First things first, picky eating in kids is NOT unusual. In fact, being a picky eater is a common phase that most kids go through, and actually, it is developmentally normal for your kid to want to resist and test limits. Being a picky eater is one way that little ones may attempt to exert their independence.
While it can be super frustrating for parents, take comfort in knowing that it does not necessarily mean that your kid will be a picky eater forever. We're diving into what picky eating looks like (in case you need some solidarity!) and how to encourage children to try new foods without putting too much pressure on them. Research shows that pressure to eat or "clean their plate" can actually be counterproductive, but there are other ways! We'll also share a bunch of the most amazing healthy snacks for picky eaters and answer some common questions we get.
What You Need to Know About Picky Eating Behavior in Children
Picky eating is common, but it can be super annoying to experience and hard to understand why it happens, especially when your baby started out eating anything you put in front of them!
Some experts believe that picky eating may be due to a combination of factors, including early life experiences, parents' (sometimes unconscious) behaviors or attitudes toward food, and the need for toddlers to exert their independence.
Early life experiences, such as being pressured (even subtly) to eat certain foods or having negative associations with certain foods, can also contribute to picky eating behavior. In addition, sensory food aversions are common and can contribute to picky eating behavior.
As a parent, you certainly can't prevent all picky eating, but you can take steps to introduce a wide variety of flavors during the “flavor window”. Exposing your little one to lots of different savory and bitter flavors like meat, veggies, fats, spices, and herbs during the key flavor window from 6 to 18 months can help expand their palate for years to come and help manage future picky eater tendencies.
Tips to Encourage and Model the Behavior of Your Children Toward Food
It's important to remember that your little one is watching you and how you behave around food. Here are some tips to encourage and model children’s behavior toward food. Intentionally modeling a healthy attitude toward food can help prevent your little one from becoming a picky eater.
Invite your children to try new things and taste various food
Try to make new foods fun by eating them as a family and inviting your child to join. Share how you like to eat a new food, by saying something like, "I really like asparagus grilled since it gets nice and crispy and has so much flavor!"
Ask for your child’s help picking meats, fruits, veggies, and snacks when you go grocery shopping
Make your little one part of the process of preparing foods by involving them in different aspects of food preparation. Take your child to the grocery store and ask for their help in choosing meats, fruits, veggies, and other healthy snacks (tip: stay in the perimeter and avoid the inner aisles that are full of processed food that is marketed to kids!).
Have a conversation with your children about their food preferences
If your child doesn't want to eat something, try asking some friendly and open ended questions. For example, you might ask if they don't like how it looks, how it is cut, or how they struggle to get it stabbed on their fork. When you show your child that you are open to modifying the food to make it more appealing (say, by cutting pieces smaller, or using toothpicks to eat it), it helps build trust. This can help your child feel like you're on the same team on their eating journey.
Offer new foods alongside "safe" familiar or preferred food
Offering a new food with "safe" familiar food can make the new food feel less overwhelming since your kid knows that there is something on their plate that they can fall back on. Even if your little one only touches or plays with the new food, the interaction is good and can lead to a taste down the road. Just keep putting it on the plate and be patient (see our next tip!).
If your child refuses a food one day, try again! It can take up to 8-18 introductions for your child to accept a new food, so keep trying!
Don’t offer dessert as a reward for eating, or withhold dessert as a punishment.
It's hard to do since many of us were brought up this way, but don't glorify dessert! Don't make it an option only if your kid cleaned their plate, or threaten to withhold it if they don't eat their veggies. Either offer it or don't and don't make it contingent on what else they ate. Remember, you can decide how much to serve, and when to serve it. If dessert has become a battle, some parents try serving a small portion of it alongside the meal. When that is gone, the child can choose to eat other things on their plate or to be done eating. Or another approach is to remove desert entirely for a week or two until the child stops expecting it after every meal, then it can be reintroduced as an occasional surprise. Just be prepared to handle their big feelings about this while holding firm to the boundary.
Try to maintain an attitude of levity and trust around food.
Kids can sense if you’re stressed or worried about them eating, which can interfere with their natural relationship with food. It's often when you learn to let go a little that things fall into place. Our cofounder Joe was struggling with deep unconscious fears he had around how much his daughter Della ate or didn’t eat, and after he did a somatic healing session to lessen those fears there was an immediate improvement in Della’s eating!
Try a change of context
Rather than sit at the dinner table, try having a picnic in the living room or backyard with a new food or two. Sometimes a change of context and a fun meal make your kid a bit more open to trying new things. Many parents report that their kids try new things on vacation or while with other kids for this reason!
33 Healthy Snack Ideas for Picky Eaters
When you have a picky eater, it can be tempting to want to go with what you know they'll eat. You know you can avoid a meltdown by giving them the packaged food or sweet treat they're begging for.
But healthy snacks for picky eaters don't have to be boring. Healthy snacks can be tasty snacks!
