Kids Don’t Just Outgrow Picky Eating: 10 Tips for Raising Real Food Lovers (+40 Picky Eater-Approved Real Food Recipes!)
“Oh, kids just outgrow being picky,” they said. That’s a MYTH! Kids do NOT outgrow being picky. We successfully raised 2 teens who love healthy, whole foods — but it wasn’t always like this. Here are my 10 tips for raising Real Food lovers, plus over 40 picky eater-approved recipes with hidden veggies, probiotics, and more!
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Can I confess something to you?
I was probably one of the pickiest kids ever.
To stay within the confines of my 1990s processed comfort food zone. We’re talking Lucky Charms, Cream of Wheat, Toaster Strudels, canned biscuits, chips, packaged snacks, and more riff-raff.
My poor mother… she tried, y’all. She really, really tried.
My eyes pretty much had x-ray vision for anything green, even the tiniest speck of bell pepper. My palate couldn’t tolerate textures like under-cooked or raw onions or lettuce stems. And, my gag reflex was triggered by foods like cucumbers and broccoli.
It was B-A-D!
Then, before I’d ever broken myself of picky-eating, I had kids of my own. Unfortunately, the cycle started over.
By the age of 4, my son had self-limited his foods to bananas, flavored yogurt, frozen waffles, scrambled eggs, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Watching her older brother get away with picky-eating, my daughter (just 17 months younger) quickly followed suit.
My husband also wasn’t raised to eat and enjoy vegetables. His only experience with anything green was iceberg lettuce salads and canned green beans.
That’s right — before this blog was started, our little family of 4 was a house-full of picky eaters!
The fact that I not only write recipes with vegetables but DAILY feed my family such foods as celeriac, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, green beans and peas, mushrooms, beets, kale, cabbage, zucchini, asparagus, and eggplant is a gen-u-ine miracle!
Kids Don’t Just “Outgrow” Picky Eating!
People say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. They’ll outgrow being picky. All kids eventually do”.
Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. That is a myth.
Kids don’t outgrow being picky.
Wanna know how I know? Because I was the 25-year-old mom with 2 kids who STILL wouldn’t touch broccoli or cook with onions or make a salad.
Because my husband was nearly 30 before he finally realized that he liked salad, if it wasn’t made with iceberg lettuce and green beans if they didn’t come from a can!
I’m 36 now, and I’m still trying to love foods I hated as a kid.
I’ll tell you what… Nothing makes you hold a mirror up to yourself and realize you have to change as much as becoming a parent.
By the time my kids were 3 and 4, self-limiting foods, and making dinner time miserable, things had to change.
I was making two separate meals FOR EVERY MEAL: one for my husband and myself and the other for my picky eaters who stuck with the same 5 to 7 foods.
Bonkers, I tell you!
When Things Began to Change for Our Family
I was just getting my feet wet in the world of whole foods and natural living when I realized that my frustrations with my picky kids were actually more about me than them.
How could I — a picky parent — expect my kids to try new foods when I didn’t set that example for them? When I stuck to the same “safe” meat-and-potatoes meals over and over? When I barely drove the shopping cart through the produce section at the store?
If I wanted to raise kids who were different than I was as a kid, I soon realized I had to make some major changes — not only in my parenting but also in myself.
For nearly a decade, our family has enjoyed healthy, whole foods meals without whining, tantrums, or making a single separate meal for the kids.
The process of trying new foods has been a journey we’ve gone on together. More often than not, the kids were more receptive of a food than Dad and I were!
10 Tips for Raising Real Food Lovers
So, what follows is how we did it — how my husband and I teamed up to learn how to love Real Food so we could pass that love along to our kids and how we stopped the vicious cycle of cook a meal –> kids throw a fit –> make them a separate meal to stop the crying –> repeat.
I don’t expect this to be a one-size-fits-all approach. (Although, our daughter had sensory processing disorders, and we still raised the bar for how she ate!)
