How to Deal With Multiple Picky Eaters in Your Family

Tips and tricks for making mealtime more manageable

Let’s face it, when it comes to food, getting your kids to venture out of their comfort zone can sometimes feel like a game of Twister. From playing the airplane game when they’re young to hiding veggies in their meals when they’re teens, encouraging a picky eater to try new food often requires a lot of creativity and some mad skills in the kitchen. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of moms and dads who have lived through this phase of parenting and are willing to share their top tips for dealing with multiple picky eaters in a large family. 

Setting the Foundation

When it comes to dealing with multiple picky eaters in a big family, Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Maternal Health-Child Feeding Specialist, and mother of five, says it’s important to first understand what your primary responsibilities are as the parent. 

“As the parent, you are in charge of deciding the menu for your family, as well as determining where and when you are offering meals,” she explains. While you want to be considerate of your children's preferences, Karges says you can't allow their preferences to dictate what you will or won't serve as part of a family meal.

Since many families deal with one or more picky eaters at some point (and some at the same time), Karges reminds parents that picky eaters will not learn how to eat other foods if they don't have repeated exposure to foods they are not comfortable eating.

Simple Tips for Picky Eaters

Dealing with one picky eater is hard enough. But when more than one of your kids is a picky eater, or they all hate or love different foods, the challenges that arise often require some serious intervention.

Here are 10 tips and strategies to help you make mealtime — and planning and shopping — less stressful, so that you can maintain a focus on healthy eating.

Stick to One Meal

If you’re catering to multiple picky eaters, there’s a good chance you spend most days feeling like a short-order cook. So, before you implement any of the strategies below, your first order of business is to commit to making one meal for the entire family. Once you’ve made this a habit, give a few of these simple, yet very effective, tips a try. 

Incorporate Safe Foods

To keep multiple kids comfortable and willing to dig in at the table, Karges says to incorporate one to two neutral foods that your children are generally willing to eat. These can be foods like fruit, milk, bread, plain pasta, and other foods they are familiar with.

Why does this work? Karges says when picky eaters can identify at least one food that they like and can recognize, they are likely to feel more comfortable at the meal.

Keep Mealtimes Positive

When you're juggling mealtimes and feeding multiple children, things can feel stressful and chaotic. But remember, “it’s not your responsibility to get your children to eat,” explains Karges.

Instead, “it's your job to offer consistent meals and snacks throughout the day with a variety of foods and allow your children to self-regulate and eat what they need from what you've provided.” This can help reduce the pressure and stress of mealtimes for both you and your kids. 

Refrain From Pressuring Kids

Once you've offered the food for the meal, Karges says the ball is now in their court. “They are responsible for determining whether or not they want to eat, as well as how much they want to eat from the food you've provided,” she explains.

Pressuring your children to eat can backfire and create an aversion to the very foods you want them to eat, which is especially true of picky eaters. Instead, Karges says to allow your children to eat and try foods on their terms from what you've provided for meals.

Serve Healthy Foods First

“One of the best tricks in my arsenal is knowing how to leverage hunger,” says Nicole Magryta RDN, author of "Nourish Your Tribe: Empowering Parents to Grow Strong, Smart, Successful Kids." Like most families, Magryta says her kids sit down to dinner quite hungry, which presents an opportunity to serve food they may otherwise dismiss.

“As I’m preparing our food for supper, I will cook their vegetables just ahead of the rest of the food. Often, I will serve up a bowl of broccoli and butter, a fresh green salad, or a plate of sliced raw veggies with hummus as a pre-meal appetizer.” says Magryta.

As a bonus? This technique also works great in restaurants if you order veggies or big salads prior to the main meal.

Be a Calm Gladiator

Talking too much at mealtimes is something many of us do way too often. While a conversation about the day is great, using our words to bribe, coax, or make a big deal out of eating a particular food is a recipe for disaster — especially with multiple picky eaters. That’s because “when we engage in this type of back and forth, we risk sending the message to our kids that the food must not be that good,” says Magryta.

Her solution? When mealtime comes around, serve your prepared meal, tell them what they are eating, and move on. If questions come up, explain why it’s healthy for them, that there will be no alternatives, and that they are expected to eat what is served. 

Offer "Adults Only" Food

This tip from Renee Bergeron, a mom to 14 children (five adopted and nine biological children), is a great example of simplicity at its best. When introducing a new food you’re worried your child won't eat, serve it up to only the adults around the table, and when they ask about it, tell them it's only for mommy and daddy. You’ll be amazed at how well this works!

Try the Partner Approach

Sitting down to a plate full of foods you don’t like is difficult -- even for an adult. That’s why Bergeron says always serve non-preferred foods with preferred food at meals. “While this might mean your child begs to only eat the preferred food, having it available can reduce anxiety around eating new things,” she adds. 

Cook Once, Taste Twice

Since rule number one of dealing with picky eaters is to only cook one meal, the question becomes how can you stick to this, but still provide some choice for your little one’s taste buds? Celeste Cruz, a mom to five kids (including twins!), says one of her best tips for dealing with multiple picky eaters is to cook one meal, but with two tastes.

For example, make a rack of ribs, but brush half with barbecue sauce and the other half with honey mustard. Or, serve a tray of chicken breasts, half seasoned and the other half plain. This allows you to accommodate more preferences at the dinner table without doing extra work.

Have Fun with Toppings

If you want to offer a variety of food, but stick to one main course, why not try serving a meal that requires a toppings tray? Another way Cruz recommends dealing with picky eaters is to prepare a basic main course like chili, baked potatoes, salads, tacos, or burgers.

Then, fill a tray with various toppings that go with the meal. That way, everyone can customize their own plate. Plus, you can ask your kids to make a list of toppings to include with each meal. Then, they can chop, shred, dice, and prepare the tray. 

A Word From Verywell

When you have five or more kids, managing mealtimes with multiple picky eaters often requires patience and a good sense of humor. While there is no right or wrong way for dealing with food issues, it can help to have a few practical strategies at your fingertips.

So, the next time you're planning meals for the day, give a few of these kid-tested tips a try. And don't forget to be kind to yourself; this process takes time.

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