For a parent, few things are more frustrating or worrisome than mealtimes with a picky eater. You may spend so much time thinking up fun dinner ideas, only to see your child turn their nose up at what you painstakingly prepared. You may have even just given up, with your child’s weekly menu looking like a culinary version of the movie Groundhog Day: the same thing over and over again. Maybe macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, and cheese pizza are on heavy rotation when it comes to family dinner but at least they’re eating, right?

The problem is that while your child may be eating “enough”—finishing the food on their plate—meals may be lacking in nutrients that they get from a variety of food sources.

Your child’s body is undergoing many changes and their growth and development rely heavily on nutrition. Poor nutrition can contribute to poor brain development, a lack of mental alertness, low energy, childhood obesity, and health conditions in adulthood.

Why Some Kids Are Picky

There can be a few reasons your child refuses certain foods and sticks to old favorites. One is that children’s taste buds are different from adults’—they tend to be more sensitive to bitter and sour flavors, so they aren’t as receptive to foods that aren’t in the sweet spectrum.

Another reason boils down to temperament: A 2017 study published in Child Development suggests that being choosy when it comes to food is related to a toddler’s openness to playing with new toys; simply put, every child is different and some are more receptive to new things than others.

And still another reason may be a desire to exercise some control—which is something you can relate to if you’re a parent who’s ever experienced a power struggle at the dinner table!

But take heart. There are ways to get your picky eater to expand their dining repertoire. Read on to find out how to make food attractive for toddlers and young kids. 

healthy food for kids

Healthy Food for Kids: Make It Fun!

There are tried-and-tested ways to encourage a picky eater to try those veggies on their plate. You can have them help you prepare the food by slicing (with a kid-safe knife) or plating. If you have the space for it, you can even garden and grow your own produce together.

Modeling also helps—if you’re a fussy eater yourself, then it’s reasonable to expect your child to be the same, so model good eating habits for them.

If you want to get creative, try these food ideas for kids:

Use fun shapes and sizes.

Kids—as with all people—have their own little quirks. That sandwich may not be remotely appetizing for your child but it might turn into their favorite once you cut the crusts off and slice them into little triangles. Try using cookie cutters to give food unusual shapes and sizes.

You can also play around with other food like pasta. One to try? Field Day Brown Rice Kid’s Mix Pasta, which comes in available at Healthy Options.

Present a variety of food.

If you tend to tell your child to eat what’s on the plate or they can go hungry, it might help to try a different approach. Present a variety of options so that they feel like they have some control. But don’t turn into a short-order cook that whips up whatever suits your child’s fancy.

Instead, place a spoonful or so of the food you have for family dinner (meat, vegetables, grains) and try not to introduce more than one new food at a time.

Serve new foods with old favorites.

Research shows that kids are more open to trying bitter-tasting foods when they’re mixed with something sweet. Try mixing a new vegetable with an old favorite or making a vegetable smoothie.

You can also take baby steps by giving them a snack of vegetable- or fruit-infused cookies, like Bitsy Smart Cookies or My Super Cookie, both available at Healthy Options.

Make it a game.

You can create a food rainbow chart that your fussy eater can color each time they eat a food of a certain color (red for apples, orange for carrots, green for broccoli, and so on). Or you can have a “taste test,” where you can take turns being blindfolded and trying new foods.

Don’t lose heart if your child still ignores the new foods you prepare. Experts say that kids may need to be exposed to new food 10 times or more before they’re willing to give it a chance. Don’t put any pressure on them, allow them to see then feel then maybe taste something over a period of time and see your picky eater gradually open up over time.