young vegetarians with modifications of family meals. It's easy enough to hold the meat for most recipes. For example, if you’re making spaghetti and meat sauce, simply set aside a small amount of the sauce before mixing in the ground sirloin, or prepare a lasagna with half meat and half with just cheese. For homemade pizza, just leave the pepperoni off one portion and add some extra veggies instead. Try adding any of these 12 satisfying meatless meals to your family menu.

6 Quick Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

  1. Remember that it's normal. According to a PBS article, young kids (particularly between two and five years old) are naturally "neophobic," which means they're intrinsically afraid of trying new things, including food. Try to relax and be patient.
  2. Determine your child's flavor of pickiness. There are four different types of picky eaters, listed by Scientific American as: Sensory-dependent eaters, preferential eaters, general perfectionists and behavioral responders. If you can figure out which category your child falls in, you can choose strategies geared to his or her mindset.
  3. Create the illusion of control. Much of parenting is a mind game, and that especially holds true in the kitchen. Kids like to choose what they eat, but you ultimately control their options. By consistently presenting a variety of healthy choices, you'll give them the power to choose while you know they can't go wrong.
  4. Serve meals when kids are hungry. If kids have been snacking too close to dinner, they'll be much less likely to eat what's served to them.
  5. Involve them in food prep. When you invite your kids to help prepare a meal, you may be surprised by their avid interest in the ingredients and the process, and thrilled when they enthusiastically gobble up the fruits of their labor.
  6. Don't give up. It can take children up to 10 or even 15 times of trying a food before developing a taste for it. Continue offering (not forcing, which can actually worsen picky eating) the dishes you prepare to the whole family, and over time your finicky eaters may come to enjoy them as much as you do.