Have a finicky eater at your dinner table? These strategies can help.

By Hannah Grieco
May 06, 2021
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We've all been there. We spend hours on a new dinner recipe and our kids won't even try it. It's maddening, compounded by unhelpful advice from friends and family. "Don't be a short-order cook!" or "My kids always eat what I make." But what if our kids are just plain picky?

I have two kids on the autism spectrum, for example. Their sensory needs make new foods seem scary. And even if a child isn't dealing with sensory-related food issues, being picky isn't a sign of some terrible parenting failure. It's still hard, though. Kids can't survive on chips and grapes forever. They need to be able to try new foods, make healthy choices, and develop their palates.

What can parents do to de-stress family meals and help their children enjoy more food options? I've come up with four kitchen hacks that made all the difference for my picky kids.

1. Make Your Own

I often serve dinner as a family-style, make-your-own entrée. From salads to fajitas, loaded baked potatoes to pasta bars, my kids love to make their own decisions about what they're going to eat. I always put out one or two new foods. I ask them to try just one spoonful of one of these.

The result? They often discover a new food they like. And their minds are already in a flexible, open state, because they're in control of what they're serving themselves. We like this steak fajita marinade, which we use as a base for our weekly fajitas night. We put out accompanying bowls of lettuce, cheese, sautéed peppers and onions, and salsa. It's one of our kids' favorite dinners.

2. Shopping Together

I have three kids, which means I have three potential grocery store helpers. Whoever comes with me gets a list and a basket. Then they go find the items and bring them back to me. On the list, at the bottom, I always write the same thing: Find three new interesting foods you've never tried before. Only one can be junk. This has been a game-changer in our house; they beg to help me shop!

We all try the new foods they choose, and we've discovered some new favorites this way. It's fun, it's empowering, and it doesn't feel like I'm nagging them. Some recent grocery store discoveries: pickled carrots, Beyond Meat sausage, blood oranges, green pea snack crisps, and chocolate hummus.

3. Cooking and Baking Together

If you spend time making food, you're going to eat it. And that applies to picky kids, too. If I ask for help with the pot roast, then announce to everyone that my eight year old was the chef, she's going to serve herself a bowl every time.

I use this strategy carefully, primarily requesting sous chef support for meals with a high chance of success. Then, every once in a while, I ask for help on something new. That careful planning ensures they're eager to assist and ready to take a quick taste to "make sure it's ready." Plus, the big bonus: All three of my kids love to cook and bake now.

4. Relax and Try Not to Stress

This is the biggest, and hardest, kitchen hack for picky kids. I hand everyone a multivitamin in the morning and serve everyone food at dinner time, and then I take a deep breath. I try not to stress too much about my kids' bleak futures of bland foods and missed culinary opportunities. I do make sure I serve at least one side dish they enjoy at each meal. But I also let them make themselves a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or bowl of cereal on the nights they just don't like what we're eating.

My husband and I love spicy bean chili, for example, and two of our three kids do not. Should we never eat chili again? Should we force our crying kids to "try a bite" when they know they hate it? Nope. We hand them a salad and let them have a tuna sandwich. It's all good.

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