How To Get Your Picky Eater to Eat Healthy Foods

Baby With OrangeYesterday Tricia stopped by from the Ultimate Blog Party and left a comment asking me for some tips on how to get her 4 year old son (a picky eater) to eat healthier foods. Tricia wants to get her whole family on a healthier track but one of her little guys is giving her a bit of hard time. 😉

This is such an excellent question that I decided to turn it into a full post instead writing a long comment with some tips for Tricia. This way any parent with the same challenge can check this out.

The reason I think this is such a great question is because after watching Super Size Me, the facts and figures of the state of our youth’s health astounded me. Now I’ve gotta tell you that I don’t have kids, so this post is based on my own experience of once being a kid along with my experiences with OPK (other people’s kids).

So how do you get your children to eat healthier foods, especially if they’re picky eaters? Well, my #1 suggestion might not be what you’d expect, but after giving this a lot of thought, here’s what I came up with: it all begins with you, the parent. Yep, that’s right, we’re not even going to look at your child(ren) right now but instead we’ll focus only on you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself (remember, children are sponges and they easily emulate what their parents do):

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  • What is your daily diet regime? Do you enjoy eating fresh fruits and veggies at least 2 or 3 times a day? Do you drink plenty of clean fresh water and focus on whole foods instead of processed and fast foods?
  • What’s in your kitchen cupboards and frig? I love the show You Are What You Eat on BBC America. If you’ve never watched it please start now! Holistic nutritionist Gillian McKeith is a real taskmaster and she gets right down to the nitty gritty in the kitchens of Britain’s overweight crowd. How about taking a look-see in your kitchen? What does your food supply consist of?
  • What role does refined sugar and white flour play in your diet? If you’re addicted to sugar and flour like I am, you’ll notice that when you eat that stuff that it’s very hard to have just one. Does your daily diet revolve around processed foods? If so, check those labels – most processed and fast food is loaded with sugar, flour, salt, and all kinds of chemicals. I call it dead food as opposed to the live food choices available in whole, real food (lean proteins, fruits, veggies, whole carbs like brown rice, sweet potatoes, regular oatmeal, things like that).
  • What about exercise? Do you enjoy exercising and have fun with it? Do you get regular exercise, for example taking a minimum 30-minute walk at least 5 days a week?
  • How about strength training? Besides cardio, do you also strengthen your body with free weights, resistance bands (that’s what I use), or workout equipment at the gym?
  • Are you having fun? Do you enjoy cooking clean meals, eating fresh, healthy foods, and working out your body?

A couple of things I want to point out here – 1) none of these questions are about weight loss and 2) they aren’t about self-criticism. For example, what if you’re reading this and you aren’t currently living a healthy lifestyle but at the same time you do want your kids to be healthy? Well, I think that everyone does the best they can with the awareness they have at the time. However once you gain that awareness, you then have the choice of making some changes.

So why am I putting all of the focus on you when I titled this post “how to get your picky eater to eat healthy foods”? Because we can never change anyone else, only ourselves. Of course when we’re talking about your children, you are the one buying their food, but have you ever tried to get a child to eat carrots and they refuse saying they don’t like them? Now I’m talking about a child who really has eaten carrots, not one who has never tried them. If they’ve never tried them I still think that the best way to get them to is by leading with your own example, and if they have tried them and truly don’t like them, then they just don’t like them.

I don’t think it’s a good message to force a child to eat food they really don’t like because that can set up a skewed relationship with food in their brain and emotions, however there’s also the other component of power that could be being played here – young children don’t feel that they have power in the world and sometimes the only way to “get” that power is to act out. This child might actually love carrots but because you want him to eat them he refuses – he just got one up on you. 😉

There are a few different things that can be going on when you have a finicky eater, and now that we’ve already put the spotlight on you, the best suggestions I can offer for your picky eater are these:

