If you work with parents of picky eaters or your own kids are averse to trying new foods (especially anything green), the good news is that pickiness is normal and most kids eventually outgrow it. That said, when parents are in the thick of an all-white food jag, or a vegetable hasn’t passed their child’s lips in days, finicky eating habits can be tough to swallow.
To make mealtime a positive and nutritious experience for everyone in the family, I gathered 10 tips from real-life moms in my online community for encouraging children to eat a healthful and varied diet. Whether a parent has the pickiest eater on the planet or an adventurous eater who needs a little nudge every now and again, these creative, proactive tips can work wonders for anyone.
Invest in a Plastic Lettuce Knife, contributed by Karen
“My 4-year-old has been cooking with me since she was old enough to stand up at the counter. About six months ago, I bought her a plastic lettuce knife, and now she chops many of the veggies we need in our recipes. She has a collection of kids’ cookbooks, and a few times a month, she gets to pick out a new recipe for us to try together. She loves to sample as we go, always wanting to know what each ingredient tastes like before she tastes it in the finished dish.”
Ease Your Way Into New Foods, contributed by Jamie
“When we try a new food or recipe, I always have other dishes alongside it that are familiar and well liked. That way, the kids don’t feel desperate or pushed into eating the new food, but they typically will try it and like it just fine.”
Fruits and Veggies … First, contributed by Brandy
“At lunch or snack, I serve fruits or veggies first before I serve carbs, meat, or a drink. Once they eat it, which they do because they’re hungry and it’s all they have, then I give them the rest. Works great for all ages. The littles don’t see anything else, so they eat, and the big ones don’t fill up on the other stuff, which would make getting them to finish their veggies impossible.”
Pretend You’re a Giraffe!, contributed by Nicole
“We used to play giraffe. We fed giraffes at the zoo, and they look very funny when they chew! To play giraffe, hold a leaf up high, like it’s growing on a tree (use raw, undressed lettuce or other raw greens). Your child is the giraffe, who picks the leaf in her mouth and then chews it just like a giraffe would. My girls loved this when they were little, and my 9-year-old still sometimes asks to play!”
Name that Vegetable, contributed by Stacy
“We play ‘Name that Vegetable!,’ and it’s a big hit with my 6-year-old. When I’m putting away the groceries, I line up random produce items on the counter and game-show style, ask my contestant daughter to ‘Name that vegetable!’ (A cucumber or a banana makes a great microphone.) I try to throw in unusual items, and even my husband has learned some new veggies. My daughter is more interested in what they look like on the inside and even in what they taste like. She doesn’t always like to eat them, but we are building a foundation.”
Open a Restaurant, contributed by Susan
“My daughters, Jessi and Alissa, used to play café. We would make an assortment of items—fruits, veggies, cheeses, dips, crackers—and make a menu. They would take turns being the waitress or the customer. As they got older, they played completely on their own, even making up their own recipes!”
Roast Vegetables to Bring Out Their Natural Sweetness, contributed by Veronica
“I roast cauliflower, broccoli, and sweet potatoes because it really brings out the sweetness of the vegetables. I also put out a plate of carrot, celery, and red pepper sticks to eat while I am making dinner.”
Plant a Vegetable Garden, contributed by Leah
“Having a garden is a great way I get my kids to eat their veggies. Even at their young ages of 5, 3, and 1 they love picking right from the garden and eating the vegetables. The older two love it because they have helped in planting the garden. Even during the winter when we eat something canned, it’s fun to get to say, ‘Oh, I think this is the bean you picked from the garden.’ They marvel at the fact that they can grow something and eat it.”
Get Over the Fear Factor, contributed by Brianna
“We’ve gotten our 4-year-old to try new fruits and vegetables recently by getting her to smell them first, then to give them a lick. Not too mannerly, but it gets her over a little bit of the fear. We give her lots of praise and encouragement about being ‘brave.’ Then she watches her older brother eat them and eventually works up the courage to try them herself. Her 2-year-old brother has followed her lead and started eating new veggies lately, too.”
The Three Pennies Game, contributed by Kelly
“When my children were younger, we played the ‘Three Pennies Game’ at the dinner table. Each person, including mom and dad, got three pennies. The object of the game was to get rid of your pennies before the meal was over (mostly the evening meal). I would make a meal and often try new recipes. The family had to give three compliments, paid with a penny each, about the main part of the meal. The compliments had to come after eating a bite. So, not only did the family have to try the meal and eat at least three bites, they had to say something nice, too. This means talking at the dinner table … YEAH! Each night, the kids would get so excited to get their three pennies in order to play. At the end of the meal, the family could do a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, which meant ‘Make it again,’ or ‘No thank you.’”
— Liz Weiss, MS, RDN, is a mom of two with a specialty in family nutrition. She’s the voice behind the family food podcast Liz’s Healthy Table, and the blog and website by the same name. Liz has written several cookbooks including No Whine with Dinner: 150 Healthy Kid-Tested Recipes From the Meal Makeover Moms, The Moms’ Guide to Meal Makeovers: Improving the Way Your Family Eats, One Meal at a Time!, and the playful new coloring book series Color, Cook, Eat!. Liz hosts the Meal Makeovers video series for CNN Accent Health, which runs in doctor’s offices nationwide.