How to Get a Picky Child to Eat Real Food

By August 24, 2020 Diet Tips

This article is continued from last Tuesday’s post written by Katie Wells for Wellness Mama. If you’re struggling with helping your child lose weight, trying to get creative for a picky eater, etc., this post is for you! 

Kicking old food habits is hard for adults, let alone a picky toddler. So even with all this information on what to feed your kids, the question becomes: how the heck do you actually get them to eat this stuff?

Some practical suggestions for the switch:

1. Make Up Your Mind First!

When it comes to dietary shifts, you must present a confident front, and believe the information you are telling your kids! Research, meal plan, and commit to making this positive change for your family.

2. Be Gradual But Firm

While your kids won’t make the jump from happy meals to veggie smoothies in a day, they will adapt faster than you expect, and they will learn to love healthy foods. To start, put one small bite of each food you cooked on each child’s plate. (One small piece of chicken, one leaf of spinach, one piece of squash)

Tell the child that he/she may have more of any of the foods you have cooked once he or she eats just the small amount of each. This way, the child is motivated to try new foods, but the amount is not so daunting that he or she refuses it altogether. Even the pickiest of eaters will eventually be willing to take one bite of a hated food to get to one he or she likes.

After introducing foods like this for a while, slowly add more of each at meals so that after a few months, your kids are eating full portions of all the healthy foods.

WARNING: Your kids will test you on this for the first few days! They might even go without eating for a meal or two. Don’t be alarmed. Stay calm, don’t push them, and just calmly explain that they don’t have to eat, but that the food they were given is what is being served and that is all they will get. This is the toughest 3 days!

3. Let Kids Decide If/When They Are Hungry

This is not to say, of course, that you shouldn’t set limits or that you should allow access to foods 24/7, but if a child is truly not hungry (or using this as an excuse to not eat healthy foods), don’t force the issue or resort to junk food just to get them to eat something. Kids are born with an amazing ability to know when they are hungry and when to stop eating when they aren’t hungry anymore. This ability gets skewed by the chemicals in the food system, but it comes back quickly to kids.

Realize too that kids don’t always get hungry at meal times, and that skipping a meal, occasionally, is not going to harm them, especially during this adjustment. This is another reason for serving small portions of each type of food. The child will become more in touch with when he or she is hungry and how much food he or she needs if only given a small amount of each (he or she can always ask for more!).

Alternately, if kids get hungry between meals, provided they have eaten healthy foods at those meals, let them have healthy snacks like nuts, veggies, fruits or chopped meats.

4. Give Rewards Besides Food

This is an important step to take with kids. We reward everything from good grades to good behavior to birthdays with food of some kind, creating a feeling that eating certain foods is associated with being special or doing well. While eating is certainly a social and family activity and many important events involve food, it is important to break the association with food and a feeling of achievement or happiness.

Let family dinner time be the time of bonding over food shared, and let other things replace foods as rewards. Rewards can be a family outing, a bike ride in the park, a new book, the chance to have a friend over, etc. Breaking the cycle of associating food with fun and achievement will help ensure the child does not ever become an emotional eater and give the child a strong, rational, foundation to base dietary choices on.

5. Explain It To Them & Get Them Involved

Kids are brilliant little creatures with a God-given ability to learn much faster than we can. Too often we dumb down explanations of why they must do things or exaggerate them. (Come on, honey, just eat one bite of this yummy, yummy broccoli that tastes so wonderful and will make you super strong!)

Most kids respond extremely well to a logical and calm introduction to new (or disliked) foods. When we make a big deal out of getting them to try something, they learn that (a) dragging on the ordeal will result in more attention and (b) it must not actually be that good, or we wouldn’t be making such an ordeal about it in the first place.

Put the food on their plates, tell them what it is, and answer any questions. Don’t bribe, cajole or beg. It is healthy food, it is good for them, and it tastes good too. They are expected to eat it, period. If they ask, explain why the food is healthy and that making good eating choices is important for a healthy body. If they balk, stay calm! They will likely find that they actually do like many of the foods they previously shunned for their pasta or PB&J.

Also, use this as a chance to get them involved in the kitchen. In my experience, children are much more likely to eat foods that they helped prepare. We love the Kids Cook Real Food Course, which has helped all of our kids (even the littles) be able to prepare different types of foods.

6. Let Them Make Choices, But Healthy Ones

While the adjustment to healthy eating can be tough, I’m not advocating becoming a food fanatic. Whenever possible, let the kids make their own choices on healthy options for food. Not only will they feel better about trying a food they chose, but it will help break down their perception that you have hijacked their ability to eat what they want.

Learning to eat healthy is more about empowering them to understand and choose healthy options, and this won’t happen if you never let them make choices. After about 3-4 weeks of good eating, you can even let them choose unhealthy options at a party or someone’s house. Likely, they will notice that they no longer feel good from eating the junk, and this will help them learn to make good choices also.

7. Model It Yourself

This might be the hardest part of getting your kids to eat healthy. Many of us carry perceptions of certain foods from childhood and don’t like to eat many veggies ourselves. Besides the fact that eating healthy is proven to reduce the risk of practically every disease and condition imaginable, we now have the added incentive of doing it for our kids’ sake.

Parenting experts agree that children pick up behavior based much less on what they are told and much more on what they observe. If they see you routinely eating veggies and enjoying them, they will start to choose it themselves!

