Figuring out what to feed your picky eater can feel like a game of chess where THEY are the expert and you don’t even know the rules of the game. It’s stressful!
But there is one thing my kids will never say no to: snacks.
Surprisingly, what you serve at snack time can actually be a strategy in your picky eater playbook. And in this post you’ll get lots of ideas for getting in more nutrition for your picky eater.
While I don’t wish the picky eating journey on anyone else, going through it with my own kids gave me a ton of compassion for picky eater parents. Simply put, it’s hard!
First I’ll review some common picky behaviors, and then get into a ton of tips and tricks. These will help lighten the mental and emotional load that picky eating can pile on!
I know snack foods are common safe foods for picky eaters. But I also know that packaged foods in general, and some basics like PB&J and macaroni and cheese, tend to be favorites too. So I’m going to give you healthier swaps and recommendations for how to make these things just a little more nutritious.
When each bite packs a little bit more nutrition, you can feel a lot better about their eating!
Note: This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you.
What is picky eating?
Just so we’re all on the same page, I usually define picky eating a couple ways.
If they only reliably eat less than about 20 foods, that’s a pretty good sign that they’re picky.
If they omit entire food groups, are resistant to new foods, and their list of safe foods/previously-liked foods is shortening, ding ding ding! You’ve got a picky eater on your hands.
But before you panic or wonder what you’ve done wrong (nothing!), I want you to know not all is lost. Picky eating rears its head at different times for different kids. It typically is a passing phase, but can be very challenging in the meantime.
And while you’re in the thick of it, you need strategies to increase variety and boost nutrition in your picky eater’s diet.
What can be missing from a picky eater’s diet?
It depends on their brand of picky eating. Some kids are picky, but still eat enough variety to meet their dietary needs. But if a child is only eating a very small list of foods, they may be missing some important nutrients. Here’s what to look out for.
There are three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat.
It’s unlikely to see a deficit in carbohydrate consumption. Carbs are easy to get in the diet and usually very well liked! I worry about carbohydrate intake being too low if you are following a keto diet, which is not recommended for children. (Unless it’s medically directed to do so.)
And, there is one type of carbohydrate that is often low for picky eaters. It’s FIBER.
Lack of fiber is a culprit in childhood constipation, which can be common in picky eaters. Fibrous foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits generally can supply plenty of fiber in the diet. But if those aren’t foods your child gravitates toward, it’s possible they won’t be getting enough fiber.
Lack of protein is something that parents worry about a lot. And while it can happen, it’s not as common as you’d think. Toddler and young child protein needs are pretty modest. You might surprised that most kids, even picky eaters, meet or exceed their protein requirements relatively easily. But! They often fall short on iron intake if they don’t eat much meat or fish.
See Related: If Your Toddler Won’t Eat Meat
What about fat? Fat is essential in the diet. Sometimes parents go low in fat because we were raised in a time when fat was considered bad. Fats, especially plant-based ones like nuts, nut butters, and avocado, should not be limited.
Certain vitamins and minerals can also be missing from the diets of picky eaters. The narrower the diet, the more likely we would be to see some of these deficiencies.
I don’t say any of this to scare you! It’s just to make you aware that there are certain nutrients that we want to be careful about if we are working with picky eaters. And there are simple fixes here.
Sometimes multivitamins can help fill the gaps.
My favorite multivitamin for picky eaters is this Renzo’s multivitamin! This is the one I typically recommend if they aren’t eating many iron-rich foods.
However, certain micronutrients they may be missing out on aren’t found in multivitamins. (Like calcium!) Or, multivitamins don’t have a high enough amount. If you’re worried about certain deficiencies, read this post.
(Note: always talk to the pediatrician if you’re concerned about deficiencies and their health.)
And finally, many parents tell me they struggle to get their kid drinking water. Hydration is an important component of nutrition because it helps all the body processes and digestive processes go smoothly.
Dehydration is also a culprit in constipation! So we want to make sure kids are drinking enough water AND eating hydrating foods.
Check out my favorite cups and bottles for toddlers and kids to help you find one that makes them more excited about drinking fluids! (Bluey on anything is a winner at my house!)
Food ideas for picky eaters
Let’s get to the good stuff — food!
When it comes to snack time, I have one major rule. Make sure that it’s more than JUST carbohydrates.
Like I mentioned, carbohydrates are by far the easiest things to get in a kid’s diet. So we don’t usually have to focus too much on weaving them in.
In addition to carbohydrates, add some protein, fat, and/or fiber. Those components make the snack more complex so it keeps them fuller for longer and more energized.
Snacks should help tide them over until their next meal. And sometimes carb-only snacks that I call “crunchy air” don’t really give them that feeling of satiety! (And they might be asking you for another one 5 minutes later.)
It’s okay to put a limit on the amount they eat at snack time. Snacks should be a tool to get a little extra nutrition in and bridge the gap between meals, not displace the meals themselves.