Here are 33 healthy snacks for picky eaters. We've grouped them into five categories: meats, veggies, dairy, and other grain-free items (like healthy fats. We focus on whole foods as much as possible (but we do include some healthy packaged snacks) and foods with no added sugar, grains or industrial seed oils. These are some of our own favorite healthy snacks - we hope you enjoy them!
We know many kids refuse to eat meat, but we've listed a number of different form factors to try out. If one doesn't work, try it again, or try another form.
Meat sticksThere are a number of solid options that use high-quality meat like The New Primal Snack Mates, Paleovalley beef and turkey sticks, and Singing Pastures Roam Sticks. Wild Zora meat and veggie bars also include veggies in a portable snack, the texture is great for little mouths too.
Sausage linksWe like Applegate, but just be sure to find some made with high-quality meat!
Boiled eggsMake your own (we love doing it in the instant pot!) with pasture-raised eggs. Vital Farms also sells already boiled eggs.
Sliced deli meatDella prefers fresh sliced meats from the counter, but Applegate makes excellent lunch meats as well
Chicken or Turkey cubes
EPIC pork rindsA portable protein that feels like a fun snack!
Carnivore CrispsYou’ll be surprised at how good these are and at how much your toddler can love liver!
Serenity Kids meat and/or bone broth pouchesOur grab and go squeeze baby food pouches with meat and bone broth were designed to make parenthood easier, packed with protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants for growing babies and toddlers!
Veggies and Fruits
We know raw veggies or fresh vegetables won't always happen for picky eaters, so here are a few vegetables that introduce different preparation (and therefore different textures). Try pairing raw veggies with fiber and fat-filled dips like hummus, guacamole, or seed or nut butter for balanced healthy snacks.
Sweet potato chipsYou can make your own at home by thinly slicing sweet potatoes, tossing them in a bit of olive or avocado oil, and baking until crispy, or buying them from Jackson’s Honest or Thrive Market.
Veggie chipsRhythm Superfoods kale chips and beet chips make some crunchy and satisfying healthy snacks for picky eaters.
SmoothiesA great place to sneak in leafy greens alongside some berries, nut or seed butter, and protein like grass fed collagen.
HummusLook for one with simple ingredients and no inflammatory oils (just chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, and spices)
Serenity Kids veggie pouchesPortable veggies + healthy fats. This is the ultimate in healthy snacks!
Fresh fruitAdd nut butter and "sprinkles" (hemp, chia, or flax seed).
Freeze-dried fruitLike berries from Natierra Superfoods are crunchy but still maintain great nutrients, if your little one won't tolerate fresh fruit.
If eating cheese and dairy is tolerated, we suggest choosing products made from grass-fed milk.
Cheese cubes, string cheese, or shredded cheese
Yogurt(ideally full fat and no added sugar). We also love dairy-free yogurts by Cocoyo, Culina, and Cocojune
Other grain-free options
OlivesDella loves pitted green or black olives straight out of the jar!
QuesadillasMade with grain free siete tortillas or Egglife Egg White Wraps.
Energy bitesYou can make your own pretty quickly in the food processor or by hand using nuts, seeds, and some dried fruit. We’ve got a great recipe here - and kids are great helpers!
Seaweed snacks:We love that the Gimme Organic brand is made with olive oil, not seed oils!
Grain-free crackersLike Hu or Greater Goods
Grain-free granolaLots of great recipes out there. Or Purely Elizabeth and Paleonola make great options full of nuts and seeds with no grains or refined sugar.
Lesser Evil SnacksThe grain-free egg power curls and veggie sticks use good fats and pack a little protein and veggies into your snack.
Nut butter packetsYoung kids find it fun to squeeze these right out of the packet! We like the ones from Artisana Organics and Super Fat (just choose brands without added sugar seed oils, or other unnecessary stuff that isn’t nuts and seeds.
Grain-free PuffsSerenity Kids' puffs are actually nutritious puffs are amazing healthy snacks for picky eaters.
Got questions about picky eaters, healthy snacks, or snack time? We've got answers. Here are a few of the most frequently asked questions:
How many snacks should my children eat each day?There isn't a perfect number of healthy snacks to serve each day, but do try to make snack time consistent. Offering one healthy snack between meals is appropriate, as long as it doesn't interfere with meal time.
Is snacking healthy for my children?The word snack can have a negative connotation. But snacks can be healthy! A healthy snack ideally includes a balance of protein, fat, and fiber.
How long after a meal should my children have snacks?You want to be sure that your little one still has room and attention for healthy meals. Offering snacks too soon after a meal may make them hold back eating at meal time and just wait for their favorite snacks, knowing that snack time is near.
Remember, picky eaters are common. Picky eating is a phase that many little ones go through as part of normal development, but there are steps you can take to help minimize picky eating habits. Try some of our favorite healthy snacks for picky eaters - and remember, if your little one doesn't like it at first - try it again another day. You might be surprised what multiple exposures to the same foods can do.
Craving more healthy snacks, check out this blog and this blog!
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