Making Healthy Dinners for Picky Eaters is hard! But you don't have to create a totally different meal. Our simple strategy and Picky Eater Food List can help!
Feeding picky eaters is just plain tough. It's easy to fall into the habit of making separate dinners for different family members. That's so much work though, and does nothing to expand your child's palate. Don't worry though! There's a better option. An option that helps you introduce new foods to your child without the constant dinnertime battles, without worrying your child will go to bed hungry.
With two littles ones of my own, I understand the importance of finding nutritious dinners your kids will actually eat. So far (so many fingers crossed!), my own kids have not been too picky. My oldest is two though and I know that could change as he progresses through the toddler years. His opinions and emotions are STRONG these days!
Beyond my own little family though, I know that feeding picky kids is super important. It's one of the most frequently discussed topics among our subscribers! I know this topic can bring on a lot of “mom guilt” and I'm passionate about helping moms feel good about how their feeding their kids!
I want to tell you a little bit about my philosophy of feeding kids so you know where I'm coming from. Then I'll share a no-stress approach to feeding picky kids, along with a food list to help you get started!
(A quick note that if your child is experiencing extreme picky eating and you're concerned it's impacting their health or growth, you should always talk to their pediatrician.)
Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility
The basic idea is that it's the parent's job to choose what foods to serve and the child's job to decide which and how much of the foods offered to eat.
Basically, you don't prompt your child to eat two more bites, and you don't give in and serve mac and cheese every time they say they don't like something.
Sounds simple right? I know that in reality, this isn't as easy as it sounds though.
What if your child refuses to eat dinner and wakes up hungry at midnight?
What if they're underweight and you really just want them to eat something?
What if you've gotten into the habit of serving them a separate dinner and it seems impossible to change that now?
What if you're at work all day and you don't want to spend your only time with your kiddo hearing complaints about what's for dinner?
I hear you. We all have this idyllic picture of family dinners but, in reality, they can be messy.
This is why I like to encourage a balanced approach. It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Your child doesn't have to eat the fancy lamb dish you made or go hungry. You can find a balance that works for everyone.
Finding Balance at the Dinner Table
So how do you encourage your child to try new foods without letting them go hungry?
1. Serve them a small portion of the new or intimidating food.
Who knows, they may try it! They may even like it eventually. Even if they don't touch it right away, they'll get used to seeing a variety of foods on their plate. Small victories!
Serving a small portion also prevents food waste. There is nothing more annoying (or more expensive!) than throwing away full portions of the food you worked hard to make every night.
If you have a young child, it's easy to think they'll just grow out of their picky tendencies. So why not just serve a separate kids meal? This does happen sometimes…but not always. This study shows that for kids between 4 and 9, picky eating tendencies generally linger. So if a child is picky at 4, they likely will be for the coming years. Because of this, it's best to stay strong in the early years and work toward serving them the same meal you're having.
This study from the National Institute of Health also found that, while stressful, picky eating does not usually impact children's long term growth. Remind yourself of that when you see your child's uneaten food and don't lose heart!
2. Then balance out the rest of their plate with healthy foods they like.
They will probably start with the familiar foods. If you keep the pressure off though, if you refrain from prompting or encouraging too much, they will likely start to taste the new foods with time.
Serving new foods along with familiar ones also helps prevent the immediate whining that can come with a plate full of foods your child thinks they “hate”.
One caveat here – don't make the familiar foods too enticing. You want it to be something they like eating, but not something they're super excited about. Otherwise, they'll definitely just fill up on those foods.
Healthy Dinners for Picky Eaters
So which foods should you include to achieve healthy dinners for picky kids?
Aim for a mix of proteins, healthy fats, whole grains or starchy veggies and fresh produce.
The specific list will differ according to your individual child but here are some ideas to get you started!
Many picky kids struggle with meat. Think about what proteins your child does like. Then think about which of these will be super easy to add on to your child's dinner. No short order cooks here!
- Hard boiled eggs
- Nuts or nut butter
- Hummus or tzatziki – kids love to dip!
- Chickpea pasta
- Certain protein like meatballs (make a big batch and freeze!)
Healthy fats are really filling and also great for brain development! There's naturally some overlap with the proteins here:
- Avocado or a simple guac
- An extra drizzle of olive oil on their favorite veggie, like sweet potatoes or cucumbers
- Whole milk if you serve dairy
Whole Grains / starches:
Most kids love carbs, so this is generally an easy one!
- Whole grain bread (gluten free if needed)
- Corn tortillas
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Roasted potatoes
- Any kind of squash
- Gluten free pasta
Last, but not least, include some fresh produce. I personally don't usually include fruit with dinner as my kids eat plenty of it with breakfast, lunch and snacks. They also love it so much that I find it distracts them from the other dinner items.
Do what works for your family though! If there's not currently a veggie your child will actually eat, you might consider serving some fruit with their dinner. Fruit is of course an excellent healthy dessert as well!
So what does this look like?
You of course don't need to include all of these foods on your child's plate.
Think about what they've eaten that day, or even that week, and look for things they may not have gotten enough of. Has the week been light on protein? Add some yogurt. Have they gone a few days without eating a veggie? Add their favorite one with some hummus.
I encourage you to write an actual list of these foods and add to it over time as your child discovers more foods they like (or at least tolerate).
Prep anything necessary, like roasting a big sheet pan of sweet potatoes, over the weekend to make dinner as easy as possible. That way any time you're serving something you're pretty sure your child will refuse, you can quickly assemble a healthy plate for them.
Here are some examples of what this might look like:
- Small portion of stuffed pork chops with some chickpea pasta drizzled with olive oil on the side
- Cup of chicken pot pie soup with some cheesy toast or avocado toast on the side
- Piece of a grilled rosemary pork chop with some roasted sweet potatoes and yogurt on the side
You get the idea! Serve a bit of the main dish with some sides you know will help fill up your kid if they don't like what's for dinner.
Meal Planning Can Help!
Another way to make sure you're regularly introducing new foods to your kids?
When our subscribers share what they love about Prep Dish, added variety is something we hear a lot.
It's too easy to get into a rut with the same old recipes week after week, especially when you're super busy. This is even more true when you're trying to find healthy dinners for picky eaters in your family. It can feel like you only have a short list of recipes that work.
We make sure our menus vary substantially week to week, in terms of which proteins are used as well as spices and flavor profiles.
Just seeing these different foods on their plate can help expand a child's concept of what dinner looks like. They see you eating a colorful variety of foods and that becomes part of your family culture over time.
Make sure to download a free meal plan if you haven't yet to try it out for yourself!
Bonus – Easy Recipes for Picky Eaters
While you shouldn't have to craft your entire meal plan to please your picky eater's palate, it certainly helps to have some healthy kid favorites in the rotation. We periodically poll our Prep Dish subscribers to get their favorite recipes, but also their kids' favorites. These are healthy, but totally approachable, dinners perfect for a kiddo working to expand their tastes.
You might try letting your child choose 1-2 of these to try each week. Feeling like they have some control over the situation can go a long way toward encouraging kids to try new things!
And make sure to check out my 5 Tips for Encouraging Kids to Try New Foods!