Budget-friendly bites: Navigating picky eating challenges in less time

Published by Courtney Bliss on Mar 19, 2024

When parenting a picky eater, we have to discard much of what we learn about food as adults. Diet recommendations to eat a lot of protein, avoid carbs and stay away from fat don’t translate well to kids’ diets –– especially to one who only eats a limited number of foods.

Good nutrition for children and adults involves a combination of different food groups over a week. The quality of that combination is known as the Healthy Eating Index, the gold standard for assessing nutrition.

Animal shaped food on a plate

Each macronutrient fuels the body differently. Some supply quick bursts of energy and others offer steady energy release.

This is why teaching kiddos to listen to their body signals is important. Intuitive eating means paying attention to hunger and fullness cues. This can be particularly challenging for children with pediatric feeding disorder (PFD) because the anxiety of eating can mask hunger cues.

In some cases, the way we label food and the shame around it can make kids’ feeding worse. For picky eaters, worry less about food labels and instead focus on what nutrients are being delivered to your child’s body.

For example, here are some ways to reframe thinking around some typical foods for picky eaters:

  1. If your child only eats chicken nuggets, consider this a consistent protein and fat source that provides more steady energy.
  2. If your child only eats air-fried snap peas, this may not be fresh produce, but they’re still full of nutrients, fiber, protein and fat.

4 food categories kids need

There are four different macronutrients our bodies use. Each works a little differently.

Carbohydrates: Our bodies use carbohydrates quickly. They cause glucose to rise and enter the bloodstream faster.
Examples: Bread, crackers, pasta, cookies and cakes.

Fiber: This is technically part of the carbohydrate family, but our bodies don’t use it immediately for energy. Instead, our bodies use it to help food move slower through the bloodstream. They help with digestion and also make our energy last longer.
Examples: Fruits, snap peas, carrots, nuts, beans and whole grains.

Protein: Kids don’t require as much protein as adults. But, incorporating protein-rich foods into meals and snacks can help keep kids feeling full longer. To know how much your kiddo needs, consider protein intake over a week rather than obsessing over individual meals.
Examples: Chicken, fish, eggs, dairy, beans, nuts, nut butter and seeds.

Fat: This is the nutrient families skip the most, especially from parents raised in the 1980s and 1990s when fat was demonized. Fat is a core component to building hormones our bodies need. It releases energy slowly and keeps kids feeling full longer.
We need fat. Your kid needs fat. It’s building their brains and spinal cord. Don’t skip it.
Example: Peanut butter, cheese, avocado and foods cooked in olive oil.

How much of each nutrient your kiddo needs is super personalized. What’s true for everyone is that adding other nutrients to carbohydrates makes energy release longer. (Read: your kids won’t be asking you for snacks every five minutes!)

How to incorporate more healthy nutrition into your picky eater’s diet

In my years helping families of picky eaters, I have seen two common approaches to family meals:

  1. Those who serve family meals and accept that their child may or may not eat it.
  2. Those who make a completely separate meal.

If your goal is to get your kiddo to eat more variety and join the family dinner, taking a step back to plan can help you incorporate more of the true variety your kid will eat.

Following are five tips for families of picky eaters.

  1. Create a meal schedule.

    When your child isn’t grazing all day, you allow their body time to digest foods and then get hungry again. The food we eat sends chemical triggers from the belly to the brain. The sensations of feeling full and hungry are often diminished in children who are picky eaters.
    Try to avoid: Constant access to snacks. Little bites at a time can reinforce picky eating.

  2. Combine nutrients for snacks and meals.

    Each nutrient provides our body with energy in different ways. Combining foods helps your kiddo feel full longer. For example, eating a carb like a few graham crackers will give a quick burst of energy, but it won’t last. Adding peanut butter and apple slices to a graham cracker combines nutrients to provide a more filling snack. Pairing applesauce with some chips will keep your child full longer than just eating one macronutrient at a time. Eating this way doesn’t honor how the body metabolizes food and instead leans into fast energy releases.
    Try to avoid: Providing free access to snacks, like applesauce pouches or a bag of chips, that are more likely to encourage grazing than satiety.

  3. Look for brands with more balanced nutrition labels.

    If your child is not particular about the brand you buy, you’ll find that some will have more fiber or protein than others. For example, if there are different kinds of cheese crackers and a nutritional difference, buy the more filling option.
    Try to avoid: Feeling guilty about a processed food label when it’s one of few your child eats. Instead, focus on what nutrients might be in it and choose the best option your child will accept.

  4. Make a meal plan based on what your child will eat.

    Consider what foods your child eats and then combine them with other nutrients. For example, if your child eats waffles and blueberries, serving them together provides more nutritional balance. Combining “safe” foods over the course of the week will mean your kiddo gets more servings of nutrients like fiber and protein.

  5. Add some of your child’s “safe” foods to family meals.

    Adding foods to family meals that your child likes might make your picky eater more interested. Write out a list of what your kiddo will eat. Then think creatively about how to turn that into five dinners you can rinse and repeat each week. For example, your kiddo loves apples and eats them whenever they’re served. Add apples to the family dinner rotation by serving them on the side, and your child might join the family at the table.

  6. Child reaching for a plate of food

    Over the years, I’ve seen even the pickiest eaters increase nutritional variety with time and support. Know that the way your child eats now is not forever. Working on providing different foods is enough.

    Courtney Bliss is the owner of Feeding Bliss and is an experienced registered dietitian specializing in pediatrics.