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Winning the battle with picky eaters

Last Modified: 8/05/2020

picky eater

Picky eating is a natural part of growing up. Chances are, you are a parent of a picky eater or know one. The challenge, however, with choosy children is not only deciding what to cook for them, but also the worry that they might be missing out on important nutrients. We asked dietitians Sara Bennett, RDN, LD, Anne Dietz, RDN, LD, and Sarah Mohrman, RDN, LD, MA, with PPG – Cardiology, to offer up some helpful tips and tricks for parents of picky eaters in hopes of easing those mealtime battles.

Plentiful preparation: Try having fruit and veggies ready to go in your refrigerator. Place the containers out on the table for your little grazers to munch on while their meal is being prepared. They will fill their bellies up with servings of fruits and vegetables before dinner even starts.

Separate it: If your picky eater has an issue with their food touching try using divider plates.

picky eater plate

Mystery mash: If you are looking to add more fiber into your child’s diet, try smashing beans in recipes like chili or burritos. They won’t even know they are there.

Secrets in the sauce: To add some extra nutrients into your little’s routine try pureeing additional veggies like peppers, carrots, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes, then add them to your spaghetti sauce.

Slip in new side dishes: Plan meals with foods that you know they like but add new foods in as side dishes. Encourage your child to try the new foods but let them know they don’t have to finish it. 

Mix it up: Shake things up by preparing dips and cuts of fruits and vegetables for snack times. A few options could include carrot coins instead of baby carrots, 2-inch celery bites instead of celery sticks, light ranch, flavored hummus, plain Greek yogurt mixed with herbs, and seasoning or mashed avocado mixed with salsa.

Imaginative ingredients: It’s important to make healthy eating fun, especially when picky eaters are young. Try calling broccoli “trees” and asparagus “princess wands”. The sky’s the limit just be creative!

Get them involved: Let your kids be a part of the meal preparation process. By allowing them to help, children can learn about their food while getting excited about making their meals.

picky eater cooking

Picky pickers: Take your children berry picking. They will enjoy learning how food gets from the ground to your table by taking part in the process and having fun too!

Healthy habits: When we eat healthier foods, like fruits and vegetables, we often feel lighter and less “weighed down” after eating. Try to bring that to your child’s attention. Discuss how their bellies feel after they eat heavier foods like pizza or ice cream. Then counter that discussion when you have had a lighter meal on a different day, such as grilled chicken, broccoli and strawberries.

Focus on variety: Children learn to like different foods by being exposed to and offered them. Children learn to eat and enjoy what you prepare but sometimes it may require thinking outside of the box for variety. If your child only likes tacos, consider making Mexican pizza with whole wheat tortillas and extra lean ground turkey to mix it up and keep things interesting. Once the child learns food in other forms is tasty, they tend to become more adventurous. 

At the end of the day, try to provide your children with a variety of food choices. The more food you expose them to, the more apt they will be to enjoy it which will also promote a positive relationship with food. But keep in mind, while it's your responsibility to provide the food, it’s your child’s decision to eat it.

pick eater blueberry picking

Recipes to try with your picky eater

Picky Pete’s Buffalo “No - Chicken” Dip  

1 12-ounce jar artichoke hearts, in brine drained and rinsed 

1 15-ounce can No Salt Added Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed 
6 tablespoons Buffalo sauce 

2 tablespoons tahini 

1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice 

2 green onions, chopped 

1-ounce vegan shredded cheese 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Once the artichoke hearts are drained and rinsed, shred them with a fork. Puree the beans, buffalo sauce, tahini and lemon juice together in a food processor until smooth and creamy. Stir the artichoke hearts into the buffalo mix and put into an 8x8 glass dish. Sprinkle the top with vegan shreds. Bake for 15 minutes or until heated through and cheese is melted on top. Sprinkle with green onions. Enjoy with celery sticks or whole grain crackers! 

Makes approximately 12 servings 

Nutrition per serving: 75 calories, 3g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 187mg sodium, 9g carbohydrate, 3g fiber, 3g protein. 

Zucchini Bread

1/4 cup brown sugar 

1 ¼ cup applesauce 

1 teaspoon vanilla extract 

1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour 

1 teaspoon baking soda 

1/2 teaspoon baking powder 

1/2 teaspoon salt 

1 teaspoon cinnamon 

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 

1/8 teaspoon cardamom 

1 heaping cup shredded zucchini, 1 medium zucchini 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray an 8x4 loaf pan and set aside. Using a handheld shredder or the shredding attachment on your food processor, shred 1 medium zucchini and set aside. In a mixing bowl, whisk together brown sugar, apple sauce and vanilla extract. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, then stir to combine. Fold in zucchini. Transfer batter into a prepared loaf pan and bake for 45-55 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes in the loaf pan before transferring to a wire cooling rack to cool completely. To store, cover bread in plastic wrap or tin foil and store at room temperature for three days. 

Makes 10 servings  

Nutrition per serving: 1 slice, 107 calories, 1g fat, 0gm saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 141mg sodium, 24g carbohydrates, 5g fiber, 7g sugar, 3g protein. 

Deep Dish Cookie Pie 

2 cans white beans or garbanzos, drained and rinsed 

1 cup rolled oat 

1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce 

1/4 cup natural nut butter 

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract 

1/2 teaspoon baking soda 

2 teaspoons baking powder 

1/4 teaspoon salt 

1 cup brown sugar 

1 cup vegan chocolate chips 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Blend everything in a food processor, except chips, until well incorporated. Mix in chocolate chips and pour into a 9-inch springform pan. Cook for 35-40 minutes. Let stand at least 10 minutes before removing from the pan.  

Nutrition Information: Yields: 16 servings.  Serving Size: 1 brownie square 

Amount per serving: 122 calories, Total Fat: 4g, Saturated Fat: 1g, Cholesterol 0mg, Sodium: 133mg, Total Carbohydrates: 20g, Dietary Fiber: 2g, Sugars: 12g, Protein: 3.3g

Helpful resources

Health Beet

Super Healthy Kids

Super Healthy Kids: Kids Eat 36% More Veggies on Illustrated Plates

Secrets of feeding a healthy family by Ellyn Satter

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