Healthy Meals for Picky Eaters

How to Get Your Kids to Eat Healthier Foods

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

It's almost dinner time and you're suddenly feeling anxious—what will you feed your kids quickly, that is nutritious and something they'll actually eat? Every night doesn't need to be a struggle because there are ways to avoid food battles at the dinner table. Learn simple ways to feed your pickier eaters' nutritious foods that they will enjoy. It may take some trial and error and a little creativity, but it's never too late to get your kids eating healthier.

Expand on What They Already Like

Oftentimes getting a child to accept a new food can be challenging, especially a strong-willed child who has some selective taste preferences. Serving foods that taste good and look familiar can help to reduce battles and increase food acceptance. Providing access and serving healthy foods is the role of the parent, and one of the best ways to get children to explore and expand their delicate palates is to expand on the foods they already enjoy eating.

Instead of Boxed Macaroni and Cheese

Although your child may want to eat boxed macaroni and cheese every night, serving it nightly is probably not ideal because 1) it isn't the most nutritious choice, and 2) by doing so, you'll be enabling your child's "pickiness." If this sounds familiar, don't stress, you can start by making a small change.

For example, if your child only eats a certain brand of boxed macaroni and cheese, you can replace it with a healthier version, such as an organic brand, a whole wheat pasta (there are a variety of shapes), a grass-fed variety, or a bean pasta version, Banza, for example. While this may still come second to cooking your own version, it will help ease them into trying new things and expand their palate to different types of pasta and healthier ingredients.

Once they get used to different varieties, you can try making your own macaroni and cheese using more wholesome, unprocessed ingredients. For example, you can shred fresh Parmesan cheese on top of whole-grain elbows, or sprinkle in some nutritional yeast for added b-vitamins and extra dairy-free cheesy flavor. When they get more adventurous toss in some peas, or chopped broccoli for added fiber, antioxidants, and calcium.

Instead of Frozen Pizza

Your children may love the taste of frozen pizza, but most varieties are processed, packed with sodium, and are lacking in fiber and other nutrients. But, if you choose wisely, pizza can be a healthy choice since it does contain some healthy ingredients.

Tomato sauce has vitamin C (an important nutrient in boosting immunity and wound healing), vitamin A, which is an essential component for normal vision and immune function, as well as other antioxidants, such as lycopene.

Cheese is rich in calcium and protein, which is important for growth and development. And if you can find a whole-grain crust, you are incorporating healthy carbohydrates, which provide your child with energy and fiber they need.

Start by replacing your frozen pizza with an organic frozen whole-grain crust and have your kids add the sauce and cheese (they can choose from mozzarella, cheddar, or parmesan).

Alternatively, you can purchase whole wheat dough from the grocery store and have them make their own personal pizzas. It might be messy, but getting kids involved in food preparation is a wonderful way to make them feel valued and confident, which can directly impact their desire to eat healthfully.

Other ways to play on pizza is to use English muffins, whole-wheat mini bagels, or whole-grain wraps which can be used to make a "quesadilla pizza." When your children have adapted to these changes, consider topping their pizzas with a vegetable of their choice — broccoli, spinach, peppers, onions, for added nutrition and color.

Instead of Chicken Nuggets and French Fries

An undeniable go-to favorite, chicken nuggets, and French fries are typically high in saturated fat and sodium. Some parents swear that their children can detect if they try to make an alternative version of this food. If it's not the brand their child is "used to," then they won't eat it. This can be true, especially for kids with sensory difficulties.

If your child is adamant about only one type of chicken nugget or French fry brand, consider trying to introduce a healthier store-bought version. There are some varieties that use organic meat and fewer additives than others (without sacrificing taste and texture) and are verified non-GMO.

Another option would be to substitute chicken nuggets with fish. Fish is another protein source that contains healthy fats. Some companies, such as Dr. Praegers, make wild fish sticks and fish-shaped fish "sticks" using minimal ingredients and wild fish. You can also try to buffer their meal and add more variety with a healthy dipping sauce — something yogurt-based or guacamole can offer healthy fats, calcium, protein, and fiber. This tip is especially helpful if your little one needs to add more calories to his diet.

Once you feel like your child is willing and able to try other versions, you can make your own baked chicken nuggets and French fries in your oven. You can even try to substitute regular potatoes for sweet potatoes and make sweet potato fries or sweet potato chips. By making them at home, you can cut out the unhealthy ingredients, reduce calories, fat, and sodium, all while making a wholesome, nutrient-dense meal.

Lastly, experiment with the type of protein that you are serving. If your child likes chicken nuggets, then make lightly breaded chicken cutlets, which can be breaded with whole-grain bread crumbs or panko. Serve this with whole-grain pasta and a side salad or some cut up cucumbers for a balanced meal.

