It is all too common for children to be picky eaters and oftentimes, this then extends into adulthood. Unfortunately, pickiness presents nutritional challenges, because finicky eaters often dislike nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
But fret no further!
This is a comprehensive guide to creating a nutritionally sufficient diet for picky eaters. Know it is entirely possible to create healthy recipes for picky eaters with a few tips and tricks.
What Is "Normal" Picky Eating Vs Not?
Picky eating refers to children and adults who refuse to eat certain foods and tend to only eat a few, highly palatable foods. Pickiness often peaks during toddler and preschool years but can certainly continue into adulthood as well.
Parents tend to worry about their children's picky eating because they are afraid they will not grow properly. While this is warranted, remember that children's bodies know exactly what and how much food they need. It is quite remarkable but also nerve-wracking for the parent to relent feeding control.
Nonetheless, some pickiness is normal. Now, extreme picky eating habits are anything but. In fact, severe pickiness may be considered a full-blown eating disorder is known as avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
ARFID is a newer recognized eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Those with ARFID typically display eating disturbances like:
• Lack of interest in eating foods
• Avoiding certain foods based on texture, taste, sight, smell, or other factors
• Expressing concern about potentially unpleasant consequences of eating
• Only eating a certain number of foods (like 5-10 total)
• Extreme aversions to "healthy" foods
In addition, eating disturbances often lead to significant weight loss or an inability to gain appropriate weight and nutritional deficiencies. Negative psychosocial and emotional functioning and reliance on feeding tubes or supplements are also at risk.
There are several warning signs of ARFID such as:
• Suddenly restricting types and amounts of foods
• Eating a very limited number of foods
• Feeling sick or already full around mealtimes
• Fear of choking, swallowing, or vomiting
• Dramatic weight loss
• Inappropriate growth patterns in children
• Inappropriate emotional reactions at mealtimes
The bottom line is ARFID is an extreme form of pickiness that warrants medical intervention, whereas general picky eating may be combated in the home.
How to Combat Pickiness
Ellyn Satter explains that to help children learn how to eat responsibly, adequately, and competently, parents are solely responsible for providing healthy foods at snack and meal times. Children are responsible for choosing what and how much they eat from what is provided. Thus, parents who provide a larger variety of foods will likely raise children who regularly eat a bigger variety of foods including veggies.
In the end, the best way to overcome picky eating is to expose or be exposed to a variety of new foods over and over again. There are all sorts of statistics about how many times one needs to try a food to fully determine if they like it or not. The number is likely somewhere between seven and 20, with 10 being average.
Implementing this strategy is easier said than done though. It can be frustrating for parents to provide healthy choices that their children continually refuse. It can also be hard for adults to feel like they might never eat more than ten total foods.
However, the following specific strategies can turn picky eaters into avid consumers or at least ensure they obtain adequate nutrition.
1. Stock the house with several healthy choices.
Keeping in mind Satter's division of responsibility for childhood weight management, it is much easier to offer healthy foods when they are readily available. To make matters simpler, try to keep as many non-nutritional foods out of the house.
Total restriction is not recommended, so aiming for 80% nutrient-dense foods and 20% fun foods generally works well.
2. Encourage kids and adolescents to try new foods.
But do not force them to eat! Sometimes people simply need some encouragement to break outside their comfortable eating window. Using calm and inspirational talk and tone works better than expressing anger or aggression towards someone not wanting to try a food.
Incentivizing trying a new food by rewarding them with different food is also not a good idea. Provide your kind encouragement and move on!
3. Provide a variety of textures and smells.
Once again, it can not be reinforced enough that merely providing numerous opportunities to try new foods is the best way to increase variety in your own or a child’s diet. Offer foods with varying textures, tastes, and smells to expose a person to all different kinds of foods.
This is also a good way to keep an inventory of what foods they enjoy so one knows similar foods to offer next.
4. Include foods they already enjoy.
Equally as important as offering new foods is continuing to offer foods they already enjoy. This helps build trust between the feeder and eater and ensures the eater has the opportunity to obtain adequate nutrition.
Even if they only try one bite of new food and eat three helpings of already familiar food, that's a success. Provide a good balance of old and new foods for the easiest mealtime experience.
5. Make food fun.
Kids are more likely to want to eat a small tree than a head of broccoli. Any time the feeder can assign a function to food, like "eating chicken helps build strong bones which are important for sports," it will likely make the food more appealing.
Assign functionality to as many foods as possible to give them a reason to try them in the first place. For instance, turn cauliflower into exotic trees and carrots into vision helpers.
6. Sneak neutral veggies into foods they like.
Probably one of the most popular ways to offer veggies is in hidden form! Besides, a minuscule white lie does not hurt in this scenario. Feeders can sleep easier knowing their eaters are obtaining sufficient nutrients.
Ways to sneak veggies include the following:
• Add zucchini to baked goods like banana bread and double chocolate muffins
• Spruce baked oatmeal or morning glory cookies with shredded carrots and raisins
• Add riced cauliflower or summer squash to fruit smoothies
• Make crusts with chickpeas or almond flour
• Add simple, cooked veggies to soups and stews.
7. Involve the child in cooking.
Some picky eaters avoid foods simply because they seem too foreign. Thus, cooking with the picky eater can expose them to the newness of the food and allow them time to essentially get acquainted with it.
Make the cooking process fun and lighthearted for the best results!
