Keeping the Joy in the Kitchen While Raising a Picky Eater

Raising a picky eater can lead to frustration and grumpiness for kids and moms alike during the dinner hour. Keeping the joy in the kitchen can seem impossible, especially when you’re acting as short-order cook and plating everyone else’s meals while your plate gets cold.

Some nights I serve not one but two dinners to my children because they refuse to eat what is put in front of them. Frustration gets the best of me, and I enable them by giving in because it’s easier than fighting. Some nights everyone else eats whatever or whenever it works, and I grab a hunk of cheese and a handful of nuts. It happens.

Our extremely picky little man has never met a fruit or vegetable he likes– unless you count ketchup or licking the butter off an ear of corn. He ate homemade baby food of all kinds like a champ, but once he started forming opinions, it was all over. Add to that a sensitive gag reflex, which has resulted in more than one pile of upheaval on my dining room table– like on Christmas day, at the exact moment the entire family sat down to a beautiful meal of roasted duck.

Whether you love to cook or just go through the motions to get food on the table, preparing meals tailored to each child day in and day out can suck the life right out of you. Let’s explore some ways to keep everyone feeling happy and loved during what is often the one time the family sits down together each day. 

Follow Foodie Moms and Study up

There are so many wonderful places out there to find support and ideas for feeding picky eaters and kids in general. I started exploring real food options when my now nine-year-old daughter was two, and I discovered she had a sensitivity to red dye. Over the years since, I’ve read many a post on how to deal with a Fussy Fred. Some of my favorites are 100 Days of Real Food, Weelicious, Lil Pinkies Up, and Raising Generation Nourished, which is written by a talented west Michigan mama. 

A click to follow is easy homework when you’re already scrolling. It doesn’t mean you have to follow their methods to the letter. Checking in occasionally can give you ideas to tuck away and work into your own recipes and routines. You never know when a pretty picture or relatable story will catch your eye and create inspiration.

Let Them Help; Give Them Tasks

Often times, kids are just looking for a little attention to make them more agreeable. Bringing them into the kitchen– whether or not they are going to eat the meal you are preparing– is an important step to overcoming the hurdles of fussy eating. For most kids, helping you makes them happy, and a happy kid at dinner time is another step in the right direction.

Dinners can be vastly improved when children come to the table feeling bonded with their parents and having a great sense of accomplishment. Chances are they may soften and agree to try the meal they worked so hard on! Even if you aren’t Betty Crocker, a job like stirring the sauce or dumping pasta in the water is basic fun for their inquisitive little minds.

Keep It Simple and Have a Little Fun

Try to think like a child, a picky eater. They don’t understand what vitamins are, and they usually can’t discern between a homemade spaghetti sauce or one from a jar. They just know what they like and what they don’t, and they just know they are hungry. Kids, quite like adults, are very visual eaters– the first thing they do is look at their plate to see what’s on it, right? Simple things like a silly plate or food in a flower pattern can give them a smile when served, and they will know it’s made with love.

One of the most widely used tricks when introducing new foods is deconstructing the meal. Mixing of foods can be confusing to young palates and is frequently the basis for the first refusal. It needs to be simple. Instead of offering a loaded taco, offer a shell with just one ingredient. Place small amounts of other toppings on their plate and give them the option of building it themselves or trying it separately. Instead of stir fry, serve rice, a veggie, and meat. Offer kids the same meal enhancers adults use like butter and salt– they might find those to be just the ticket. As an added bonus, real, quality butter has healthy fats that are great for their developing brains.

Allow Refusal; Have Patience

Also know it’s not always going to work. While I am a huge proponent of feeding kids the same meal as parents, I do not agree with the “eat what you’re served or starve” method. We fight enough battles over food, and a hangry child every night makes life miserable. Picky eaters are their own brand of stubborn. Sometimes they just need to be appeased, and we just need to say “yes.”

If they have a favorite brand of yogurt or they only like baby carrots and not carrot sticks, indulge them. Making sure to have the foods they actually like when they are ready to eat shows them that we’re paying attention, and that we do actually want to see them happy and loving food. Give them the little wins once in a while– but don’t give up.

Be Consistent and Always Offer

Progress doesn’t happen without failure along the way. If we don’t keep trying, we may never achieve a different result. Be consistent in gently asking them to try new things. Keep putting food on their plates that they normally don’t eat. Offer the fruit, the veggie, or the cheese stick before offering the popcorn. Do it every chance you get. Push it when you can. Let them choose something from the produce aisle. Give meal options not open-ended offers. Make trades: this food for that food. Offer rewards but not every time. Be firm but feed them. Try all the things, and keep on trying them. They will say no, but the one time they say yes will give you such joy in your heart. You deserve the little wins once in a while, too.

Take a Breath and Smile

Most importantly, be intentional with your attitude when you finally join your family at the dinner table. Even if your dinner is cold, arrive with a smile. Give yourself a minute, count to ten, chug some wine, and do what you’ve gotta do in order to bring the ever-loving joy to that table. Make happy happen by moving on. Eat, laugh, and talk to each other. Memories of times around the dinner table are some of life’s most formative moments. Enjoy them.

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Jessica Lukenbill
Here at Detroit Mom, I am surrounded by an awesome community of women who have helped me find a place where I feel I truly belong. I’m a proud foodie who keeps crazy busy with cooking and canning, gardening, decorating, craft projects, and more. My husband of 19 years is Jason, and we have Gwenna, 11, and Larson, 7, as well as a silver Lab named Indy. We have lived in New Hudson for almost four years now. Mid Michigan is home for me, but after my husband graduated college, we spent 16 years moving around his home state of Indiana. Just prior to moving back to Michigan, we lived in Southern California for three years, exploring and extreme-adventuring with our kids to every beautiful outdoor location we could find. We are the family that spends more weekends away than at home, and our kids are master-level road-trippers. Most of our summers are spent at the lake, where I'm convinced it's not a proper summer without a dip in the water every day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Reach out and say hi sometime!



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