It can be hard to put together a healthy meal plan for picky eaters and their very particular taste buds. However, there are small changes you can make to the foods they are already eating to incorporate healthier foods for your picky eater. And, meal planning will be less stressful for you!
As a Registered Dietitian who also has a picky eater at home, I relate to parents of picky eaters DEEPLY.
So, the last thing I want is for you to be a short-order cook, shouting out food ideas, waiting for your little one to choose something. You know when you stand with your head in the fridge, “do you want yogurt?” “Grilled cheese?” “Pasta?” “Cheese stick?” “Okaayy what do you want???”
It can do more harm than good when we cater and make separate meals for picky eaters. And it’s tough on you, when you can’t make just one meal for the whole family. When we are just a little bit too accommodating, it encourages avoidance of new foods, and pushes them further away from becoming a somewhat adventurous eater.
Table of Contents
- What is the best way to encourage your child to try new foods?
- Picky kids all like different foods
- What are picky eaters often missing from their diet?
- Why are these nutrients often low?
- How much do they need, why do they need it, and how do they get enough?
- Healthy meals and eating plan for picky eaters
- Dinner Meal Planning for Picky Eaters – tips!
- Want more help with picky eating?
What is the best way to encourage your child to try new foods?
I know it’s hard when you get in a rut of the same few meals over and over (like the chicken nuggets, french fries, and mac and cheese rotation). The best way is to keep exposing them to the healthy foods you want them to be eating. Even when they don’t touch the new foods. You still need to keep exposing them!
In my picky eater program, the Simple Steps to Picky Wins, parents get a specific framework to follow to advance their child from just looking at a new food, to actually tasting it. Because for many picky eaters, they need a little encouragement and support to get comfortable with new foods. This does not mean pressure. You are not forcing them or bribing them to try something new. But in SSPW you do get an exact step by step approach to follow that makes it easy to progress them forward.
Even without following that step by step approach, the good news is that you can still start other things right now that will help your picky eater and get them eating some healthier foods. Here I’ll give you a sample meal plan and how to add nutrition boosts throughout the day, while still serving foods your picky eater likes.
Picky kids all like different foods
Now, I know every picky eater is different. I’ve worked with hundreds of families and have seen the lists of foods that their child currently eats. While some foods are often commonly liked, like chicken nuggets, their individual likes are always unique to your child.
My son Teddy, for example, still doesn’t eat pizza and mac and cheese at 6 years old. And of course I’ve always been like, how can he not like the classic kid foods?? Just because many other kids like something, doesn’t mean yours will, and that’s okay.
So don’t get discouraged if this doesn’t have the foods your little one likes, this still can give you some ideas on how you can add some extra nutrition to their day.
What are picky eaters often missing from their diet?
Why are these nutrients often low?
Often, kids who are more selective will have lower intakes of meat, fish, fruits, and veggies. Iron and zinc are both high in beef, pork, chicken, and some seafood. And while veggies can be a sticking point for many kiddos, they surprisingly get the same nutrients in fruit as they do from veggies. Really!
But some kids are still limited in the fruit they will eat, or don’t seem to like it at all. I’m going to give you some tips for that.
How much do they need, why do they need it, and how do they get enough?
- How much?
- Ages 1-3: about 15-20 grams per day
- Ages 4-8: about 20-25 grams per day
- Why do they need it?
- Fiber helps with healthy digestion and preventing constipation
- Fiber containing foods also are good sources of nutrients and vitamins that may help reduce the risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer, and obesity
- How do they get enough?
- Offer 1-2 servings of high fiber foods at each meal
- High fiber foods:
- Whole grains (bread, cereal, brown rice, whole wheat pasta)
- How much?
- Ages 1-3: about 7 mg per day
- Ages 4-8: about 10 mg per day
- Note that vegetarian sources of iron are not as well absorbed, and children may need about twice the amount of iron when from vegetarian sources
- Why do they need it?
- Iron helps move oxygen throughout the body to all the cells
- Iron deficiency can affect growth and possibly lead to learning and behavioral problems
- How do they get enough?
- Limit milk to 16-20 oz daily, because too much milk can prevent them from getting enough iron
- Serve meat and/or fish daily, if possible
- Serve iron-rich foods along with vitamin C containing foods to increase absorption (like tomatoes, broccoli, oranges, or strawberries)
- Choose cereals that are fortified with iron
If your toddler doesn’t eat meat, read this post for more helpful ideas on getting enough iron (it’s equally as important as getting enough protein!).
- How much?