If it helps, try lots of new veggies and find ways to involve lots of variety and color. The more visually appealing foods are the more likely they (and you) are to enjoy them. As a last resort, just remember that you can make yourself like any food if you eat it long enough.

8. Make Home Cooking a Priority

This can be very difficult with all the commitments and activities we all have, but this will be one of the most rewarding things you can do for your family. Not only will you get to spend quality time together, but your chances of eating healthfully drastically increase when you cook at home. You have the option of using more natural ingredients and more variety. Unhealthy options are not on the menu, tempting you to choose them, and the kids will get to see how foods are prepared.

Make up your mind to do this and stick with it. My secret: Real Plans, an amazing app will all real food recipes (including all of mine) and will create a meal plan and shopping lists in seconds. This has been a real life changer and saved me a ton of time.

Years later, I look back on this decision and know we did the right thing for our family. The kids eat up not only the food but the quality time together, which will benefit them in the long run much more than the extra extracurriculars we often feel obligated to let (or push) them into.

9. Let Them See Where Food Comes From

Many kids today actually think that food comes from grocery stores. (That was a wake up call to me when mine asked long ago how the grocery store makes chicken!)

Many kids grow up with no knowledge or appreciation of how food is grown or raised and how it gets to them. If possible, take your kids to a farm or farmers’ market to expose them to a new way of viewing their food. Even better, grow a garden and let them help. They are much more likely to eat what they have grown themselves.

Just don’t visit a conventional beef or chicken facility … that is not the kind of connection you want with your food!

10. You (the Parent) Are Responsible for the Food in Your House

This was a major stumbling block for me. As a new mom, I used to feel guilty for making my son eat things he didn’t like. I shuddered at the thought of him going hungry, if only for one meal! It wasn’t until I started to realize how much he liked/wanted the unhealthy foods and how he was becoming increasingly resistant to healthy foods that I knew something had to change … and change it did!

I realized that we, as parents, exercise authority in many other aspects of our kids lives, but turn into a short order cook at dinner time to please everyone in the family.

We wouldn’t dream of letting them stay up three hours past bedtime, go without washing their hands or their clothes regularly, or throw down a few beers after school, but we routinely concede on healthy eating, even though it has a more detrimental effect than dirty clothes or staying up late!

“I’m the mom,” I realized, and darn it, my kids will eat healthy, and I will figure out a way for them to love it! Much to my relief and surprise, the transition was much easier than I expected.

While kids can be picky, they are also extremely adaptable and resilient. They also see the effects of dietary improvement faster than we do. Also, as kids eat 3 to 4 times the amount of food per pound of weight as adults, the choices they (and I) make now, can and will affect them for the rest of their lives!

Bonus Tips for Healthy Eating

Here are a few suggestions that have worked with my kids and friend’s kids:

  • Start viewing food for nutrition first and enjoyment second. Make sure the majority of your diet is actually nourishing (healthy meats, vegetables, fruits, broths, good fats, etc.) and minimize the non-nourishing foods (crackers, cereal, sandwiches, etc.)
  • Just start serving the healthy food. Only put a little on their plates but require them to eat it before they eat anything else. If they “aren’t hungry” or don’t want to eat it, don’t push it, but don’t give them other food. They won’t starve from missing one meal because they are being picky.
  • If they ask, explain that you are coking healthier foods to help make their bodies strong and their brains smart. Tell them that they don’t have to eat anything if they truly aren’t hungry but they won’t get any special options and they are not allowed to complain (and enforce that!). At our house, complainers have to leave the table and their meal is finished.
  • Let your kids help with food preparation so they feel involved and invested in making healthy choices. If you can, also let them go to the store and help pick out colorful and healthy fruits and veggies so they will be more likely to want to try them or garden if you can.
  • Don’t underestimate them. Talk to your kids about why some foods are healthy and some aren’t and let them make their own healthy choices sometimes. When I started doing this with my five year old I was surprised to see him voluntarily refuse cake, chips, or ice cream at parties when they were offered to him, even without my help.
  • Stop feeling like kids are entitled to treats and snacks as part of being a kid. For the most part, our kids are bombarded with sweets and unhealthy treats from a really young age. From birthday parties to school snack times to the endless kid friendly options. This is a huge disservice to them since this is such a critical time in lifelong health and we are encouraging forming bad habits with food.
  • Read books like Paleo Pals or Eat Like a Dinosaur to help them understand and want to make healthy changes.
  • This post has a list of healthy breakfast and lunch ideas

This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

We believe in making healthy, lifelong changes to your daily eating and exercise patterns. Physician’s Weight Control & Wellness’s programs are different from other weight loss programs in that they are specifically constructed by bariatric specialists to meet each patient’s individual needs based on their body chemistry, lifestyle, and weight loss goals. Our individualized programs focus on providing positive alternatives to unhealthy habits and targeting foods that provide your body with the specific nutrients it needs for optimal energy and fat metabolism. Practical exercise and hydration are also implemented into our overall program.

We encourage you to become a part of our successful weight loss program. We offer 50 years of safety, experience, knowledge, and expertise found nowhere else!

Contact us with any questions about Physician’s Weight Control & Wellness Center and how we can help you in your journey to better health.

Photo by Ramin Talebi on Unsplash