How to Meal Plan for Picky Kids

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

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:

sticky note showing pie charts of an evenly balanced diet at each meal

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!

Prefer to watch instead of read?

Top 4 tips for meal planning with picky kids in mind

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.

Some reasons your meal plan might fail and ways to fix it

Like you, your meal plan is unique, and the reasons it fails are also unique. However, here are some common reasons it might not work out and some tips to make it more successful.

1 ) You are trying to make it do too much because you haven’t decided what you really want it to accomplish.

If you’re not sure what is important to you, you may try to do too many things at once and not really succeed at all of them. Read the Lazy Genius’s When Your Meal Plan Has House Hunter’s Syndrome (very quick read) for a great discussion of why this doesn’t work. This is why it is so important to know what you want your meal plan to do for you and why I wrote a whole post about it last week!

How to fix it: Decide the most important things (1-3) you want your meal plan to do for you and don’t worry about the rest

Narrowing down what you really need (e.g. time efficiency, variety, stability, nutrition, cost savings, comfort, ease of preparation) will help you prioritize and eliminate the effort of trying to accomplish what you don’t need (e.g. time efficiency, variety, stability, nutrition, cost savings, comfort, ease of preparation) See how what you need could be the same as what someone doesn’t need?

See What you need for your meal plan to be successful for some good examples of what this might look like in different situations, including what my meal plan was like in college.

2) You don’t take your real life into account

Sometimes when we plan meals, I think we imagine this separate time and place where we will have a clean kitchen and lots of workspace, plenty of energy, and enough time to leisurely and lovingly prepare new and delicious recipes maybe with some nice music to sing and dance around to.

Is that just me?

Anyway, we are realists here at Nutrition for Real Humans and I don’t know about you but that only sometimes happens. When it does, it’s great, but most of the time, at least one of the following is true.

  • It’s after a long day of work and I’m tired
  • I have very little time between work and another commitment so there’s no time to cook
  • There are enough dirty dishes from the day that I have to work around them
  • We don’t have that much counter space
  • I don’t feel like chopping vegetables
  • I’m really hungry and would rather just eat now
  • I don’t feel like eating what I’ve planned
  • I watch YouTube videos while cooking instead of dancing to nice music

Surely there are other things that make following a meal plan more challenging for you: kids are upset, there’s after dinner activities, an appointment unexpectedly went late, the ingredients you thought you had you don’t or they’ve gone bad . . .etc.

How to fix it: Look at your calendar and really imagine your day while you’re picking the meals to plan

Choose meals that will fit the day.

Don’t plan to try an involved new recipe on the day you have to leave early for choir practice – plan a slow cooker meal, sandwiches, or plan to get something to go

Don’t plan a meal that nobody really likes that much on a stressful day – choose a comforting, easy-to-make meal

Want to try a new involved recipe? Pick a day when you’ll have time and energy to enjoy the process!

Of course this doesn’t help for the unexpected. Another reason your meal plan might fail:

3) Your meal plan isn’t flexible enough

This one’s tricky because for some people, the whole reason they need a meal plan is for stability and predictability. Different people will need different amounts of flex, you might not want very much and that’s ok.

But I think more meal plans would succeed if they included a little flexibility for days when you are unexpectedly busy, or you’re missing a crucial ingredient, or just don’t feel like making what you planned because let’s be honest, it happens.

How to fix it: Plan 1-2 meals that can flex, or can easily be moved around

Flexible meals:

  • use ingredients you always have on hand (nothing special, they’ll get used even if you don’t use them for this meal) or won’t go bad (frozen stuff is GREAT for this)
  • are generally easy and quick to make
  • are generally always acceptable to eat
  • (This can also be planning to get takeout or go out to a restaurant)

Some of our go-to flexible meals are bean burritos made with canned beans, macaroni and cheese, eggs and toast, frozen fish and oven fries and frozen peas, pasta made with jarred or frozen sauce.

You can use a flexible meal to fill in for a planned meal that doesn’t work out

AND/OR

These meals can be skipped like no big deal because those ingredients will definitely get eaten eventually. This is useful for

  • unexpected spontaneous dinner plans (hey! meet us for Taco Tuesday!)
  • unexpectedly abundant leftovers that need to get used up

And if everything goes to plan and you make all your other planned meals, then great, your flex meals give you an easy and appealing meal to look forward to making!

4) You have picky kids (or picky adults ) ๐Ÿ™ƒ

This is a whole other blog post. Stay tuned.

Watch below if you’d rather listen than read:

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.

What you need for your meal plan to be successful

The short answer: you need to know what you want it to do for you.

Sound familiar? This is the same way to make snacks work for you

It would be nice if it was just something you could buy, like a neat meal planner, or a cute chalkboard to write your menu on, or even buying a pre-made meal plan from a service or the right meal prep containers. But it’s rarely that easy or one size fits all. That’s why this is key to success – because it’s not trying to make one solution work for everybody. It’s helping YOU know what YOU need.

Now, this isn’t a guaranteed success tool. It’s not like you will automatically succeed just because you know what you want to accomplish.

BUT, if you’re not sure what the point of your meal plan is, how will you know it’s working? How will you make it work?

You need to know what difference you want your meal plan to make so you know when it’s successful.

AND

Knowing how you want your meal plan to serve you will help you decide what it needs to include and what it doesn’t.