  • Lead by example – kids will emulate their parents and if their parents enjoy a healthy lifestyle filled with whole foods and regular exercise, their kids will naturally want to be in on the fun.
  • Limit the refined sugar and white flour – the more sugar and flour (which easily converts to sugar) that is in the system of a child, the more it sets up the desire for more. Make the sugar-filled stuff a treat, not an everyday occurrence, and remember that sugar is in almost all processed food so be sure to check your labels.
  • Don’t force it – Don’t ask your kids to try any of the healthy food that you are eating when you begin making your lifestyle changes. Just show them by example how much you enjoy it, because you do! This means that you’re only eating whole foods that you like – I like many healthy foods but I won’t eat the ones I don’t, like brussel sprouts for example.
  • Stock up on healthy, whole foods and make sure to offer a variety of choices – There are so many fruits for example that you could offer for snacks – apples, strawberries, plums, pears, and grapes to name only a few. Offering your child a variety to choose from puts some power in their court – they are making the decision even though you are in control of the options. 😉
  • Go for alternative snack choices – I think that fresh fruits (or veggies) are the best snack choice but once in awhile you could offer a “treat”, which is still on the healthier side – try out Mrs. May’s Naturals or Larabars. Mrs. May’s are mainly nuts and dried fruit and while they do contain some sugar, it is much less than you’d get in cake, candy, or cookies. On the other hand Larabars don’t contain any refined sugar but are still quite sweet due to the natural sugar they contain.
  • Get motivated – if you’re struggling with your own motivation to lead by example but you do have the motivation to get your family on the healthy track, here’s some suggested reading and watching –

The bottom line is that children are open books just waiting for you to “write” on them. They learn by example and the very best way that you can impress a healthy lifestyle on them is by living a healthy lifestyle yourself. When you lead by example you can easily teach your kids how fun it can be to cook healthy meals and what a blast working out can be!

What about you? If you have a child who’s a picky eater do you have some tips that have worked for you to get him to eat healthy foods? If so, please share them in a comment!

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  • Lea of Farmhouse Blessings

    Great suggestions! I have a picky eater as well and sure will use some of the suggestions with him. Thanks so much!

  • PreSchool Mama

    Great ideas! I also believe kids will like at least one vegetable out of all the choices you place before them. Keep experimenting till you find what it is, and then you have a regular source of veggie power. My son has just discovered the joys of beetroot, and he’s normally such a salt and fries kind of guy.

    Thanks for the mention!

  • MizFit


    Im thankful that the ;leading by example works so well (and easily) —my toddler loves flax and eggwhites and veggies etc.

    but it also is my downfall with her as *I* can not stand so many healthy foods (green/red peppers, mushrooms, guac. to just name a few) that left to my own devices Id never “model” these.

    the things we do for love, huh? I gag em down grinning the whole time.


  • JoLynn Braley

    @Lea, sure, and thank you! One of my nephews is a picky eater so I thought about him when I wrote some of these points. :)

    @Mama, that’s a great suggestion, thank you! And beetroot – wow, that’s really cool – I’ve never even tried that! 😉

    @M, thank you very much! I really appreciate you guys giving me your feedback since you have the firsthand experience with your own children.

    You know I don’t like guacamole either, but I do love the peppers and mushrooms (as long as they’re cooked). That’s funny that you still eat them but put on a happy face – does that work? :)

  • workout mommy

    This is an excellent post! Kids are a blank slate and if we teach (and show) them how wonderful fruits and veggies are, then that will be all that they know!

    I always offer my son fruits and veggies and sometimes he eats them, sometimes he doesn’t. I don’t give him a choice between a fruit and cookie though because I know that even I would not choose the fruit!

    I love the picture too, what a cute baby!

  • Jenny

    Great tips, ideas, and motivation! Plus I love the pic! So cute!

  • Evan

    I heard a nutritionist, sorry can’t remember which one (probably Rosemary Stanton but I can’t be sure), say that children can take two dozen presentations before they taste a new food. The idea is to just put it on their plate and see if they try it. I guess kids that are pickier will take even longer.

    So, one other thing to try is putting it on their plate for a month or and see if they get used to it and try it out. Hope this is useful.

  • Raymond Chua

    I like the leading by example method.

    Most kids learn through modeling. Maybe it’s us that make them a picky eater.

  • Jan – queenofkaos

    My kids are all picky. I think that a sit down family dinner time is important because it is easy to include at least one food that is new for them to try a bite of, and you can give them some choices. (which veggie they would like if you have a selection of raw veggies etc)

    I allow substitutes, if one doesn’t like meat for example, I will tell them they can have a piece of cheese instead if they like, they must have a protein of some kind.

    The best way for me is to sneak it in, although that can be dangerous as they are now suspicious of my cooking :0) Yes, I did actually shred cabbage and put it in “carrot cake” once, when they were small. But it was good!

    Smoothies are the easiest way for me to get them to have a nutritional powerhouse, also having healthy food availalbe – cut up veggies in fridge, boiled eggs, unthawed fruit (they love unthawed frozed strawberries, which I find kind of mushy, but hey!)

  • Jan – queenofkaos

    I forgot to add that training tastebuds is important. I unfortunately failed at this because family members would not honour my request to quit giving them junk, but if you can, hold off on introducing them to junk and they won’t develop the taste for it.