- Ages 1-3: about 3 mg per day
- Ages 4-8: about 5 mg per day
- Why do they need it?
- It helps with the immune system and proper growth and development
- How do they get enough?
- Red meat, poultry, seafood such as crab and lobster
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products, are not as high in zinc but do contain some
Disclosure: affiliate links are included in this post; as an Amazon Associate, thus, I earn from qualifying purchases
Healthy meals and eating plan for picky eaters
Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Picky Eaters
- Cold fortified cereal (These cereals are fortified with iron, zinc, B vitamins, and a few other vitamins)
- Some good options include:
- Original Cheerios – 4g fiber and only 2g added sugar
- Kix – 3g fiber, 4g added sugar
- Wheat Chex – 8g fiber, 6g added sugar
- Some good options include:
- Waffles or pancakes with extra nutrition:
- Kashi 7 grain Waffles
- Kodiak Cakes Power Waffles or Pancake Mix
- Simple Mills Almond Flour Pancake Mix
- Arrowhead Mills Organic Buckwheat Pancake & Waffle Mix
- Blender Oatmeal Banana Pancakes
- Serve cereal or waffles with 2% or whole cow’s milk, soy milk, or pea milk
- Always add a fruit on the side!
- If they are not big on fresh fruit, you can do a puree like applesauce, frozen fruit (frozen blueberries are usually popular!) or freeze dried fruit, which is nice and crunchy.
AM Snack Ideas
Aim to get a fruit or veggie in at snack time when possible. Here are some ideas:
- Sliced banana with peanut butter and sprinkles
- Full fat plain greek yogurt with mashed fruit stirred in (like mango, peach, or strawberry)
- Thin sliced carrots with hummus, mashed avocado, or guacamole
- Apple slices with chocolate hazelnut spread or chocolate brownie hummus
- Freeze dried strawberries and pea crisps (great if they like crunchy foods)
- Fresh fruit plus whole grain bunnies
- Chocolate avocado pudding
- Dino bars (perfect for ages 1+) use affiliate code MAMAKNOWS10 for 10% off
Healthy Lunch Ideas for Picky Eaters
- If they are typically a peanut butter and jelly eater:
- Make sure to use whole grain bread (I love Dave’s Killer Bread White Bread Done Right for kids who aren’t into whole wheat bread)
- Add ground flaxseed or hemp hearts into the sandwich for a nutrient boost
- Grilled cheese is a popular one too – again, try whole grain bread, and if they like to dip, this is a good way to introduce soup, by serving grilled cheese sticks with tomato soup to dip into (especially if they like ketchup).
- Serve a fruit or veggie on the side. Some picky eater friendly ideas:
- 100% juice box (juice DOES contribute nutrients, although it is lacking in fiber, it’s a good option for kids who are low on fruit/veggie intake)
- That’s It fruit bars
- KIND whole fruit bars
- Gogo SqueeZ pouches
PM Snack Ideas
More ideas to help you get in good nutrients at snack time:
- Wyman’s Just Fruit cups (these are like a healthy version of dippin dots. So fun!)
- Smoothie – see this post for healthy smoothie recipes
- You can freeze a smoothie into popsicles, too!
- Snack recipes from No Sugar, Still Sweet are sweetened only with fruit, and great to keep a batch in the freezer for easy defrosting and quick snacking (like one-bowl whole wheat banana muffins, and zucchini oatmeal raisin cookies)
- 5 ingredient no bake bars – great for extra fiber, as well as protein
- Larabars – made with just fruit and nuts!
- Hippeas – crunchy and fun, but made with chickpeas
Healthy Dinner Ideas for Picky Eaters
Dinner is usually the easiest time to serve meat, though I know your little one may not be interested in it!
Let’s chat through how to add some good nutrition at the dinner table, and in addition, make dinners more appealing to picky eaters.
- Burger night:
- Use whole wheat buns for extra fiber
- Add about ¼ cup milled flaxseed (again, fiber! And healthy fats) to the ground beef or turkey
- Make sure to use meat that’s not too lean- no more than about 90% lean, it will taste better to your picky one
- Burger size: make slider size burgers for your little one, then make the patties very flat. It will be easier for them to eat! Also, they’ll be more likely to actually try if it doesn’t look too big and overwhelming.
- Add cheese if they like it!
- Sides: Regular potato fries or sweet potato fries are totally fine to serve. If you can make your own baked fries and keep the skins on, there will be a little extra nutrition added there. Fresh fruit is particularly easy to serve with burgers, too.
