Picky eating habits can start at any age, from infancy to the teen years, and if you’ve dealt with a picky eater, you know that they can turn every single meal into a battle. Finicky eaters are a touchy subject, and each parent handles this situation in a different way. On the one hand, it’s of the utmost importance to ensure that your child gets the proper nutrition they need to grow and thrive, while on the other you need to allow them to enjoy food and have a healthy relationship with it. And while it’s important to not let your children dictate what you do or how you do it, it’s also imperative to respect their boundaries to a certain degree.
When I was a nanny, and later a daycare provider, I quickly learned that each parent has their own philosophy and their own tactics, so I won’t attempt to preach about how you should or shouldn’t handle a picky eater. I will simply stress that “teaching young children an overarching, conceptual framework for nutrition” is an ideal way to get them to want to try new things, and then offer my best tactic for implementing this: have them help you in the kitchen! It works almost every time, because it’s difficult for children to not get excited about eating something that they helped create, and the process of preparing food is a very natural and organic place to teach them nutrition basics.
Here are some of my favorite ideas:
Making your own pizza is super fun, and what kid doesn’t like pizza? There are so many ways you can do this: buy pre-made pizza crusts and sauce, or the true aficionado can make their own. Gather up your cheese and a smattering of toppings, and set the kids to work designing their very own personal pan pizza. If you’ve got little ones that are learning to count, you can make this an educational activity by asking them to add three mushrooms, seven olives, etc...
At my house, whether we order pizza or make our own, there’s always a strict vegetable rule: each person must pick at least two vegetables to be on their pizza. Whether or not you want to follow this is up to you, but it’s a great time to encourage little ones to try something new and also educate them about the importance of proper nutrition. Maybe just say they have to add one vegetable, or one new item that they’ve never tried on pizza before. Either way, your little ones will be so proud of their creations that they won’t be able to help but gobble them up!
Incorporate One Of Their Passions
If your kid has a passion or an enthusiasm for a certain thing, try and incorporate that into a new or healthy meal. When I ran a daycare, a simple Pinterest search for “fun kid sandwiches” pulled up results for everything from animal-shaped sammies, to ones modeled after famous characters like Spongebob, Nemo, and Mater from Cars. If you can make a sandwich into a fun shape your kids will love, they’re unlikely to notice that there’s a new kind of cheese, a different nut butter, or a tomato and some lettuce on it. Okay, I lied. They will likely notice if you sneak new vegetables on it, but hey, you needed that cucumber and olive for the eyes and those sprouts for the hair, right?
You can get creative and experiment with more than just sandwiches. Things like eggs or pancakes (ahem, buckwheat, of course,) can be fried up into almost any shape using cookie cutters or a squeeze bottle. You can also have a ton of fun yourself creating different shapes and landscapes out of everyday fruits and vegetables. Things like raw bell pepper strips or broccoli florets might be more appealing if they’re offered up as a piece of “art.”
You might also be able to incorporate something your kid is enthusiastic about into their meals. If you’ve got a kid that loves gardening or nature, incorporate unconventional plants into their meals. For instance, did you know there’s a ton of ways you can cook with edible flowers? Fish are very healthy, but not popular with the kiddos, especially the picky ones. However, if you or a relative takes them fishing for the first time, it might encourage them to eat what they catch. Just don’t gut it in front of them...
This one starts at the grocery store. Tell the little ones that pasta is for dinner, but they get to design it themselves. Start with the foundation of your dish: the noodles! These are arguably the most funpart and likely to get the kiddos pumped about the activity. When they’ve got an array of choices that spans from fun shapes like bowties and corkscrews, to giant shells that they can stuff with things or lasagna noodles they can layer or roll up, they’re sure to get their heads in the game fast.
Then move on to the next step: the sauce. From cheesy, to tomatoey, to something interesting like a pesto or a lemony white wine concoction, this will get the flavor profile of the dish started. Next move onto protein(s… you can pick more than one.) You don’t have to stick with the classics (meatball, ground beef, chicken, etc...) Turkey, bacon, and even beans can be added to pasta. Pepperoni is also a kid-friendly and delicious addition.
Lastly, move on to the vegetables. Have them pick a few to round the dish out. Maybe make it fun by having them pick vegetables that are different colors, or different shapes (like one round one, one long skinny one, and one oddly shaped one.) If you want to get super creative, have them smell several spices and pick a few that they think will taste good in the final concoction.
Keep in mind that getting picky eaters to try new things should be done in baby steps: don’t start by getting them to try pesto if you know they’re comfortable with marinara sauce. Maybe just encourage them to try one new vegetable, and then get bolder and a little more assertive with each new attempt at this “hunt.” You should encourage them to come up with different combinations each time, but if you end up creating a dish you all love, you can write down the recipe and start a family collection of dishes you created together.
Most kids don’t have too much trouble getting their daily intake of fresh fruits, but it can be difficult to get kids to eat a wide variety of fruits, which is important when trying to make sure they get all the vitamins and minerals they need. An apple a day isn’t quite going to keep the doctor away if that’s the only fresh fruit they’re consuming.
One of the funnest ways to get them to try new fruits is to make Fruitsicles. I’ve never met a kid that didn’t get thrilled about popsicles, and fruitsicles are super easy to make. You just need a popsicle mold, fresh fruit, and fruit juice. If you’ve got multiple kiddos, have a contest to see whose creation is the most colorful, or let the kiddos know that they need to choose at least “x” number of fruits, or at least one fruit that they haven’t tried before. This is an extra fun one because it takes several hours for the fruitsicles to freeze, so the anticipation builds, and by the time they’re ready to eat, the little ones won’t even remember that they’re venturing into new culinary territory.
Just Have Them Help!
These are just a few fun ideas. I promise you can find plenty more online if you try. Remember, it doesn’t have to be all fun and games. The older kids get, the more responsibility they should have, and helping cook dinner on a regular basis can be considered one of their responsibilities.
You can start as early as age one, where you can have the little ones help you add and stir ingredients. Older children can do more and more depending on age, and you’ll know best what tasks your kids are capable of in the kitchen. Slowly add to their repertoire, to where they can feed themselves or make entire family meals by their early teens. This infographic shows what tasks are appropriate for different ages, but you should always keep in mind your own understanding of your child’s skills and abilities.
Don’t forget to take every opportunity to help them learn about nutrition along the way. If they complain about having to put vegetables or fruit on something, remind them that balanced meals that include fresh produce are an important aspect of everyday life. If you’re making something with an ingredient they are particularly averse to, do a little research on it beforehand and explain to your children why it’s so good for them. For example, things like whole grains and fish have omega-3s that are great for the brain and memory, which might just be enough to convince that stellar student (or that pre-test worrier) to try it.
The most important thing is to be encouraging throughout the process. Encouragement will not only foster a love and appreciation for food and nutrition, it will also help children develop a healthy sense of self-esteem, both in the kitchen and out. Also, be appreciative of their efforts, and compliment their work (even if it may look like… well, a five-year-old made it.)
Having your kiddos start helping in the kitchen as early as possible will provide lifelong benefits. You’ll thank yourself when they’re older and they prepare your favorite dish after a long, hard day at work. They’ll thank you as adults, not just for the skills you gave them, but for stressing the importance of preparing healthy, balanced meals. Good luck, and if you have any tips or ideas of your own to get kids involved in cooking, please share them in the comments!