12 Steps to Combat Picky Eating and Create Healthy Mealtime Habits

You’ve just spent an entire evening preparing a new recipe and setting the table only to have your children outright refuse to eat anything you’ve made. Your pride in rocking this new recipe is dashed as your kids devolve into tears and gagging noises, convinced you are trying to poison them. How on earth are you supposed to teach healthy eating habits?

As many as 50% or kids, at least for a period of time, fall into the category of “picky eater”. As a parent, this is incredibly frustrating. You’re going to great pains in trying to nourish your offspring and instill healthy eating habits while your child wants to just eat fishy crackers and Doritos.

But you can create a healthy home and instill healthy eating habits–even in your pickiest eaters.

Here are 12 tips to help you do just that.

1) Get your husband on the same page.

Nothing will sabotage any new parenting endeavor then being undermined by dad. However, I’ve found that this is usually because I didn’t fully inform him of the new strategy I was trying. Sit down with your partner and determine what kinds of foods you want to be eating and your plan of action.

2) Involve your child

Ask your child what you should make. At the grocery store, have them help you pick out foods. Kids love picking out produce. Have them help you in the kitchen preparing the meal.

This was really helpful in our house. Involving my pickiest eater in the cooking process has not only been fun and bonding, but she’s now much more likely to eat something she helped prepare.

3) Talk about how food impacts us

I’ve struggled with my weight my whole life. It’s been in the last few years that I’ve really shifted from a weight-loss mindset, into a being really healthy and strong mindset.

As a mother of 4 daughters, I can’t tell you how badly I want them to avoid the struggles that I’ve had.

So we talk a lot about how food affects our bodies and energy level. Will this food give us energy to play and help us be stronger? Or is it going to make us feel crabby and tired? I talk about how sugary foods, while okay for occasional treats, totally zap me of energy. But salads, vegetables, raw nuts,  give me energy and make me feel good.

12 Steps to combat picky eating & create healthy mealtime habits

4) Set a good example

Children are much more likely to do what you do and not what you say. Our children are walking testaments to our actions, not our words. This applies to how we eat as well.

I’ve also found that if I am eating anything around my kids, they will want to try some. From salads to smoothies packed with kale, if I’m eating and enjoying something, my kids want a piece of the action. And I’ve been really surprised by what my children will not only try, but end up really liking.  

5) Keep only healthy options around your house

If there aren’t unhealthy options littering your kitchen and pantry, then your child will have little else to beg for in place of the meal they’ve been presented.

For example, I never have juice or soda around the house and I only buy dense whole grain bread. They think white bread is candy. So all sandwiches or toast is made with heavy fiber and nutrient-packed bread. I try to keep all snack foods they healthiest options available.

6) Make meals fun

Making mealtime fun is will go a long way in having your associate healthy eating with positive emotions. If mealtimes are a always a battle, everyone is trained to get frustrated at dinner time!

Get your kids to help out, experiment with fun dips and sauces, and switch it up (like breakfast for dinner).

7) Don’t make a seperate meal

Making a seperate meal for your child–while it may keep the peace at dinner time–only ensures that picky and limited eating will continue.  When one of my kids outright refuse everything (rare), they are always welcome to have any raw vegtables, nuts or seeds, and sometime fruit. But no seperate meal.

8) Don’t bribe with dessert

This just teaches kids that healthy food is bad, but must be suffered through to get to the true reward: dessert. If dessert is the reward, then dessert is always the goal–not healthy eating habits.

I’ll admit that I tried this…a lot. And the result was that my children would constantly try and negotiate “how many bites” until they earned dessert. It wasn’t about eating until fullness. It was all about the dessert.

If your goal is to help your children enjoy healthy eating, bribing with dessert will not get you there.

9) Introduce 1 new food at a time with foods they already like

I have found time and again that of I have 2-3 things I know my kids like at a meal and a third or fourth thing that they will try for the 1st time, they are much more likely to try the new thing than if I just try and give then a plate of full of new and strange food.

10) Never force kids to eat

Forcing kids to eat just ensures that kids will have negative associates with the food you are forcing them to eat. But unfortunately, I think for most parents this is the go to response.

But think to when you were a kid. Did your parents ever force you to eat? Did it work?

As a kid, anthing I was forced to eat became enemy number one. If my parents forced me to eat something, I was turned off to that food for years. I vividly remember as a child being forced to eat oatmeal. As I imagine it, I can still feel the revulsion I felt and my gag reflex on high alert.

I was absolutely convinced my mother was trying to kill me. So I refused to eat oatmeal for almost 20 years. And lo and behold, I discovered that I actually love oatmeal. I can’t help but wonder if I could have spent years loving oatmeal if I hadn’t been forced to eat it.

Healthy eating habits come with positive associations to healthy foods. 

11) Stick to a Routine

Keep meals and snack times at roughly the same time everyday. If a child isn’t hungry for a meal or snack, then they should be hungry enough once the next one comes around.

12) Be consistent

Children’s brains are pattern seeking. If the pattern is that you enforce something new for a day or two and then forget about it, they pick that up quickly. But if you maintain consistency with your expectations and practices, they will pick that up and develop healthy eating habits.

For most people, healthy eating habits aren’t just going to manifest overnight. But through consistently encouraging healthy eating through these steps you can help your children try new foods, enjoy healthy eating, and create habits that will serve them for life. You can create a home of healthy eaters.

You’ve got this, mama.