    I even find now, when I have been off of junk food, I no longer crave it and foods that didn’t appeal to me do now as I have chosen to eat them instead. The habit of drinking water is the same.

    Although, there is a line, I remember gagging on cabbage rolls as a kid when I was forced to eat them. We had to eat everything with no choice although I did grow up to like almost everything and credit my good health as an adult to good healthy food at all meals and very little junk as a child. Funny, I love cabbage rolls now.

  • Tom Stine

    Wow, am I ever lucky! My kid actually thinks cake is too sweet. Given the choice of a cookie or melon, he takes the fruit. When he was 5, we had a fancy restaurant in awe as he ate escargot, salad, steak with port wine reduction.

    I guess I should thank his mom. She insisted that he eat good foods when little. His first solid food was sweet potato.

    Great post. I haven’t been able to eat McD’s since watching Super Size Me.

  • Cindy

    Great tips JoLynn. It has helped us tremendously to not force our toddlers to eat when they don’t want a vegetable. We treat it like anything else on their plate. Sometimes they won’t touch it, but more and more often, they are now eating veggies on a regular basis. It’s great to see them eat salad and want more spinach!

    I’m working hard on transitioning what we keep in our pantries. I didn’t realize how many snack options I had available until two little toddlers started raiding the pantry! Now, I’m very careful about the snacking options.

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  • Robert | reason4smile

    Great tips! Change yourself before change your kids =)

  • Christina

    JoLynn, I think you found my blog by accident from the blog party. When I clicked on your site to reply, I had not idea your site would be sooo helpful to me. This is exactly what I’ve been thinking and struggling with. This is wonderful. I know I’m going to learn a lot from you.

  • JoLynn Braley

    Hi everyone! Thank you so much for all of your excellent comments. You have given so many wonderful suggestions that I think that any parent who has a picky eater would be helped here. Thanks! :)

  • JoLynn Braley

    @mommy, so true! If you give him the choice between an apple or cookie, he’ll go for the cookie – I would too, just like you. But given the choice of a few veggies and/or fruits, he’ll pick out something.

    Thanks for the compliment on the pic – it’s a stock photo, I thought it was a great pic, too. :)

    @Jenny, thank you!

    @Evan, that’s very interesting – that a child may need 24 (!) presentations before trying a new food. Just goes to show that patience and persistence will help your picky eater in the end. 😉

    @Raymond, yes, I agree! – that us adults could be the source of the child’s finickiness. I’ve seen that in action in one family I know.

    @Jan, so many great suggestions you’ve given, thank you very much! :) I really like your point of “training taste buds”, too……I’ve experienced that firsthand with my own taste buds – they really do change once you get off the processed foods – why wouldn’t it be the same for children?

    @Tom, great points, and is it luck, or your wife’s early training? 😉 I love it that your son chooses melon instead of cake. You know what though? I’m finding that the longer I’m away from that stuff, I think the same way he does – I really don’t want it and my current favorite “sweet” is a Red Delicious apple, served cold from the frig.

    @Cindy, I’m so glad to hear that not forcing your little ones to eat the healthy choices (while still giving them the food) has been working for you. I know for myself (like probably everyone else) that I don’t want to feel like I’m being forced or that I don’t have a choice – why wouldn’t the little guys feel the same?

    @Robert, exactly, it’s as simple as that. :)

    @Christina, nope I didn’t find you by accident, 😉 I was going through that super long list to visit as many other bloggers as I could (LOL, there’s just soooo many!). I’m #1257 on the list but now there’s probably over 1500…..I wish I had enough time to say hi to everyone.

    Well I’m happy to provide any positive, motivating info I can to help you with your own weight loss and fitness goals, keeping in mind just how powerful your thoughts and emotions are in the process. Let me know if you ever have any questions, and welcome! :)

  • James

    Based on my experience as a kid and now as a parent the easiest and most effective way to do this is BY EXAMPLE. My parents had terrible eating habits that took me a long time to break, my kids, fortunately, are showing much more diverse eating habits thanks to our concerted efforts at this.

  • JoLynn Braley

    Hi James,

    Thanks for confirming my suggestion, and I’m glad to hear that you’re passing on healthy habits to your kids – they’ll have a much easier time of things. :)

  • Mark Salinas

    Where was I when this fantastic article was written? Wow! Great ideas that I am going to put into action immediately! Have you considered writing an Ebook and including this piece? :))

    Mark Salinass last blog post..Hip Flexor and Fitness

  • JoLynn Braley

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your compliments, hope one or two of these tips can help you out at home, also!