If you notice they have a hard time gauging their hunger and fullness: download this teddy bear printable to talk through it with them and practice together!
Healthy snacks for toddlers and kids
Classic snack foods like chips/cookies/crackers don’t really have a ton going on for them nutritionally. These are the ones I’m referring to above as “crunchy air.”
That doesn’t mean it’s not okay for kids to have them sometimes! But I want to give you some ideas of how you can help your kids branch out from these more typical snacks:
- Swap for a similar item (I’ll give some ideas in the next section!)
- Split the liked item with a similar item half/half, eventually tipping the scale toward the more desirable option. (For example, half Honey Nut Cheerios with half plain Cheerios)
- Serve the safe/liked food alongside another more nutritious food to make the snack more complete
Food ideas for picky eaters
First, here are ideas for those days you’re at home and can throw something together from the fridge or pantry. These incorporate a mix of macronutrients to help cover your bases and keep your kids full:
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Cheese stick (or wheel or slice) and strawberries
- Pears with yogurt dip (I add nut butter to the yogurt to make a thicker dip)
- Apples and peanut butter
- Peanut butter on crackers (or any nut butter, but I always have a lot of healthy peanut butter snacks!)
- Carrots and pretzels with hummus
- Half a sandwich
- Turkey and cheese roll-up
Packaged snack ideas
Healthy packaged snacks for kids DO exist!
I highly recommend you get my free digital snack guides right now because they have pictures of my favorites and it’s something you can easily pull up while shopping! (They will open in a new window so you don’t have to leave this post.)
If they like crackers, goldfish, or chips, try these healthy crunchy snacks:
Instead of fruit snacks, try:
- Solely Mango gummies (all flavors)
- Bear snacks (fruit rolls and snacks)
- Unsweetened dried fruit (mango is our favorite! Get the Costco bag!)
- Freeze-dried fruit
- Frozen fruit (many kids love frozen blueberries)
- Sour raisins
For nutritious granola bars, try:
- Happy Wolf Bars (nut-free! We love these! Use promo code KACIE10 for 10% off)
- Dino Bars (use promo code MAMAKNOWS10 for 10% off)
- Skout Bars (use promo code MAMAKNOWS for 20% off!)
- Cerebelly Bars
- Once Upon a Farm Bars (at Target!)
If they like flavored yogurt/yogurt drinks, try:
- Mixing their flavored yogurt with a dollop of plain yogurt
- Making fun build-your-own yogurt parfaits with plain yogurt + fun toppings
- Once Upon a Farm smoothie pouches
If they like juice boxes, try:
- Honest Kids juice boxes
- Serving juice diluted with water
For mini muffins/cookies, try:
- Simple Mills sweet thins
- Veggies Made Great muffins
- Simple Mills almond flour cookies
- Made Good cookies
- Skout cookies (use code MAMAKNOWS for 20% off)
If they like popsicles, try:
- DeeBee’s Organics (love these)
- Making your own! This is actually really fun and easy. And it’s a great way to add some nutrition with Greek yogurt, milk, fruit, etc.
Favorite after school snack ideas
- Trail mix (for 4+)- you can make your own using nuts, popcorn, cereal, pretzels, dried fruit, chocolate chips, etc!
- Homemade smoothies (see 6 of my smoothie recipes here and my favorite Healthy Chocolate Smoothie)
- Charcuterie snack tray- you can throw whatever on here! Veggies + ranch/hummus, fruit, nuts, pita bread, cheese, anything!
Bonus: meal ideas
This post focuses mainly on healthy snack swaps. But as a bonus for you, I want to include some common picky eater-friendly meals with ways to make them more nutritious.
If you’re looking for more help like this, I really encourage you to check out my course, Simple Steps to Picky Wins. It walks you through progressions to help your picky eater towards greater food acceptance and shows you tons of ways to boost nutrition in the meantime.
- My homemade air fryer chicken nuggets
- Applegate chicken nuggets
- Pro tip: serve them with smart sides- it doesn’t always have to be french fries! It could be a veggie and some cottage cheese or a serving of fruit
Mac and Cheese
- Make noodles with Kettle and Fire bone broth with the water to add more protein
- Add a scoop of pumpkin/butternut squash puree in the mixture
- Higher protein/fiber noodles like Goodles, Banza, or Barilla protein
- Use whole milk when you’re mixing in the cheese sauce
- Add butter if you’re needing to add calories for a sparse eater
- Try to find a jam/jelly with little or no added sugar; I like Blake Hill Preserves, Crofters Fruit Spread, or just using real mashed fruit
- Add a sprinkle of flax/chia seeds
- Use a whole grain bread with some fiber
- Change up which nut butter you use to get some different nutrients (for example, almond butter for a little more calcium than peanut butter)
If you could use some more meal and snack ideas for your picky eater, you’re in luck! My Meal and Snack Survival Guide is full of dozens of meal ideas and even more snack ideas to simplify feeding your family. I’m all about low-effort, nutritious, delicious meals and snacks!