Some of these tips might even seem harsh to you. That’s just the Mom Guilt talking. It’s a liar, and you don’t have to listen to it!
Trust me, my children are now 14 and 15 years old — and they LOVE Real Food!
#1 — Stop Buying Processed Food & Juice
Just stop. Today.
You can decide right now that, the next time you walk into a grocery store, you’re not putting a single boxed, pre-packaged, frozen, canned item or bottle of juice in your cart.
Unless it’s things like frozen fruits and vegetables, canned tomatoes or pumpkin, things like that. 😉
Processed foods contain additives, like MSG, artificial flavors, and artificial colors — not to mention sugar is in everything! These additives and sugar trick the brain: it wants more processed foods and learns to crave those things rather than whole foods.
And juice? It can have as much, if not more, sugar than sodas! Your kids will totally survive (and thrive!) on water. Or, make them a “lemonade” by adding lemon juice and stevia to their water. 🙂
I know it’s a hard habit to break, especially if you rely on frozen chicken nuggets or waffles, canned soups or vegetables, and breakfast cereals.
Momma, I promise you: if you want your family to start loving Real Food, you have to cut out the junk.
When Real Food is the only option, then Real Food is all they will eat.
Our kids nearly staged a coup when we stopped buying flavored yogurt cups and frozen waffles. But, they survived. And, so did we!
Now, we’re all better off without processed foods!
#2 — No More Separate Meals for the Kids
We started a saying when the kids were little and we were transitioning away from processed foods and overcoming the picky eating.
“You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.”
I remember the night I stopped making separate meals for my kids. My husband was just out of college and at his second job (waiting tables) that evening, so I was home taking care of the kids alone.
I was tired from being mom all day without my husband there and with very little contact with other adults.
So, I made tacos for dinner. Typically, tacos weren’t something my kids (4 and 5 at the time) would eat. Instead, I would make them scrambled eggs with fruit or a PBJ for dinner.
But that night? I was done.
I made them each a taco and put the plate in front of them, then sat down with my own plate. Immediately, they didn’t want to eat the tacos.
“You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit,” I said. “Mommy made these yummy tacos and this is what we’re having for dinner. You can eat them or you can be hungry.”
I wasn’t mean or harsh toward them. It was just firm and matter-of-fact.
Then, I proceeded to eat my tacos and tried to change the conversation. It took a few minutes, but soon, they each took a small bite. Not wanting to draw attention to them eating something new, I kept quiet.
Shockingly, they both ate their entire plates and then asked for more taco meat!
Not every meal after that had the same result, but it empowered me as a mom. I knew I could calmly, gently, but firmly set the boundary that I was done cooking separate meals. You can be done, too. 😉
And that brings me to my next point…
#3 — Eat or Be Hungry. It’s Their Choice.
Can I let you in on a little secret??
You are not responsible for what your kid eats.
Your responsibility? Provide nourishing, healthy options 3 or more times per day, if you snack.
But the actual act of putting the food in their mouths?
That’s on them, Momma. You’re off the hook!
Still, in order for kids to understand that their picky eating is no longer tolerated, there has to be a natural consequence.
I’m not talking about taking away their TV time or their favorite toy.
This is a natural consequence: if you choose not to eat, then you are choosing to go hungry.
Eating doesn’t have to be a power struggle where you are trying to “win” a battle against your kids. Rather, give the kids what they want — control.
Except, instead of them controlling you where you will make them separate meals if they whine long enough, the kids have control.
They can choose to eat what they are served. Or, they can choose to be hungry until the next meal.
Do NOT feel guilty for setting this boundary.
There were a few times that I thought my kids would starve, but they didn’t! If they’re used to having their way, then they’re probably going to see if they can outlast you.
They have spidey senses that detect Mom Guilt, so they’ll leave their plates of food untouched for hours and HOURS, just waiting for that Mom Guilt to kick in and make them what they really want.
Hunger is a powerful motivator, Momma. It’s ok for your kids to know what hunger feels like.
