Food for picky eaters
Having a picky eater is exhausting and one of the big challenges can be “what do I give them to eat?”. I know parents who wake up in the morning and their first thought is about food for their child.
When it comes to food and your picky eater there are 3 suggestions that are important, wherever your child sits on the eating spectrum:
3 supportive suggestions
1. Rotate rather than repeat. Having the same things each time is comforting for our child and easy for us. Over time though, they get bored and they are also developing habits that become challenging to break.
Even if your child has a very limited diet it is still important and possible. For example, if morning snack was crackers, afternoon snack is something different. If Monday night dinner is pasta, then Tuesday night is not!
2. Serve, serve, serve. Seeing new food, even if it is not being eaten is really important and does pay off long-term.
3. Change is critical. Gently showing our child change helps them to accept different things and over time new things. Even if it is offering a food presented in a new way it is valuable learning.
The “how” not the “what”
I say this every time and I will say it again! Resolving picky eating is not primarily about the food.
You can have the world’s most amazing Pinterest recipe and that is not usually going to help convince a fussy eater to try something new.
It is all about the how, not the what.
There are though, some things that can be useful when thinking about what food to provide.
Helpful strategies for food
1. Think outside of the box. Even with a super selective eater there are usually things that you may not have thought of. I know this from working with 100’s of families per year.
2. Mix things up. If you always serve one thing with another, try switching things around a little. I would suggest not suddenly surprising your child with this at the table, if they are food fearful, but building up to a change.
3. Break with tradition. For example, there is no rule that dictates only toast, eggs or cereal for breakfast. There is no reason not to have tomato soup or meatballs. Similarly, it is OK to have apple and pasta for dinner.
But if we are looking for food ideas what then?
Food for picky eaters
It IS more about the approach than the food, and if you have a super selective eater, you may need some support around that to get going. Check out the Complete Confidence Program here: https://theconfidenteater.com/complete-confidence-program/
The following suggestions for food will tick boxes for some and be a nightmare for others. Look for foods that are within your child’s comfort zone, or just outside.
There are foods that will be perfect for snacks, ones that will rock for lunch and others that would work for dinners.
Remember there is no reason not to have a combination of foods that work, even if they do not traditionally “go together”.
Many fussy eaters are comfortable with protein, and many are not. Even if they are not a big protein fan, having some available as a choice is still valuable learning!
1. Eggs – fried, boiled, scrambled, poached! Sometimes a yolk is OK and sometimes only a white. If you haven’t tried them separately for a selective eater it is worth a whirl.
Dippy eggs, with toast soldiers, or crackers or chippies.
Boiled and mashed with mayo or sour cream.
Fried and cooked into the middle of a piece of toast.
2. Sausages – sliced and served on a skewer. As a “hot dog” inside bread or a roll. Wrapped up inside a pancake.
3. Bacon. Fried and chopped into pieces and served on top of pasta or toast or crackers. As a dipper into egg or sauce.
4. Meatballs. Teeny tiny balls of beef, pork or chicken mince that break down easily in the mouth without lots of chewing can be perfect for little mouths. You can serve in the traditional way with pasta, but they are also perfect on their own or on little picks.
You may even want to crumb the outside and make into a round nugget.
5. Chicken. Nuggets are often accepted as the meat is not chewy and the coating is dry/crispy. We can use these parameters to look for other options that may work for our child. Tenders, schnitzels (which you can always cut into tiny pieces) or home-made crumbed chicken.
Roast chicken, drumsticks, breast. For a meat eater these could be a big win and are a perfect snack, lunch, or dinner option. If meat is easy can we pair these with new foods?
6. Beef/lamb/pork/steak – if our child does eat a range of meat, then serving new things that push the envelope a little can be a great way to make progress with the picky eating.
7. Beans/lentils/chickpeas – these are often not top of the list for picky eaters!! But then again, many children will eat hummus (one of our 5 a day). We can also roast chickpeas to make them crispy and crunchy.
My boys began eating lentils after having dahl and I know they are not the only ones! I mix lentils into many mince dishes. Don’t ignore them without giving them a whirl first.
Fruit and vegetables
If you have a child that loves fruit and is not enthused about veggies, do not despair. Many of the same nutrients show up in both, and if you do have a fruit eater, making the leap to vegetables is smaller.
1. Raw fruit is the perfect snack but it’s also a great additional to breakfast, lunch or dinner. Some children love it whole, some peeled and some chopped up. Gently building a comfort level with all forms is useful. It supports our child to be more socially flexible too.
Remember it’s easy to mix with other foods too. We can add to a cocktail stick with some cheese or a piece of sausage, for example. We can serve chunks of apple or pineapple or segments of mandarin in a salad.
2. Tinned fruit. Sometimes this is easier as it’s soft and sometimes more of a challenge, as it’s mushy! One of the advantages is that it leaves less textural issues if it’s whizzed into a smoothie or puree.
