When your children are picky eaters, prepping school lunches and making evening meals can seem like a real chore. Even the most patient of parents can get frustrated. But don't give up! Experts say that even though picky eaters present some challenges, there are some tips, tricks, and special meal ideas you can try to improve your kids' eating habits.
Here are five of their go-to ideas for appealing to the taste buds of even the pickiest eaters:
INVOLVE PICKY EATERS IN MEAL PLANNING
If your kids are picky eaters, one of the first things to try is to invite them to get actively involved in the meal planning process. Announce a family meeting (and serve snacks!) around the dinner table and ask your kids to brainstorm ideas with you to plan the meals for the week. Kids who are old enough to write can be appointed the "scribe," and given the job of writing down the week's "menu." Another child can help you write the grocery list.
Then, take the kids with you to the grocery store. Turn the shopping trip into fun family time, by giving each child a "find": One can look for the vegetables on the list; another one can look for the dry goods. Bonus? The supermarket trip can also be an opportunity to teach kids about big-picture money concepts, including budgeting, spending and saving, and the differences between wants and needs.
Back at home, have the kids help you put away the groceries. Then, hand out the aprons and put those picky kids to work, helping you cook dinner. According to S. Daniel Ganjian, MD, pediatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, "When children are more involved, the more they will like to eat." Dr. Ganjian also suggests keeping a list of your picky kids' favorite foods on the refrigerator so they feel like you are mindful of their preferences.
VARY FOOD PREPARATION
It's easy to get into a rut with picky eaters, especially if you're budget and waste-conscious. You just don't want to throw away good food, so you tend to make the items you know your picky kid likes. It's important, though, to change things up. Dr. Ganjian has some tips for introducing new foods, too.
When presenting a new type of food to a picky eater, prepare it in different ways. Talk to your child about how steaming a vegetable creates a different texture than grilling it, for example. Dr. Ganjian recommends putting at least two foods that your picky kid likes on the plate along with the new food. "Tell them they have to leave the new food on their plate and suggest they even lick the food," Ganjian says. He suggests positive reinforcement for children who fulfill these requests.
KEEP FOOD FUN
Visually appealing foods such as brightly-colored fruits and vegetables make great snack foods for your picky eaters. According to researchers, the more colorful the food, the more likely a child is to try it. Be creative: arrange bright cherry tomatoes on a plate with purple carrots and green broccoli florets alongside a tasty dipping sauce. Or get really creative — browse fun plating ideas on Pinterest and turn your kids' lunch or dinner into a clever, fun scene.
PACK AN EXCITING LUNCH IN A FUN LUNCH BOX
Send your picky eaters to school with a meal they look forward to eating. Dr. Ganjian suggests using cookie cutters to make shapes out of sandwiches. Make an effort to vary the accompanying foods you send to keep school lunches exciting. Popcorn and pretzels are a great nutritious snack. So is dried fruit. Make lunches visually appealing as well and send different dips along with fruits and vegetables.
While it may not seem to be a strategy that should affect flavor, keep in mind that kids love what their food is packed in, too. Fun and easy-to-open containers and hip lunch boxes (Glittery unicorns? Flip sequins? Emojis galore? YES, PLEASE!) can go a long way toward encouraging yours kid to eat what's inside.
When children refuse to eat their food, parents can become frustrated. Dr. Ganjian warns parents to avoid getting into fights about food. "Allow your children to develop good feelings about eating and mealtime," he recommends. If you worry that your picky eaters aren't getting enough nutrition, speak to your pediatrician about multivitamins or supplements. Some reassurance will also help you be less stressed about food.
Having picky kids can be frustrating, but with some time and effort, parents can help children try new foods. So long as parents remain patient- and creative - children will learn to try and appreciate new foods.