- Picky eating occurs when a child or adult is very selective about the foods they will and will not eat.
- Manage picky eating in kids by creating positive mealtime experiences, repeating exposure to new foods, and involving them in food preparation.
- Remember that adding flavorful toppings, dressings, and dips does not negate the nutritional quality of food and can be a tool for getting accustomed to new flavors.
Whether your child or yourself is a picky eater, it can be stressful to ensure a nutritionally balanced diet. Continue reading to learn more about picky eating, and find our free healthy five-day picky eater meal plan.
Picky Eater Basics: Getting Started
While the term “picky eater” does not have a single clinical definition, common characteristics of a picky eater include:
- A limited number of accepted foods.
- Unwilling to try new foods.
- Dislike of many fruits and vegetables.
- Specific food texture preferences.
Picky eating is common throughout different stages of childhood, and many kids outgrow it as they get older without experiencing any adverse health effects. However, sometimes it can become severe or carry into adulthood.
Research shows that because picky eaters do not eat a wide variety of foods, they are more likely to have inadequate intakes of micronutrients like iron and zinc, as well as fiber. They also tend to eat more snack foods and sweets.
If you or your child avoid so many foods that the result is improper growth, weight loss, or nutrient deficiencies, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) may be at play. ARFID is an eating disorder requiring treatment from a healthcare professional.
Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about picky eating impacting your child’s health.
What to Eat for Picky Eaters
A balanced diet includes minimally processed foods from all the food groups, including lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables.
Picky eaters may have specific texture preferences and dislike many foods. Think about ways to make fruits and vegetables more appealing by using dips, seasonings, and different cooking methods.
It can be incredibly stressful when your child is a picky eater and refuses the food you prepare for the family. Luckily, there are effective and evidence-based strategies to improve picky eating in children.
One of the most important things is to avoid pressuring your child to eat and to focus on creating a positive mealtime experience.
It may feel counter-intuitive, but the more you pressure your kid, the less they will be motivated to eat.
It’s your job to decide when and what food to serve, and it’s your child’s job to decide if and how much they will eat.
Encourage them by eating meals as a family and modeling healthy eating yourself.
If your child denies a food multiple times, continue offering it on different occasions. Children sometimes need over 10-15 exposures before they accept a new food.
Ensure each meal and snack you offer has at least one of your child’s “safe” or accepted foods.
Once your child starts eating, they are more likely to continue eating other foods on their plate.
It’s important to be transparent about the ingredients in the meal and avoid sneaking or hiding vegetables in different recipes. This can cause children to become even more suspicious of new foods.
Be Mindful of Snacks
Make sure your child is coming to the table hungry for meals.
If they are snacking all day long, they may not be hungry enough to eat their meals. You may also need to limit your child’s intake of calorie-containing beverages between meals, like milk and juice.
If you’re an adult with picky eating concerns, you aren’t alone. Many adults experience picky eating, and there are ways to expand the variety of your diet.
First, think about your motivation for addressing picky eating.
You may want to manage a diet-related health condition better. Or perhaps you want to have an easier time in social situations involving food.
Next, experiment with new recipes that interest you.
Ideally, this should be done in a low-pressure environment, like with a supportive friend or family member, where there is no expectation to eat or finish your plate.
It may be helpful to work with a registered dietitian for support and to brainstorm ideas for new foods or recipes to try.
Meal Plan for Picky Eaters
Below is a picky-eating meal plan with five days of healthy meal and snack ideas for adults and kids.
For individualized guidance on appropriate portion sizes, talk with a registered dietitian. This meal plan is not intended to replace medical advice.
Greek yogurt pancakes with a side of blueberries.
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a side of baby carrots and ranch dressing. Note: Raw carrots can be a choking hazard for young children.
Baked broccoli mac n cheese.
Peanut butter energy balls made with peanut butter, dry old-fashioned oats, honey, and chocolate chips.
Cheese with crackers.
Smoothie made with milk of choice, Greek yogurt, a splash of orange juice, and a tropical frozen fruit blend.
Homemade air fryer chicken nuggets and sweet potato fries with a side of apple slices.
Spaghetti and turkey meatballs with a mixture of regular pasta noodles and zucchini noodles.
Peanut butter granola.
Chocolate mousse made with coconut milk, cocoa powder, maple syrup, and vanilla extract.
Zucchini fritters made with egg, shredded zucchini, breadcrumbs, and cheese.
English muffin pizzas with a side of baked carrot fries and grapes.
Chicken tacos with salsa, avocado slices, and black beans.
Popsicle made from blended strawberries, Greek yogurt, and a drizzle of honey.
Apple slices with peanut butter. Note: Raw apples can be a choking hazard for young children.
Wrap with whole wheat tortilla, peanut butter, and a banana.
Snack lunch with deli meat, cheese stick, whole grain crackers, and a clementine.
Chili mac with whole wheat pasta, ground turkey, bell peppers, and cheese
Smoothie with Greek yogurt, blueberries, banana, and spinach.
Trail mix with whole grain cereal, nuts, and dehydrated fruit. Note: Nuts can be a choking hazard for young children.
Banana bread muffin with a nut butter drizzle.
Quesadilla, refried beans, and air fryer breaded zucchini.
Baked potato with cheesy broccoli.
Frozen yogurt bark made with fruit and Greek yogurt.
“Ants on a log” made with celery sticks, peanut butter, and raisins.
Tips for Meal Preparation
Trying different preparation methods and flavors can be a great way to expand your palate and learn to love new foods. For example, if you dislike plain steamed broccoli, try roasted broccoli with olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic.
Including favorite dressings, dips, and toppings can be another way to make a new food more enjoyable. Remember, adding these ingredients does not cancel out the nutritional quality of the food.
When it comes to meal preparation, try to involve your picky eater in any way you can. Depending on their age, this can look like asking them to help with:
- Selecting a recipe.
- Picking out a new vegetable from the grocery store to try.
- Food preparation (washing, chopping, or mixing).
- Serving their own plate or sprinkling on toppings.
Picky eating phases are common throughout childhood, and though selective eating usually improves with age, it can sometimes persist through adulthood.
Avoiding pressure at mealtimes and repeated exposure to new foods are some of the top recommendations to combat picky eating.
When picky eating is severe and begins to impact a person’s health negatively, Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID) may be present.
How a Dietitian Can Help
Whether you struggle with picky eating yourself or your child is a picky eater, there are strategies you can use to improve dietary quality and reduce mealtime stress.
A registered dietitian can guide you through the process of expanding the variety of your diet in a compassionate way.
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