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Cooking healthy foods for picky eaters to help them eat healthier

Susan Tucker Nutrition Counselor & Health Coach Green Beat Life, LLC

Kids are smart and no doubt there’s an agenda behind their picky eating. The good news is they will come around and develop into well-rounded eaters. It just takes patience and some easy strategies. Here is some advice to help.


Do assess your child’s pickiness

The first step is to rule out any physical concerns such as allergies, intolerances or digestive issues. A child’s refusal to eat a particular dish or food item, may be their only way of saying they don’t feel well after eating it. Check on symptoms such as headaches, rashes and stomach upset. As a first step, you certainly want to distinguish between a potentially serious physical reaction to a food and just plain finicky eating.

Do lead by example

As you are preparing meals, stick to what you know to be healthy and enjoyable meals for your entire family and make this your guiding principle. Stay strong in your intention and establish the staples of your diet. Your children will naturally get the message – this is how and what we eat in our household, this is our lifestyle. Vegetables and fruits are so colorful and happy looking, and many dishes are visually inviting. Make the plate look festive and cheerful, and show that you really enjoy eating what you have prepared. Enthusiasm rubs off!

Do engage and involve your children

Bringing your children with you while when shopping for food, allows them to start engaging with their meals. Going to a Farmers’ Market is especially wonderful, as you can start a conversation about where food actually comes from and how it is grown. You can allow your child to choose 2 -3 vegetables or food items for a meal that you will cook. Or look at a recipe beforehand and make a shopping list with your child, and then go out together to buy the ingredients. Many Farmers Markets also have stands for local honey, whole grain breads or jams, which can also be interesting. All in all make an event or a project of it, so your children can feel connected to the items they later meet on their plate.

Expose your children to the benefits of eating well and clean. Channel the right messaging about food choices to your children. Keep some pictures or slogans on your fridge, or get a coloring book or picture book about food and the body. The messaging targeted at children in the media about food is harmful, so parents need to counter-message this from an early age.

Do create a condiment tray

With any group of people, everyone has a different palette and preferences. Families of course are one group of people that eats together on a regular basis, so having a condiment tray is a good strategy to please everyone’s taste buds, including the picky eaters. It is also another great way to engage your child in their meals, and start developing their palette and getting to know the flavors characteristic to different nationalities. Keep a condiment tray on the kitchen counter or have a Lazy Susan on the dining table. If you steam, broil, roast or sautee your meals, keep the seasoning to a minimum, and allow for further flavoring when it reaches the plate to one’s own liking. Make sure to look for condiments that are minimally processed and contain very few extra ingredients or additives.

Do keep a healthy kitchen

Picky eaters may not eat much at regular meal times, but they will certainly be hungry in between meals. Therefore, it is key to keep a healthy kitchen. Fill the fridge and cupboards with wise food choices. These healthy snacks will be their meals, at least for now, until they become regular eaters! Keep a wide variety of nutritious snacks around – unprocessed, whole foods and plenty of fruit and vegetables, and make these their snacks. If snacks are just goodies and treats, they will stray further and further away from a nutritious meal.


Do not force a child to eat something

At this young age, food choices are one of the few things a child has control of. It is their way of establishing ‘Me’! There is no way you can actually physically force a child to eat something, and they know it. Simply offer and allow the meal and the food item to sit on their plate. Make sure everyone else is eating the same thing. If they ask for something else, give them a choice of 1 - 2 things, rather than opening it up to exactly what they want or demand. Gentle force by intention and your firm conviction is the best way.

Do not make them a hero

Once a child hears they have the title ‘picky eater’ they realize that they now have a title and a presence in the family as that person and will really work it. It gets a lot of attention! Don’t make them special because they are the ‘picky eater.’ Even though you are concerned, keep it neutral and allow it to phase out with positive strategies.

Do not punish and reward with food

Adults have so many ways of punishing themselves with food. The whole dieting industry fuels this. Although not for dieting persay, we learn this mindset early on as children. If we are good we get a sweet, if we are bad we don’t. Even fairy tales and children’s’ stories use food to reward good and punish bad. How many children go to bed without supper in these tales? Use words for explaining to your children the consequences of their eating habits, and use words to acknowledge to your children when you are pleased with their choices and behaviors. Certainly, food is celebratory and should be use for good times and gatherings, and it is a great connector, but we don’t want to base our diets and eating habits solely on using food in this way, especially during the early years of childhood.

Do not deprive children of what they like

Your child may be demanding mac and cheese every evening. There is nothing wrong with this, but you can always make a healthier version of the dish. Use a whole wheat or rice flour pasta, a low-fat cheese, or try making it with vegetables mixed in. The same goes for pizza and pasta. Both are great platforms to involve healthy ingredients. In this way you are finding a healthy medium.

Jumping cartoon

The process of developing a child’s culinary palette takes time and effort, but most children really enjoy variety and the process of exploring food options. If you present cooking well and clean as a basic life skill and a matter of lifestyle it will naturally become a part of their life, and they will catch on. Make it fun, enjoyable and eventful!

More expert advice about Children's Health

Photo Credits: © Monkey Business -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Susan TuckerNutrition Counselor & Health Coach

Susan Tucker is the founder of Green Beat Life, LLC, a nutrition counseling practice based in New York City. Susan is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition where she earned certification in Nutrition Counseling and Health Coachin...

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