- Most picky eaters are not super into regular chicken. But we can still work to branch them away from chicken nuggets. Believe it or not, trying chicken fingers is a great first step away from nuggets! If that is too big of a change, start with a different brand of nuggets. Eventually, you can make homemade breaded, pan-fried chicken breast tenders. For healthy oils, stick to olive oil or avocado oil for most cooking.
- Try serving with green beans – raw is a great way to start if they like crunchy (and are old enough to handle the texture). For example, start just by having them touch the green beans – ask them to find the longest bean and the shortest bean! (P.S. – I have tons of veggie introduction ideas like this in Simple Steps to Picky Wins.)
- Brown rice, as well as whole wheat pasta would be a great way to get some whole grains and fiber along with the meal
- You could even do a stir-fry and just offer the components of the meal separately to your picky eater. Like if they will eat white rice and plain chicken, but won’t eat foods mixed together, it’s totally okay to start out with offering the different parts of the meal without combining anything together.
- Have you tried any of the chickpea or lentil based products like Banza brand?? I LOVE Banza for picky eaters because they make pasta, rice, and even pizza crusts that are all made from chickpeas. Not only is this a great protein and fiber source, but also provides iron, AND is a great alternative to carbs, carbs, carbs all day.
- Healthy pizza alternatives:
- Banza chickpea based pizza
- Simple Mills almond flour pizza dough
- Whole wheat pizza crust
- Stir cooked red lentils into pizza sauce before topping pizza (they blend in really well!)
- Whole wheat pasta
- Chickpea or lentil based pasta like Banza, Modern Table Meals, Barilla
- Healthy pumpkin pasta
- Picky eater friendly creamy pasta sauce
- Not vegetarian, but another pasta tip – mash tender ground beef or sausage VERY small to mix into tomato sauce. Meat that is smaller, less chunky, and easier to chew often gets accepted easier.
Dinner Meal Planning for Picky Eaters – tips!
This is how I meal plan for a picky eater. You can watch me plan in this Youtube video where I walk through each step of the process, exactly what I’m making, and what my picky eater would have.
1. Plan for next week as early as possible.
Start planning by Thursday or Friday what meals you’ll make next week, so you’re ready to shop on the weekend. It’s so stressful when the fridge is empty, you don’t have a plan for the next week, and know that you NEED to get to the store. Add on kids who need your attention, and it can be very hard to have the mental space to think of things to make, plus take a look at the upcoming schedule, plus make a grocery list AND get to the store or order online all at the same time.
2. Review next week’s schedule and plan accordingly.
See how much time I have for dinner prep each night. Do we have activities, etc. That will dictate what I plan for each night. Do I need to do a crockpot or instant pot meal? Do I need something I can throw together in 15 minutes? I always assume I’m going to be tired and rushed because that’s usually how it goes, so I try to plan for it to be as easy as possible.
3. Anticipate the need for flexibility.
I do like to plan out for the full week, but I anticipate that I may switch around the days a bit, because unexpected crap ALWAYS HAPPENS. You end up having an appointment that runs long, or you spontaneously hang out with friends later in the afternoon than planned. You don’t want to feel totally locked in, so give yourself the ability to move things around when needed. That way you have other options.
4. For picky eaters, start with a rotation rule.
Instead of slipping into making mac and cheese three nights in a row, have at least 2 meals that you switch between. So if their favorites are chicken nuggets and mac and cheese, one night can be nuggets, the next night can be mac and cheese. That might be where you start if they have very few likes.
The goal is to build up to serving those favorites only 1-2x a week, along with sides that vary.
5. Plan around a safe food the nights you’re not serving a favorite meal.
A safe food is one that your child regularly eats and likes, but isn’t one of their favorites.
For example, my husband LOVES the chicken pot pie stew in my e-cookbook, Simply Satisfying Meals. My daughter loves some of the components but is not excited about the mixture of foods together. So I remove some chicken from the stew to serve plain. And we make biscuits to top the pot pie stew, and I know my kids will eat those. So even though they’re not eating the main dish, I know I have enough for them to fill up on, and will add some carrot sticks or salad for a veggie.
They don’t NEED to have a main dish that they are crazy about. It helps them learn to be more flexible when you don’t make their favorite meals every night!
Want more help with picky eating?
Grab my free picky eater starter guide here, then check out the Simple Steps to Picky Wins if you’re ready to see some major improvement with your picky eater.
Rakhinationwide · August 11, 2021 at 9:13 pm
Your post helped me a lot. Thanks!!!