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The battle of adult versus picky child begins as soon as you both wake up in the morning. And lasts all… day… long…
Your little “angels” wake up, and wander to a seat at the family table or kitchen counter. Mentally crossing your fingers and preparing for battle, you offer them some fresh fruit.
It’s something healthier than that last store-bought, sugar-encrusted blueberry jumbo muffin – the one you forgot to hide the night before – which you notice them focusing on as soon as they sit down, mouths nearly drooling.
And the screeches of discontent begin, ringing out like the deafening chirp of your alarm clock:
“I don’t like bananas… and cantaloupe is yucky! I don’t wanna eat it. I wanna eat a blueberry muffin.”
And with that, your loving act of providing a healthy start to the morning is shot down in mere seconds, with just a few loud and whining complaints.
Here we go again… Healthy Foods vs. Junk Foods Fight #789,491.
The time, however, quickly reminds you that perpetuating this argument about “Popeye and his spinach” or “how Superman grew to be so big and strong” will make your little nutrient-starved goblin late for school, and you late for work.
Blueberry muffin it is. Round 1 goes to the kid.
And so, the fight takes a pause. At least until dinner.
So, what’s a parent to do?
Clearly, this is a difficult topic with no enlightening solutions.
You know the struggle, you’ve tried various methods, and you have all of your failed attempts racing through your tired, nearly defeated mind.
You’ve heard some friends claim the reason they don’t have picky eaters is because they demand their kids eat everything on their plate, or they are not allowed to leave the table.
Okay, so you try that technique. And suffer through a miserable night of your child gagging, choking, yelling, begging, crying, and dragging out the ordeal for nearly four hours.
We’re not here to offer you 100% effective solutions. We know better than that. You know better than that.
While none of the suggestions provided here are guaranteed problem-solvers for every household, the following ideas will hopefully inspire you to think and act creatively when the next mealtime approaches.
Every day is a new opportunity to experiment with a different strategy, a new recipe, or introducing just one single new food item.
Be patient, be persistent, be perseverant – and one of these helpful tips might actually stick!
How to Get a Picky Child to Eat Healthy
Be Stealthy with Purees
Sometimes, being a health food advocate on behalf of your own children absolutely needs to be a covert mission.
The following are some sneaky ways to deliver a nutritional sucker-punch to even the pickiest of eaters.
Just add a cup or two of your chosen fruit or vegetable, raw or cooked depending on the produce you have chosen, to a high-powered blender along with a couple tablespoons of water. Simply puree this mixture until it’s very smooth, adjusting the consistency as needed with more water.
With harder, raw items like various types of squash or sweet potatoes, make the puree after you have cooked your produce. We have tutorials on making pumpkin puree as well as other types of squash purees.
This mixture will blend seamlessly into so many dishes, and the smooth consistency is not a threatening texture your child may find off-putting.
You – and your kids – won’t taste the difference! Many of your child’s meals can be altered in this way, without the kids even batting an eye.
Just be careful not to add too much – you don’t want to alter the flavor of said food item to an extreme amount, to the point where your child will notice.
And if your children expect their meal to be a certain color, you’ll also have to strategize so the color of the puree will either match or be hidden by the food.
Their favorite vibrantly colored mixed berry smoothie will easily hide a little beet puree!
Is your kid begging for brownies? Take advantage of the deep color and strong chocolate flavor by sneaking in some sweet potato or spinach puree.
A word of advice: it may behoove you NOT to let your kids see you making these items. Do not tell them of any healthy additions, switched ingredients, vegetable purees, and never ever ever mention spinach.
In fact, you may have to outright deny it if confronted. You are, after all, simply doing what is best for your unsuspecting little eating machines!
As long as you proceed carefully and strategically with this operation, your kids will be none the wiser!
Understanding and manipulating the texture of food will also help to make it more appealing and likely to be consumed.
Let’s talk tomatoes, as a perfect example!
While these nutritional gems make a fantastic ingredient in a child’s immunity-building culinary arsenal, their texture can be a big foe for a finicky child.
But you may have noticed that they only like pizza from a particular place, a particular restaurant, or the one very particular way you made it at home that one time when you cooked dinner a few weeks ago.
And the reason why is understandable. More often than not, kids tend to dislike the seemingly slimy texture of coarsely chopped or stewed tomatoes.
Organic Basil Marinara, 19.75 ounces, available from Stonewall Kitchen
While you’re shopping at the grocery store, make sure you buy tomato sauces made with natural ingredients and no added sugars. Try this organic basil marinara sauce, available from Stonewall Kitchen.
If you like to make your sauces from scratch, or if you discover that your store-bought sauce has some chunks in it, all you need to do is pulse the tomatoes or the sauce in the food processor for a few seconds, or get out your immersion blender.
You will instantly eliminate the “gross-out factor” texture of the tomatoes so you can continue cooking.
Another example of texture manipulation is to keep certain foods and liquids separate from each other.
Your child may be avoiding foods on their plate or in their bowl simply because they are touching each other, and causing – according to your picky eater – an irreversibly disgusting textural and/or taste change.
U.S. Acrylic 3-Compartment Divided Plastic Kids Tray, set of 12, available on Amazon
Does your finicky lil’ one get fussy when a bowl of cereal becomes a soggy, soppy mess? The next time you serve breakfast, keep the cereal in one bowl, and the milk in a separate cup.
For lunches, dinners, and snacks, use compartmentalized plates, like these colorful U.S. Acrylic plates available on Amazon, that will safely keep each food item physically separated on the same plate.
Harness Whole Grain Power
Another easy alteration to add some nutrients to your kiddo’s meals is to upgrade your grains. This transition to more fiber-rich products can be painless with the right substitutions.