Don’t feel guilty if they skip a meal or two or even if they go an entire day without eating. They. will. not. starve.
It’s not easy to listen to them cry, demand other food, whine for snacks, make pouty faces, tell Daddy how mean you are, or any of that. But trust me, after a day or maybe 2 of you standing your ground, they’ll get it.
In a day or two, you can break the habit by using the natural consequence of hunger.
When they cry or throw a fit, you can hold, comfort, and reassure them that you are loving and taking care of them by giving them foods that are going to make their bodies healthy and strong.
You can make a big deal out of it when they finally try that first bite of a new food, clap your hands, yell for joy, take a photo even!
Or play it cool like I did on Taco Night. 😉
This isn’t about punishment. It’s about them learning that they alone choose to eat what they’re served or to be hungry.
#4 — No Bribing
Please, please, please…
Do not bribe your children with dessert or a new toy or TV time or anything else to get them to eat.
It might work, but what seems like a victory is really a defeat…
Because you’ve taught them that they get something “better” in return for eating. Maybe you break the cycle of making them separate meals, but then bribing starts a new, vicious cycle.
With each meal or new food, they’re going to expect to get something in return for eating.
Food is about nourishing our bodies. It’s not about dessert or new toys or TV time. Children need to learn this from a young age.
Their reward (and yours) comes when they sleep better, get sick less often, throw fewer tantrums, have better concentration at school, or meal times are just more pleasant because they learn to eat Real Food.
Food is not about new toys or extra screen time.
And when you bribe with dessert? Well, you’re only teaching them that dessert is better than Real Food. They learn that, in order to get what they really want, they have to eat this yucky stuff first.
Please don’t bribe your kids to eat. It’s not mentally, emotionally, or physically healthy and teaches them some really weird stuff about food and life.
#5 — They get to decide when they’re full.
Here’s another area where you get to be off the hook. Your child gets to learn how to listen to their body and decide when it’s full.
Kids’ appetites are an incredible phenomenon.
I’ve seen 2-year-olds eat more than adults and 10-year-olds eat less than a bird.
I’ve also seen a 2-year-old eat his body weight one day only to refuse food the next day.
This is all normal!!
In fact, if you’re being honest with yourself, you’d probably see that your appetite varies. For example, I tend to eat less on hot days and eat more during the week before my period.
Everyone needs to learn what “full” feels like for their body, including our children.
Even if we think they haven’t eaten enough, if they say they’re full or done, let them be done.
It’s good to remind them (especially littles), “You’re full? Good job listening to your body! Remember, I won’t put food out again until — fill in the blank time —, ok?”
Also, let’s stop with the “just take 5 more bites” game, ok? This is a control tactic that desperate parents use. I understand that you feel desperate.
But, this tactic doesn’t teach your child to listen to their body. Again, the natural consequence of hunger comes into play here.
If they chose to eat 2 bites at dinner and you lovingly reminded them that their next meal won’t be until breakfast, yet they insist they’re full, then they are choosing to be hungry until breakfast.
Or, maybe they won’t be hungry until breakfast because they really didn’t have an appetite.
When we stop trying to control the outcome and instead trust our children’s bodies to regulate themselves, amazing things happen!
They eat when they’re hungry; they don’t overeat because they believe that full equals eating every bite on their plate.
#6 — Get kids in the kitchen!
It’s never too early to get your kids involved in the kitchen.
Whether that’s helping to make the grocery list or putting the produce into the cart at the store…
Whether that’s washing lettuce before you make a salad or chopping veggies to roast (age-appropriate, of course)…
Let your kids be involved with food!
Time and time again, studies show that kids are more likely to eat foods they’ve helped prepare (source).
Yes, meal prep and cooking take longer when kids are involved.
Yes, it’s messier.
But, Momma, it’s invaluable. Don’t miss those opportunities.
You are setting your kids up for success in SO many ways by making them feel welcome in the kitchen, letting them make messes and mistakes, and allowing them to prepare foods.
