Having a picky eater in the family can make mealtime physically and emotionally exhausting – both for parents and kids.
So what’s the best way to ensure your child is getting important nutrients while making eating a comfortable experience? According to Rose Britt, a registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching, the answer is not “waiting it out” and assuming your kid will eat when they’re hungry.
“I’ve seen a lot of kids who will choose to go hungry and not eat the broccoli and chicken that’s on their plate,” she says.
Here are other techniques to try.
What are the healthiest options for picky eaters?
As a parent of a picky eater, you may be concerned they’re not getting adequate daily nutrients. Kids need to be eating from all of the food groups daily – fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. For picky eaters, that presents a greater challenge.
One thing parents don’t have to concern themselves with too much is protein. Toddlers generally only need 13 grams of protein per day, and children between 4 and 8 years old only need 19 grams per day (for context, a 160-pound adult should eat about 57 grams of protein per day).
“It’s rare that I actually have a child that I work with that is not getting enough protein every day,” Britt says. “They don’t need that much, their bodies are so little.”
But if you want to make sure your child is expanding their palate and getting a variety of vitamins and minerals, try some of these healthy options:
Iron is an essential nutrient because of the role it plays in carrying oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Growing children need even more iron than adults, according to the National Institutes of Health.
To combat this, Britt recommends iron-fortified cereals like Cheerios, Rice Krispies, Corn Flakes, Bran Cereal Flakes or Life cereal. These cereals can help kids meet and even exceed daily iron intake – just one cup of Life cereal has over 13 milligrams of iron. They come in a variety of flavors and have a texture that is often appealing to picky eaters.
“I find with a lot of picky eaters, they prefer the crunchy foods; our carby, crunchy snacky foods,” Britt says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about ⅓ of children between the ages of 1 and 5 did not eat a daily fruit in 2021. Children generally need between about 1 to 2 cups of fruit per day, depending on exact age and sex.
But fruit can be tricky to navigate for picky eaters, who may be uncomfortable with soft, squishy textures and seeds.
“You can’t tell by looking at a blueberry if it’s going to be a sweet one or a sour one,” Britt says. “So for kids that are picky, sometimes that really throws them off because a food doesn’t taste exactly the same every time.”
Freeze-dried fruits offer a possible solution; they provide that crunchy texture that many picky eaters are comfortable with but have the same amount of nutrients as their fresh counterparts, Britt says.
Fruit leathers are another alternative to get your kid to eat fruits because their texture is a lot closer to a chewy candy than a whole fruit. We’re not talking about Fruit by the Foot here – look for products that contain just fruit and vegetable puree. You can also make your own at home.
Muffins don’t always have to be a dessert or treat – you can add zucchinis or carrots so your picky eater gets their vegetable intake from a pastry they’re familiar with. These vegetables also pair well with chocolate, cinnamon and other sugary flavors. Try this recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction or Spend with Pennies’ carrot muffins recipe.
“I’m a big fan of making your own and having kiddo in the kitchen to help prepare and touch and smell and feel the food,” Britt says.
Smoothies are highly customizable in taste and texture, making them a great option for picky eaters. Find the flavors your child is comfortable with and blend them up – here are some USA TODAY-created recipes for you to try.
“If kids are eating fruit, I’d say that’s amazing,” Britt says. “Even if they’re not eating veggies, they’re still going to get a lot of great vitamins and minerals and fiber … especially if they’re eating fruits of different colors of the rainbow.”
Pasta sauces are one source of vegetable puree that most kids already like. If you want to get more than just tomatoes in there, try adding blended carrots, zucchini or spinach to the sauce.
Ground flaxseeds generally don’t change the texture or taste of smoothies or sauces when you add in a few teaspoons, Britt says. The health benefits are numerous.
School lunch ideas for picky eaters
Any of these options can be part of a healthy school lunch for a picky eater. Experts previously told USA TODAY a healthy lunch has something from each food group based on MyPlate’s recommended guidelines.
Britt recommends packing at least one or two foods you know your kid likes so that you do not surprise them so much at lunchtime that they won’t eat. Pay attention to portion sizes as well – smaller sizes can be less overwhelming.
How to help a picky eater
Handling a picky eater at mealtime and beyond can feel stressful for parents, but know that most of the time it’s a phase they’ll grow out of.
There are certainly kids who don’t outgrow picky eating, at which point you’d want to dig deeper to see if it's caused by something else underlying.
“If it’s taking up a lot of your thought space, it’s probably worth at least chatting with a pediatrician about,” she says.
If your child's pediatrician has expressed concerns about lack of weight gain, full-fat yogurt can be a good way to get extra calories in. Its texture is agreeable to many picky eaters and it's a high-protein and nutrient-rich dairy source.
When you sit down to eat, evaluate where your kid is at already and help them to get used to a new food in baby steps. This can even start before mealtime – instead of sneaking new foods in, establish trust by including kids in the cooking, Britt recommends. From there, you can introduce a new food by having your kids touch, smell or look at it before tasting.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she says.
So you're a picky eater: How to conquer food fears and when to get help
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Healthiest fruit: This one has cognitive and cardiovascular benefits
Healthiest vegetable: Check out these great nutrient-dense options
Healthiest bread: One is best, but your options for a healthy diet are aplenty
Healthiest cereal: Inside the nutritional info on the back of the box
Healthiest breakfast: Follow this 3-step guide in the mornings
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Healthy meals for picky eaters: Keep your kids happy and well fed.