3. Frozen fruit. Sometimes frozen is easier for picky eaters as it removes some of the textural challenges. It also doesn’t have the same intense flavours as fresh fruit. Plus we can get berries all year round.
1. Raw veggies. These are a great snack and easy to send in the lunchbox as well. Many fussy eaters prefer them to cooked, as they are crunchy. Although it is easy to think carrots and cherry tomatoes, it’s great to step outside of the square too:
Capsicums, radish, celery, mushrooms, green beans, broccoli (especially the stalks), cauliflower, orange kumara and corn.
Baby spinach leaves are often a surprise winner. Texturally it is a whole lot easier than lettuce AND you can cut the leaves into shapes with scissors.
Not forgetting either things that may be a little out of the square, like olives (and yes, I know technically it is a fruit, but it’s more vegetable-esque …).
2. Cooked veggies. These are often a bit of a challenge, but not always and not necessarily. Although overboiled veggies can be really bleurgh, there are lots of ways to cook and prepare that make them into heroes.
Again, thinking outside of the square for the win.
Roast veggies are often sweeter, and we can cut into tiny cubes and roast until super crispy. Don’t just think potatoes, kumara and carrots either. I often roast cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels, parsnips, swede, beetroot, capsicum and well, pretty much anything!
Adding a sauce like cheese or tomato can help to bridge the discomfort.
Steaming can leave veggies feeling a little watery or mushy. Sometimes frying them is a better option. When I steamed broccoli, everyone ate a floret. When I began very lightly steaming and then slicing thinly and frying in butter, consumption sky-rocketed.
3. Integrated veggies. Although I am NOT advocating hiding, often it is easier to begin eating vegetables when they are mixed in with other foods. This could be grated into a mince dish or a quiche, for example or it could be pureed into a sauce for pasta or pizza. Drinking is often easier than eating so blending into a smoothie can work too.
Avocado can be a winner on its own, but also mixes magically into smoothies, mousse and cake mixture.
Whether this is traditional dairy or a substitute, often the fatty, filling result is a win for a fussy eater.
1. Yoghurt. Although it’s a perfect breakfast or snack, it’s also a great dip. It can be a good way to encourage eating of other foods too.
Blending into smoothies is an obvious choice, but it can also be cooked into sauces or stirred into a muffin mixture.
Don’t forget frozen yoghurt, fabulously ice cream-like.
2. Cheese. Often a big favourite for picky eaters. We can cut, grate, or do slices. It is perfect on a skewer or cocktail stick and matches well with many other foods. What about cheese sauce?
Can we melt it or introduce a slightly new cheese?
These are often a win for picky eaters, so I won’t spent too much focus here. What I would recommend though, is using these favourites to support a child to take a mini step in a new direction:
1. Bread. If we have a child who is OK with bread can we do:
Toast, rolls, slightly different bread, crumpets, croissants, bagels, French stick or muffin splits?
2. Crackers. If we are OK with one cracker can we try a new flavour for that cracker or a slightly different brand, shape or texture?
3. Potatoes. These are of course vegetables, but I think fit better here. Chippies are often accepted by picky eaters, as are hot chips. If this is the case, what other types of potato products can we try?
If regular chippies are OK, what about corn chips or veggie chips?
4. Biscuits, cakes and muffins. I am always excited when a child is happy eating baked goods. It opens so many potential doors. Firstly, it is easy to add nutrients to baking and secondly, branching out can be easier.
Don’t think how can I stuff zucchini into a muffin, think, how can I gently expand what my child eats by offering them a slightly different version of an accepted food.
Although a biscuit may not be top of the nutritional tree, having a home-made Anzac is the perfect way to introduce oats into the diet, for example.
5. Nuts and seeds. Nuts can be a win as they are crunchy and dry, like the favoured crackers. If not on their own we can use them as a flour substitute in baking.
Mixing and matching
Even if your child has a very limited diet, it can be expanded by concentrating on the foods they do eat but in a different context, or matched with other foods. All of this is great learning for our child and also starts to expand our serving and their eating options!
If you are struggling to support your child to eat new foods, please check out the new program: https://theconfidenteater.com/complete-confidence-program/
Judith is mum to two boys, a tween and a teen and is the author of Creating Confident Eaters. My dream is that every child is able to approach food from a place of safety and joy, not fear.
I delight in showing parents how to get picky eaters eating in simple, gentle, practical steps that anyone can master. I graduated from Cambridge University and have qualifications in nutrition, parent education and am a trained telephone support worker for ParentHelpline. I am currently working towards qualifying as a psychologist. I would love to understand more of the “why” behind fussy eating and to eventually spearhead research in this area.
Learn more about Judith here: https://theconfidenteater.com/about/