Not only do they learn the life skill of cooking and eating Real Food, they also gain confidence, and most importantly, quality time with YOU.
#7 — The “Polite Bite” Rule
Some kids are naturally adventurous eaters. Some aren’t. For the ones that aren’t and who tend toward assuming they’re going to hate anything new, they have to be required to try new foods.
So, have a “Polite Bite” Rule.
The “Polite Bite” Rule is simply this: They must try a certain number of bites (usually 2 to 4) of any new foods. (Note: this is not the same as “You have to take # bites before you can be full/done eating”.)
This rule should also apply to foods served at Grandma’s house, potlucks, church, friends’ houses, etc.
It’s polite to eat what is served to you, wherever you go (unless there are allergy or intolerance issues, obviously).
#8 — Introduce new foods/cooking methods over and over and over again.
So you made broccoli and they didn’t like it? That doesn’t mean you give up on broccoli.
Just like riding a bike without training wheels requires a few falls, trying new foods requires many attempts sometimes, too. 🙂
They may hate it on the first through seventh attempts, but when you try and try again, they’re more likely to eventually enjoy it.
Also, check your cooking method.
For example, steamed broccoli isn’t my favorite thing (especially when it’s mushy), but roasted broccoli with salt and lemon juice? Heavenly!
So, you may have to experiment with different methods of cooking the same food.
Heck, the only way I’d touch zucchini and yellow squash as a kid was if it was deep-fried! But, if you use a healthy batter and fry it up in a nourishing fat, like lard or avocado oil? And that’s how your kids dig in? Praise be!
Texture is another issue I still have as adult. If onions and peppers aren’t chopped super small and cooked until very tender, my gag reflex turns on if I get a squeaky onion or pepper. And, I’m 36, y’all.
The moral of the story here is two-fold:
- Don’t assume a food is always going to be a flop just because they didn’t like it the first time.
- Be willing to adjust how you’re cooking or preparing a food.
Even if the food or cooking method was a fail for the kids (or you), you should still enforce the “Polite Bite” Rule. 😉
#9 — Don’t overwhelm them with new foods.
A good rate to introduce new foods (or old foods that were previously flops) is about 1 new food every two to three weeks.
Any more than that, and you’re likely to overwhelm them. They’ll start thinking that their meals are always going to be filled with unfamiliar foods and that they might never get to have their favorites again.
This is especially true for toddlers and young children.
You can get away with more frequency of new foods in older kids and teens, but it’s still a good idea to keep it to a minimum.
For example, if you decide to introduce parsnips one night at dinner, don’t try avocado the next morning for breakfast, then cabbage that day for lunch.
It’s just too overwhelming.
It’s also ok for kids to want to stay in their Food Comfort Zones, as long as you’re slowly and steadily enlarging that comfort zone.
Second to this point is, always have one thing on their plates you know they genuinely love. This way, they don’t go hungry for refusing an entire meal, and the meal is more pleasant because they’re not throwing a fit over the 4 new foods on their plate. 🙂
#10 — YOU set the example.
Maybe this point should be #1…
Kids are great imitators.
It’s why we limit what they see/hear on TV, why we don’t use adult words around them, and why we have to be willing to set the example for trying new foods ourselves.
The surest way to raise a picky eater is to be a picky eater yourself.
Conversely, the surest way to raise an adventurous eater is to be an adventurous eater, always setting the example and pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone.
If you’re trying broccoli for the first time and don’t like it, let your child make up her mind before you blurt out how disgusting you think it is. If she sees you hating on a food, she’s more likely to hate it too, even before she’s tasted it.
Finally, EVERYONE is allowed to have preferences.
At 36 years old, I’ve made peace with the fact that green beans and green bell peppers are probably never going to be part of any plate I enjoy.
But my husband and son? They LOVE green beans! So, of course, I make them for them!
My daughter doesn’t like green beans either, but she will eat an entire red pepper like an apple (which is something no one else in our home does).