Try Breakfast for Dinner

Most children love breakfast food, and if done properly, breakfast is delicious, quick and full of good nutrition. Some good options include:

  • Oatmeal with mixed berries and chopped nuts
  • Yogurt parfait with fruit and lower sugar granola
  • Whole wheat banana pancakes topped with ricotta cheese or Greek yogurt and a drizzle of honey
  • Frozen fruit smoothies with minimal extra sugar
  • Egg omelets (you can use any cheese they like inside and vegetables if they are willing)
  • Avocado toast (top with tomatoes if they are willing) and serve with hard-boiled eggs, and fruit
  • French toast made with whole grain or sourdough bread, topped with jam and fruit instead of syrup
  • Egg muffins with cheese
  • Grilled cheese on whole grain bread

The options are endless. A great way to boost a breakfast recipe is to add ground flaxseed meal, which adds fiber, protein, and healthy omega 3 fatty acids (an important nutrient for brain development).

Deconstruct the Food

Your child loves meat, tomatoes, and lettuce when eaten separately, but when you put it all together in a taco, he suddenly refuses to eat it? Not to worry. Let him put together his own meal and eat it deconstructed. As long as he is getting the right nutrition, he will learn how to adapt to new flavors and eventually will eat things mixed together. Another example is chicken soup — the broth (especially if homemade) is full of vitamins, minerals, and some protein.

Set some broth aside and let your child dip whole-grain bread into the broth. If you are serving it with noodles and they'll eat the noodles with the broth, put them inside or serve them on the side. You can also put chicken and vegetables on the side too.

Encourage Independence

Serving dinner family style allows your child to choose which foods she or he wants to eat. If age appropriate, allow your child to serve themselves the foods they'd prefer. Encourage them to try new things, and make sure there is always at least one thing on the table that you know they like.

Balance out the Meal

A balanced meal contains a healthy carbohydrate, a good source of protein, fiber, and some fat. This will yield a filling and nutritious meal. Some kids don't like the texture of typical proteins, but that doesn't mean they aren't getting any protein if they refuse to eat turkey meatballs.

Think about your child's meal — a serving of protein, can be a glass of low-fat milk or milk alternative or, if you making a meatless meal, it can also include a whole grain, beans, or bean spread like hummus, nuts, seeds, eggs, chicken, fish, turkey, lean beef, cheese, or pork.

A carbohydrate choice can be either a whole grain bread or different type of grain, beans, corn, squash, peas, or it can be a fruit. Adding sources of good fat such as cooking with oil, or adding avocado, or low-fat cheese to food can increase the flavor and nutrition profile of a meal.

Rotate the Menu

If you have a good menu that offers a few different healthy and tasty foods several times a week, keep life simple and rotate the menu. This way you can prepare accordingly, your children know what's happening for dinner, and you know they are going to eat. You can still try to incorporate new foods into old favorites, by making substitutions or adding simple side dishes.

You might start by rotating a three-day weekly menu and include a designated eating out day once a weekend. For example, a rotating menu could be:

Monday: Whole wheat spaghetti with Parmesan cheese, roast chicken, salad with cucumber and carrots (if they won't eat salad set aside cucumber), and strawberries for dessert

Tuesday: Turkey tacos on whole-grain wraps (chopped tomatoes, guacamole, shredded cheese, peppers — on the side) let me make their own wrap, serve with cantaloupe or watermelon. You can also opt for taco bowls with brown rice if the tacos are too messy.

Wednesday: Breakfast for dinner — choose an option from above

Thursday: Same as Monday — you can switch the pasta shape, sauce, or protein type if you like

Friday: Same as Tuesday — you can swap the protein type or rotate the vegetable if you'd prefer

Saturday: Order out — family's choice

Sunday: Breakfast for dinner — choose any recipe from above

Get the Kids Helping

Most kids will be more willing to eat different foods if they are involved in the food shopping, planning, and preparing. For example, have your child pick out one new fruit or vegetable each week and prepare it a few different ways. Let's say you choose, green beans — let them wash them, pop off the tips, and serve themselves. Giving them mealtime jobs can also help to create a peaceful, cooperative meal time.

Offer Vegetables Alongside Fruit

Most of the time, the biggest struggle at dinner is getting children to eat their vegetables. Whether they are fried, roasted, slathered in sauce and cheese, or hidden in the food, some kids simply refuse to eat vegetables. If they eat them this way, serve them up, however, they like.

If your kids won't eat their vegetables, don't give up. Continue to serve a variety of options and encourage them to try new foods, but try to avoid force-feeding. This can lead to the formation of unhealthy food habits and create meal-time battles.

When your child refuses to try a vegetable, the first step may be to get them to keep it on their plate and offer a similar family of fruit for dinner with their meal. For example, if your child won't eat sweet potatoes or butternut squash, serve cantaloupe or mango with dinner, too. Fruit also contains lots of good nutrition, including, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and water.

A Word From Verywell

Feeding children who are less adventurous, strong-willed, or pickier eaters can be challenging and overwhelming. But, it's never too late to get your family eating better. Start slowly and make gradual, practical changes to increase the variety and nutrition in their diets. Aim to expand on foods they already like, create a menu schedule, serve fruit with meals, and don't be afraid to serve less typical foods for dinner, such as breakfast. It may take a little trial and error, and some creativity, but it's not impossible.

By Barbie Cervoni MS, RD, CDCES, CDN
Barbie Cervoni MS, RD, CDCES, CDN, is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist.