12 Tricks to Fix a Picky Eater

Learn how you and your nanny can get kids to eat healthy meals -- and like them!

picky eater

We've all been there. And many of us still are. No matter how many times we swore (to ourselves and everyone around us) that our kids will be different, that our kids will eat everything, the inevitable happened. We raised picky eaters. Gone are the fantasies of eating family meals of chicken masala and thai curry. Now we get excited if they eat a bite of broccoli alongside a cheesy bowl of macaroni. Chicken nuggets are their own food group, along with buttered pasta and fish (gold, not fresh). And delegating meal-making to the nanny has left you feeling even less in control. But before you relegate your kids to a life of frozen fried foods, fear not. We checked in with Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything, and Catherine McCord, founder of Weelicious and author of  Weelicious: 140 Fast, Fresh, and Easy Recipes cookbook, and discovered there's still hope. Here are their 12 suggestions:

  1. Follow the French
    Le Billon used to have picky kids, to the horror of her French in-laws. But, after a year living in France with her family, her kids began to eat like grown-ups (beets and all). The most essential lesson she learned overseas: "The French believe it is as important to teach your child to eat as it is to teach them to read," she says. "French mothers introduce an incredibly diverse range of food to their infants (pediatricians recommend leek soup for babies!), and French children learn to eat a broad range of healthy foods before the inevitable 'picky eater' phase."

  2. Get Creative
    If McCord's kids use an emphatic "NO" when offered an unfamiliar food, she springs into action. "I'll let them sprinkle something on top like sesame seeds or even change how they're eating by offering chopsticks," she says. "Whatever I do, I try to make it fun and 9 out of 10 times it works."

  3. Stick with Small Portions
    Children have small stomachs, and may feel overwhelmed by large portions on a plate, Le Billon says. Her advice: keep portions small, especially when it comes to introducing new foods. If they like it, they'll ask for more, which also gives children a feeling of control.

  4. Eat with Others
    A little positive peer pressure goes a long way. "At home and preschool, children encourage each other to taste new things," says Le Billon. McCord agrees: "The more kids see others eating a variety of foods the more apt they are to trying them."

  5. Avoid Labels
    According to Le Billon, the French believe that children can learn to eat, and like, all kinds of food. So instead of reinforcing the stereotype by calling your child a picky eater, Le Billon suggests telling your children: "You'll like that when you're a bit more grown up." If you expect kids to develop a wider palate, she notes, eventually they will. Though she cautions, "the French know this takes years, so be patient!"

  6. Grow Your Own
    Want kids to eat veggies? Start an edible garden, says McCord. "My kids pick green beans straight off the vine in the morning on our way to school without my prompting," she explains. "They feel so empowered knowing they're helping to grow food and it's gratifying when they get to eat it."

  7. Play Down the Health, Pump Up the Taste
    "In France, parents don't cajole with nutritional information," says Le Billon. Instead the focus on how good something tastes. "They believe (and tell their children), that good-for-you foods taste good. Healthy eating habits are a happy byproduct."

  8. Meet the Beet
    "When a child says 'I don't like that food', they often mean 'I don't know it,'" says Le Billon. To take the mystery out of a new food, let your child get to know it a little better. "Show your child a raw beet and then let them touch it and smell it. Cut it open, and let them look at the intense color." Once the meet-and-greet is sufficient, Le Billon suggests trying it in a variety of ways. Her family favorites: beet popsicles and beet salad.

  9. Forgo the Kids' Menu
    Next time you're out to eat, resist the temptation to order off the kids' menu, which McCord notes are generally an abyss of reheated frozen foods. Her advice: Ask if you could order a regular item as a half portion for kids. "Many restaurants are happy to do this. If they won't, choose from the appetizer or side dishes, which are in smaller portions and often really interesting yet simple for picky eaters," she says.

  10. Keep Snacks to a Minimum and Keep them Nutritious
    If your child is munching all day long, it's no wonder they aren't hungry come mealtime. Plus, they always know something crunchier, sweeter and more exciting is just a few hours away. To bring your child back to the table, limit snacks to one or two times a day. "French children have three meals a day, and only one snack: breakfast, lunch, goûter (late-afternoon snack), and dinner," says Le Billon, adding that children are hungrier at mealtimes, and because of this, they tend to eat better. McCord adds: "When I'm hungry and feeling sluggish I need a pick me up snack, so imagine how kids who run around all day feel," she says. She likes to offer her kids raw veggies, fruit, rice cakes, cheese or nuts to give them energy after school or before dinner.

  11. Resist the Bribery Temptation
    Sure, it will get you through the meal, but bribing your kids to eat x in order to get y will only cause problems down the road. "Food is not a bribe, a reward, a punishment, a distraction, or a substitute for discipline," says Le Billon. Instead, teach them healthy habits by getting them involved in the cooking, setting a fancy table and making the meal an experience the whole family will enjoy.

  12. Relax
    Perhaps the hardest tip of them all, the best thing you can do when dealing with a picky eater is to relax and be calm. "In France, the goal is not to control what children eat, but to teach them how to eat well," says Le Billon. "'Leaving them be' is part of this approach, which means reducing power struggles between parents and children around food." And while Le Billon admits this one is tough even for her, she has learned that the best reaction when a child refuses to eat is no reaction. "Don't force them to eat, but don't provide substitutes -- and stick firmly to that rule!"' And while McCord agrees on avoiding the dreaded fate of becoming a short order cook, she's okay with giving kids a piece of cheese or fruit after dinner. "It's okay not to like every food, as long as you're making an effort to try a variety of foods," she says.

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In addition to being a busy mom of two, Hillary Geronemus Truslow is an Internet marketing manager and writer. Fortunately, her husband likes to do most of the cooking.

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Comments (7)
Monica
This tips are fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing! I'm always look for help in this area.
Posted: April 04, 2013 at 9:48 AM
Celia L.
I am a Nanny for a Two year old and I have to make her Breakfast,Lunch and a Snack
I am always trying to come up with ideas to make her meals more appealing if that's the right word,She loves pancakes I make them once a week and I use different shaped metal cookie cutters,I put one in the pan and pour the Pancake mix in it she loves them,
Posted: October 09, 2012 at 1:06 AM
Photo of Katherine M.
Katherine M.
Vegetables are wonderful to start with as finger foods cut into small pieces for toddlers. Many may choose to dip into ranch dressing if given the choice. Once we introduce fruit it can be difficult to encourage toddlers to continue to eat their vegetables. Fruit is wonderful to use when making smoothies to hide flavors of lightly steamed vegetables. Steamed broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and beets are some vegetables which can be delicious to add separately, or mixed together as chosen in smoothies flavored with bananas, or favorite berries. Vanilla, and cinnamon also can be delicious to add to smoothies as well. Last but not least Pyrex glass containers are wonderful to freeze any small chunks of vegetables in the freezer for the next smoothie, and they are very versatile as they can be used in the oven for cooking too. Enjoy
Posted: October 03, 2012 at 10:47 AM
Photo of Valerie D.
Valerie D.
I got my kids (when they were little) to eat broccoli by telling them to "pretend they were dinosaurs eating trees," and it worked! And cauliflower was "trees with snow on them..." It never hurts to use a little imagination when it comes to foods that kids will typically refuse.
Posted: September 29, 2012 at 6:42 PM
Nicole
I know some picky eaters who are allowed to get up and play or watch TV once they are 'done' eating. What kids is going to choe to eat something they don't really want to over playing? My kids sit at the table with us and stay until we are done and they are excused. We have done this right from the start and it is not a problem. We have also eaten all of the same meals since about the age of 18 months.
Posted: September 21, 2012 at 3:11 PM
Photo of Bonnie V.
Bonnie V.
Excellent advice! One of the most important is serving small portions. As a nanny, I have found sometimes I am not only battling the children, but the parents as well. I had one family offering marshmallows as a snack and reward. I also see parents not sitting at the dinner table with their children, but rather in front of the television. Dinner time can be an excellent opportunity to catch up on your child's day.
Posted: September 09, 2012 at 9:45 AM
Photo of Alyssa B.
Alyssa B.
Fruit and cheese shish kabobs are a fun and creative way to eat healthy! Try using cookie cutters and turning the melons/cheese into fun shapes like hearts and stars! The kids will love it!
Posted: September 07, 2012 at 2:52 PM
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