Other preferences in our home?
- I’m the only one who likes avocados.
- My husband enjoys the texture of lightly cooked onions and peppers; the rest of us do not.
- No one in our family likes slimy, under-cooked egg whites.
- I prefer cauli-tatoes over mashed potatoes; my family swings the other way.
- Our teenagers love snacking on raw celery, cabbage, and carrots; my husband and I do not.
- My husband and daughter love canteloupe; my son and I don’t.
- I prefer fruit blended in smoothies; my kids will eat fruit, no matter how it’s prepared.
- I’m the only one in my house who doesn’t like watermelon or bananas.
See? We ALL have food preferences. That doesn’t make us picky. It makes us human.
Preference is balance. It means there’s space for everyone at the table, and we can accommodate each other.
Outright refusal to eat many different foods is picky.
There is a difference, and your family can find the balance too. 🙂
I truly hope that sharing our family’s experience has been helpful for you.
Now that my kids are teenagers, I can look back and see that, what was hard in the moment really paid off in the long-run. I have successfully raised Real Food lovers!
Maybe you’re already doing some of these things.
Maybe you simply needed someone to give you permission to stop bribing your kids or making separate meals for them. I’m giving you permission, Momma!
40 Hidden Veggies Recipes & Picky Eater-Approved Recipes!
Here’s my go-to list of recipes with hidden veggies and picky-eater approved recipes. These are perfect when you’re just getting your feet wet, when you’ve got picky friends or family members over, when you need a healthy potluck or party recipe, or when you just want to change things up with your own cooking.
I pinky promise these recipes are delicious. I’ve not only tried them out on my own kids; I’ve tried them on other self-proclaimed picky eaters, too.
Carpe diem, Momma!
- Paleo Cassava Flour Carrot Zucchini Muffins
- No-Cook Fruit & Chia Overnight Oats
- Instant Pot Quinoa Breakfast Porridge
- Crust-less Kale & Cheddar Quiche
- Vanilla Blueberry Kefir Overnight Oats
- The Everything Smoothie
- 5-Ingredient Paleo Breakfast Hash
- Soaked Gluten-Free Pumpkin Spice Breakfast Cake
- Pepperoni Pizza Crustless Quiche
- Dandelion Greens Smoothie Cubes
Main Dishes & Sides:
- Instant Pot Beef Stroganoff (dairy-free)
- Salmon & Veggies with Lemon Butter Sauce
- Instant Pot Clam Chowder (no potatoes)
- Butternut Squash Curly Fries
- Everything Seasoning Roasted Sweet Potatoes
- Instant Pot Cauli-tatoes
- Instant Pot Green Chile Chicken Chowder
- Salmon & Wild Rice Burgers with Garlic-Avocado Aioli
- Instant Pot Spinach Artichoke Meatball Soup
- How to Make Any Blended Soup in the Instant Pot
- Instant Pot Chicken Tikka Masala
- The BEST Tomato Basil Soup Ever
- Low-Carb Instant Pot Cheesy Veggie-Stuffed Meatloaf
- Instant Pot “Cheesy” Zucchini Soup
Sneaky Snacks & Desserts:
- Grain-Free Salted Caramel Mocha Brownies
- The BEST Kale Chips (taste like Nacho Cheese Doritos)
- Cherry Lime Slushie
- Instant Paleo Golden Milk (just add water!)
- 3-Ingredient Healthy Peach Slushie
- No Starter Culture Fermented Dill Pickles
- Paleo Cauliflower Chocolate Pudding
- Avocado Lemon Ice Cream
- Probiotic Berry Cheesecake Popsicles
- Best Keto Fudgy Brownies with a Secret
- Crunchy Chickpea Snacks — 3 flavors
- Frozen Berry Kebabs
- Veggie-Loaded Dairy-Free Instant Pot Queso
- Sprouted Hummus with Kale & Chives
- Keto Coconut Flour Double Chocolate Zucchini Bread