I’ve previously talked about reasons your meal plan might fail and what to do about it.
Feeding picky kids is one of those reasons. So let’s talk about how to successfully meal plan for picky kids.
Let’s rephrase that though, because you can’t successfully meal plan for picky kids.
You won’t be able to make a meal plan that makes everyone completely happy and where they will eat everything, every time. That’s not realistic. Not if you don’t want to eat the same thing all the time, or make several meals daily. And kids are often fickle, so even if you make them exactly what they ask for, sometimes they won’t even eat it! You know how it goes.
But we can talk about how to successfully meal plan with picky kids in mind.
We can talk about meal planning that:
- makes sure everyone can eat enough to feel satisfied without drama
- doesn’t require making multiple meals at each mealtime
- gently helps picky eaters expand their preferences
- doesn’t require eating the same 3 meals all the time
- gives you, as a parent or other feeder or picky eaters, peace of mind that your kid is getting the nutrition they need while developing a healthy relationship with food
This method of planning for meals is based on the gold standard for feeding kids: the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding and specifically the concept of being “considerate without catering” . If this is something you are struggling with, I highly recommend spending some time at the link above and related website. It is overall a great way to help kids 1) get the nutrition their bodies need, AND 2) develop a healthy relationship with food.
These top tips are based on the Division of Responsibility in Feeding and will help picky eaters learn to eat new foods gradually while letting everyone else enjoy variety and making sure everyone has a chance to get the nutrition they need.
Top tips for meal planning with a picky eater in mind:
- Plan at least one “safe” food with every meal and snack
- Offer and serve uncomfortable foods (without pressure) at most meals and snacks
- Offer most food groups at most meals and snacks
- Think of the whole day (or even the whole week) instead of just one meal
Plan at least one “safe” food with every meal and snack
A “safe” food is a food that you know your child is comfortable with and is pretty likely to eat. This varies depending on the kid, and will also change over time. This does NOT have to be a favorite food and is still not a guarantee that your child will eat it (nor should they be required to), but it means they have something they can trust they can fill up on if they don’t like anything else.
Having a safe food helps remove the pressure from trying new foods because the picky eater knows they can feel full without having to fill up on the new or uncomfortable food. It also removes the pressure for you because you know they have something to eat that’s acceptable to them! They won’t go hungry just because they are scared of a new food. (Yes they might eat only rice for the meal, but hold on, that’s related to the last tip)
Many safe foods are starchy, (crackers, bread, noodles, cereal) but most kids have a few safe foods in each food group, they usually have even have a few “safe” vegetables. Broccoli is a surprisingly common safe vegetable in my experience.
If it helps you, make a list of “Safe” foods in each food group so you don’t have to think about it when planning meals.
Offer and serve uncomfortable foods (without pressure) at most meals and snacks
It’s a commonly quoted fact in nutrition education that kids may have to be exposed to a new food twenty times before they will try it.
I have tried to find the study supporting this – and I can’t, but I have found plenty of studies supporting the same concept.
Note, that’s twenty times of exposure (seeing it, being served it, etc.) before even trying it. Not twenty times before they will like it or eat it consistently. Twenty times before they’re willing to try it. To like it and eat it consistently, it’s probably gonna be more.
Twenty times is an average. For some kids it will be 50 or 100 times before they’re willing to try it. For other kids it might be five times or less.
The more times you offer a new or uncomfortable food without pressure, the more likely they will be to eat it, eventually.
The good news is, we humans eat every day, and usually, multiple times per day. That’s lots of opportunities to be exposed to new foods. A lot of kids eat 4-5 times per day. 7 days per week – that’s 28-35 new opportunities a week! So take advantage of the opportunities to get kids used to seeing uncomfortable foods!
It is important to do this without pressure. No telling them they have to eat it, no making them eat it before other foods, just serve it, and don’t make a big deal. Sometimes serving a tiny portion can also make it less intimidating. Think one blueberry, or one green bean, or one bite of chicken. And remember, you are also always serving at least one “safe” food.
Different parents feel differently about how to encourage kids to try new foods, but generally bargaining, forcing to try bites, not letting them eat other foods until they’ve tried the new food, isn’t helpful in the long term because it creates a negative association with food. Just the continued multiple, casual exposures is what will be effective long term.
Also a key here, is that these uncomfortable foods are foods that you as the parent (or feeder) are also eating. Watching parents eat foods makes a bigger difference than you think. No fair making kids eat foods that you won’t eat. They’ve got to see you eating them, or a least trying them.
Offer most food groups at most meals and snacks (not just dinner)
Kids have whims and eat inconsistently so offering most food groups at most meals and snacks increases the probability that they will eat all the food groups over the course of the day and/or the week.
This is where your list of “safe” foods can help you. Vary which food group you choose your “safe” food from to help your kids get all their food groups.
This will also help you as the parent put less pressure on yourself and them, because if you know they ate a good protein-rich breakfast (PB toast, eggs with cheese, sausage), and lunch (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, tuna salad), you can be less worried if they don’t eat a bunch of the new chicken recipe you’ve tried for dinner. If they eat baby carrots almost every day for lunch and celery sticks frequently for snacks, you can worry less that they don’t eat much veggies at dinner.
This also helps kids learn that different food groups can belong at all meals and can be eaten in different ways. They don’t get stuck thinking that steamed broccoli or salad are the only 2 ways to eat veggies, for example.
Also, as a super practical tip – some kids have better appetite and adventurous energy earlier in the day. Try offering new foods more often at lunch and snack (leftover roasted asparagus with the PB and J) and see if this makes a difference.
The next tip goes hand in hand:
Think of nutrition in terms of the whole day (or even the whole week) instead of per meal
Some visual models we use to teach about balanced nutrition look like this:
So we picture that kids will eat like this:
Kids actually often eat like this:
But their nutritional intake usually balances out if you look at the day as a whole, or especially if you look at the week as a whole.
This is why it’s so helpful to offer most food groups at most meals. You are providing a steady, predictable base, so kids’ seemingly random eating can balance itself out.
Sometimes kids can feel like little random number generators. They won’t always eat predictably. Sometimes they will eat a lot, other times a little. Sometimes they will try a new food, sometimes they won’t even touch a food they normally like. We can help them out by offering a variety of food groups, a variety of liked and unliked foods, making sure there’s always something they can feel full on, and just not making a big deal out of it.
Some final encouragement
That being said, it won’t be drama free all the time. This method really does help in the long term, but it’s sometimes difficult to start. How should you keep track of all the food groups and what your child (or children) likes and doesn’t? How do you think of the whole day or even the whole week when you feel overwhelmed by just one meal? It can be overwhelming!
I love helping families figure out this type of meal plan. I’m happy to take on the mental work of planning and juggling of food groups so you can just focus on doing it. If that sounds like it would help you, contact me here
There are also a LOT of great resources out there. Here are a few of my favorites!
- Ellyn Satter Institute
- FeedingLittles or @feedinglittles
- Growing Intuitive Eaters or @growing.intuitive.eaters
- Mama Knows Nutrition or @mamaknowsnutrition
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This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.