Consider transitioning from white rice to brown rice, rather than choosing a more extreme option in both appearance and flavor like wild rice or black rice.
Lundberg Family Farms Organic Brown Jasmine Rice, available on Amazon
This organic brown jasmine rice from Lundberg Family Farms has a light scent and a sweet, buttery flavor – and it may have great potential in your home to feed the mouths of hungry babes! You can buy a bag now on Amazon.
You can also consider buying whole wheat or other enriched pastas.
Your homemade macaroni and cheese that they love so much will finally boast a little added nutrition, which will be difficult to notice among even the most discerning of picky eaters when the pasta’s covered in a creamy, dreamy cheese sauce!
Another solution is to buy pre-sliced whole wheat bread for sandwiches.
When kids do not have any white bread available as an option, the struggle may end quickly, especially when you’re still using their favorite creamy peanut butter and grape jelly as the sandwich fillers.
Compromise, compromise, compromise.
Be sure to buy whole wheat bread that doesn’t contain any wheat berries or other chunky grains. Remember – kids tend to be more bothered by textures, rather than taste alone.
Speaking of bread, do you like to bake at home?
Consider swapping out a percentage of all-purpose white flour with some whole wheat flour! Start with using 20 to 30% whole wheat flour in a recipe – any more in a given recipe may alter the texture and success of the bake.
Stone-Ground White Whole Wheat Flour, 5 pounds, available from King Arthur Baking Company
King Arthur Baking Company has an expansive line of flours to use in your baked goods. As a subtle transition to baking with whole wheat, buy their stone-ground white whole wheat flour, which has a similar gluten content to their all-purpose flour.
Need more guidance? Bake some of our tasty recipes featuring alternative flours! You’ll love our crazy-good whole grain chocolate cake for birthday parties, these buckwheat chocolate chip cookies for an after-dinner sweet treat, and our whole grain buttermilk pancakes for a breakfast no child would refuse.
Find – Or Make – Similar Alternatives
Now, think of foods your kids would jump up and down in the grocery store aisle begging you for – the ones for which they promise to be good forever, if you’ll just buy them.
Instead of your knee-jerk reaction of denying them these junk food pleasures, give them the next best thing with some healthier alternatives.
You can explore the grocery aisles for alternative sweet treats, drinks, and crunchy snacks – there really are so many healthy options available!
For ice pops, you can make them completely from scratch in your children’s favorite flavors. It’s so easy to do, with naturally sweet and fruity results, when you follow our recipe for homemade ice pops!
Your kids will love these refreshing summertime treats, and you’ll be so glad you had the opportunity to pack some healthy stuff into them.
Pureed fruit is an easy go-to option for homemade popsicles, but yogurt is also an excellent healthy alternative. And we have a delicious, kid-friendly recipe you can try featuring granola and blueberries.
Now, onto the fruit snacks – those misleading, gummy, cartoon-shaped, cavity-creators! They are shameless impostors, candy posing as fruit!
We have alternatives for you to consider that both you and your kids will enjoy eating!
First, grab some healthier fruit snacks, strips, or leathers at the store. Available in multiple flavors, all-fruit snacks are made of real fruit with no added sugars, so they are nutritionally superior to their gummy cousins. Try this mixed berry variety pack from Bob Snail, available now on Amazon.
Better yet, you can make your own using a dehydrator or oven set to a low temperature. Our recipe for dried mango-strawberry fruit rolls is a great starting point, and you can feel free to experiment with other fruits your child prefers.
Do your kids love munching on salty snacks? Bake a batch of our homemade cheese crackers, with no risk at all If they are immediately rejected by your kin – seriously, just hoard them all for yourself. You deserve it.
These new implementations, and fun recipes, may take away the stress of preparing meals and lunch boxes. Don’t forget to review our full roundup of healthy snack recipes – try one, or try them all!
Keep Pushing Forward
For all the parents who have tried every method under the sun and still can’t get your child to eat anything other than PB&J, dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, and the occasional apple slice or two:
Take a deep breath and remember… at least they are still eating something.
You are doing the best you can to ensure that there is good food available, and a nurturing home, to encourage a safe and explorative environment for when they are ready to step outside their safe comfort zone of typically consumed food items.
Just continue being the supportive – and patient – guardians you are, going above and beyond to sustain their growing bodies, so that they will continue on the path to becoming healthy tweens, teens, and adults.
Who will grow out of their picky tendencies. Hopefully.
You can at least buy some sweet vitamin gummies for extra insurance, and let them drink that half gallon of milk like it’s going out of style. At least then there will be some relief on your end that most of their basic nutritional needs will be satisfied!
With some creativity and nutritional know-how, you might be able to turn your children’s complaints into compliments, and bask in the glow of your new secret power.
How do you get your kids to eat their veggies and other healthy foods? Share your wisdom with us in the comments!
Looking for even more advice to keep the whole household full, happy, and healthy? Read these informational articles the next time you need some culinary help with the kiddos:
- Kids in the Kitchen: 7 Tips for Holiday Cooking with Children
- Halloween Fun for Kids with Food Allergies
- Introducing Your Children to the Art of Cooking
Photos by Nikki Cervone, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published on August 15, 2014. Last updated on February 2, 2023. Uncredited photos via Shutterstock.
About Nikki Cervone
Nikki Cervone is an ACS Certified Cheese Professional and cheesemonger living in Pittsburgh. Nikki holds an AAS in baking/pastry from Westmoreland County Community College, a BA in Communications from Duquesne University, and an MLA in Gastronomy from Boston University. When she's not nibbling on her favorite cheeses or testing a batch of cupcakes, Nikki enjoys a healthy dose of yoga, wine, hiking, singing in the shower, and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.