Healthy Food for Picky Eaters
Luckily, the same food that is healthy for non-picky eaters is also beneficial for finicky eaters. Although specific nutritional needs shift throughout adolescence and adulthood, foods that remain healthy throughout include:
• Fruits and vegetables - a variety of colors + fiber
• Lean protein - poultry, 90% or above red meat, eggs, fish and seafood, low-fat dairy, beans, legumes, and other vegetarian meat substitutes
• Healthy fats - omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish and white mushrooms, avocados, olive oil, avocado oil, nuts, seeds, nut butters
• High-quality carbohydrates - whole wheat breads, pastas and wraps, rice, quinoa, regular and sweet potatoes, legumes, beans, winter squash varieties, and oats
With this being said, there are certain foods within these groups that picky eaters are more likely to enjoy. It is wise to offer the following foods first and then progress to foods that are similar to the first group. Offer the more exotic foods (think eggplant, kiwi, squash) down the road.
Picky eaters typically struggle most with vegetables, followed by protein, fats, and fruit. They are often willing to eat a larger variety of carbohydrates like bread, plain pasta, rice, chips, crackers, and cookies.
Start with these vegetables: green beans, iceberg lettuce, raw carrots, raw celery, corn
• Progress to: broccoli, cucumber, bell pepper, canned veggies
• Eventually offer: squash varieties, dark leafy greens, cauliflower, onion
Start with these fruits: grapes, apples, bananas, oranges, strawberries
• Progress to: pears, other berries, plums, mango, pineapple
• Eventually offer: avocado, olives, kiwi, tomato
Start with these proteins: eggs, dairy, chicken, ground meats
• Progress to: steak, pork, sausage and bacon, fish sticks
• Eventually offer: fish and seafood, beans and legumes
Start with these fats: nut butters, butter, cream cheese, dairy
• Progress to: oils, sauces, fatty cuts of protein
• Eventually offer: nuts, seeds, avocado, olives
Healthy Meals for Picky Eaters
When building healthy meals for picky eaters, it can be helpful to follow a general framework. Most importantly, include a balanced spread of the three macronutrients - protein, fat, and carbs - and established food along with some new ones regularly.
This ensures nutritional quality and provides an opportunity to overcome pickiness.
The framework checklist:
1. One source of protein, fat, and a fruit or vegetable
2. One to two foods they already like/will eat
3. One to two new foods (foods that they have repeatedly refused still count)
To get the ball rolling, here are a few nutritious meals sure to please the pickiest of eaters.
Because pizza is a well-accepted food, picky eaters will be more likely to at least try a new variety of a meal they regularly enjoy. And it is actually fairly simple to "healthify" pizza!
To healthify pizza, make it homemade. Start with a whole wheat crust base and look for or make tomato sauces with minimally added sugars. Next, sneak in a variety of veggies by cutting them very small (like dicing) and putting them under the cheese. In this way, they are essentially hidden and might not even be detectable.
Good veggies to experiment with include bell peppers, onions, spinach, tomato, and zucchini. Another popular recent trend involves using cauliflower as the pizza crust as well.
Grilled Chicken Tenders
Picky eaters often prefer simple, finger foods. Thus, make the typical chicken tenders healthier by grilling them instead of the frozen variety coated in breading and inflammatory oils.
Here is a quick way to make grilled chicken tenders:
1. Cut grilled chicken breasts into thin tenders.
2. Drizzle in olive or avocado oil. Season with neutral spices like garlic and salt.
3. Bake for 15-30 minutes or when they reach an internal temperature of 165°F.
Serve alongside other finger food such as raw carrots and dip and a piece of fruit or offer variety with a side salad or roasted broccoli. Also, add chicken tenders to other family meals such as King Ranch mac and cheese and chicken tacos.
Again, picky eaters are more likely to try a variety of food they already enjoy. Easily whip up some hamburger soup in an instant or crockpot for a new take on the popular sandwich.
Use a base of beef bone broth for extra protein and collagen and choose a ground beef or other meat variety that is 90% or above to reduce overall saturated fat intake. Then add neutral additions like corn and green beans, diced onions and/or celery, canned tomatoes, and top with cheese for a complete meal.
Healthy Snacks for Picky Eaters
Snacks can be a picky eater's best friend. Whether snacks are typically a single or relatively neutral food, even finicky eaters tend to enjoy snacks more than meals.
Perhaps there is also less pressure or feelings of being forced to eat, which actually increases willingness to eat as well. Nonetheless, healthy snacks can help bridge the nutritional gaps of inadequate meals.
Here are a few crowd-pleasing snack ideas:
• Celery with peanut butter and raisins or cream cheese
• Trail mix with nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and other favorite add-ins
• Fruit + nut butter
• Cottage cheese
• Cheese sticks
• Fruit smoothies
• Cookies made with oats and coconut sugar
• Turkey and cheese roll-ups
• Baked potato squares
• Cheese and healthier alternative crackers
• Oat and protein powder energy balls
• Carrots + dip (ranch, hummus, other as tolerated)
• Peanut butter and banana quesadilla
• Frozen fruit popsicle
Picky eating might seem like a beast to overcome, but it is certainly possible! With the help of the above nutritional strategies, it may be simpler than believed.
The major key to combating pickiness is the opportunity to try new foods. Offering a variety of different foods and then of course trying them consistently expands taste buds and tolerance to unfamiliar eats.
Most importantly, do not give up whether the one struggling is you or your child. Also, do not be afraid to ask for help from professionals like a Registered Dietitian.
Bell B. 28 Healthy SNACKS Your Kids Will Love. Healthline. Written April 12, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/healthy-snacks-for-kids.
Caporuscio J. ARFID: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment. Medical News Today. Written December 6, 2018. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327240#symptoms-and-warning-signs.
How to Handle Picky Eaters. ZERO TO THREE. Published April 18, 2010. https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/1072-how-to-handle-picky-eaters.