(The Lazy Genius talks a lot about this very eloquently, and I promise I didn’t steal this idea from her, it is just true. If you want to read what she has to say, start here: When your meal plan has house hunters syndrome and here: Create a meal plan that will save your life and make you pretty)

Anyway. Enough theory. Let’s talk about some examples – that always helps me.

College Cami

(That’s me)

I did not have a lot of money, but I did have time, and I was willing to eat some weird stuff. I was mainly cooking just for myself and, as I was studying nutrition, trying to follow nutrition guidelines. I also lived in an apartment with 3 roommates and 1 fridge. So what did I want my meal plan to do for me?

  • Be cheap
  • Be efficient with ingredients (not use a lot of variety, both for cost savings and for space savings – 4 roommates one fridge, remember?)
  • Meet certain nutrition goals, like eat fish 2x/wk, have enough calcium, etc.

What did I not need my meal plan to do for me ?

  • Be quick and easy to make – I had plenty of time to cook
  • Please anybody else – I could just make what I wanted and/or was willing to eat
  • Be mentally easy – I had mental space and enthusiasm to try a lot of new recipes, so I could make weird stuff with the ingredients I had because I had time to think about it
Glass bowl with pasta and carrots and peas and broccoli
Roasted veggie pasta

Practically this meant I ate a lot of beans, cheap vegetables like cabbage, some cheap meats like whole chicken and sardines, and I did a lot of cooking from scratch and a lot of new recipes. (Made my own bread, tortillas, broth, etc.).

Purple smoothie in a jar on a windowsill
This is a smoothie with actual red cabbage in it. I have never had a smoothie with cabbage in it after college, but I liked the color so much that I have 3 or 4 pictures of this smoothie.

Let’s move on to Dietetic Internship Cami

Woman stands in front of national nutrition month poster board
I have almost no pictures from this time and certainly no pictures of what we were eating. But here’s a picture of me with a poster I made for my internship haha.

At this point I had a little more money because I had married a rich engineer – haha, just kidding, we weren’t rich, because dietetic internships DON’T PAY YOU, but we had a little more money. We were also very tired. Both of us were working full time and commuting at least an hour each way (usually more). I didn’t need to pack lunch because one of the perks of dietetic internships despite being unpaid is that they sometimes/often feed you. But my husband did, so some leftovers or lunch ingredients he could pack were helpful. So what did I need my meal plan to do for me then?

  • Be convenient! We needed meals that required almost ZERO effort when we got home at night. I seriously still don’t know how we made it though that year; when I think back most of what I remember is exhaustion.
  • Save some sanity. In addition to not having much time, we were both pretty burned out and so didn’t have a lot of motivation or mental energy to cook or plan meals
  • Still save some money (again, we weren’t really rich, just no longer poor college students)
  • Be acceptable for both me and my husband – thankfully he’s not picky so this wasn’t a big deal, and provide some leftovers he could take for lunch.

What did I not have to worry about for this meal plan?

  • Cost (as much)
  • Efficiency (a little more money to spend on a variety of ingredients, and a whole apartment kitchen to store our stuff!)
  • I didn’t worry as much about nutrition, mainly because convenience was a priority

We ate a lot of slow cooker meals that I would prep ahead on the weekends, a lot of quick meals like quesadillas or grilled PBJ. We ate a lot of the same meals on repeat because we didn’t have to think of new ones, and we went out to eat more often* (but still not a lot), because we could afford it, and it was sometimes a bright spot after a long day.

*Remember this: Planning to go to a restaurant or planning to get takeout counts as meal planning. Many times the reasons we meal plan (cost, nutrition, dietary restrictions) limit eating out but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a part of a successful meal plan.

Now a family (based on many real life families I’ve worked with)

They are tired of eating the same 5 meals over and over again and they want to spend less money on going out to eat. They get overwhelmed at dinner time so it would be helpful to have a dinner decision made BEFORE the kids get tired and crazy and they get super hungry and they end up just picking up sandwiches or making chicken nuggets again. They’d like to eat healthy, but don’t have any specific nutrition-related health conditions or dietary restrictions. Their meal plan needs to:

  • reduce decision fatigue by just having the decision made ahead of time
  • be convenient enough that they will follow their plan and not just go out to eat anyway because what they’ve planned has too many steps
  • include enough variety to help them and their kids not be bored and/or learn to eat new foods
  • but also be familiar and appealing enough that they will follow through with the plan

What they don’t need to include:

  • any particular nutrition goals or dietary restrictions (I always think trying to get all the food groups in is good, but this is not their priority right now)
  • cost savings on food because they’ve determined going out to eat less will save them money
  • a lot of new recipes or meals. Too many new things at once is overwhelming even if the actual dish/recipe is easy. They might be adding in 1-2 new things per week. (like a new salad dressing or a new side dish to a favorite main)

Their meal plan would probably include a lot of familiar, easy to make favorites, with small variations each week and maybe as they get in the habit of cooking at home, they start to add in new recipes more frequently. They will probably be most successful if they use convenience products (pre-cut veggies, pre-made sauces, frozen sides or mains) so the effort at dinner time is easy. Shooting for generally balanced meals is good, but if trying to eat lots of vegetables or low salt for example, will make them less likely to eat at home or try new things (their priority), then it does not serve the meal plan and should be set aside to make room for their priority.

My college meal plan would not work for this imaginary family. Probably way too many weird things for their comfort level (molasses on bread for dessert anyone?) and a lot of unnecessary stress about cost savings when paying for some convenience is within their budget and will help them accomplish their goal of being less overwhelmed at dinner time.

You need to decide what success looks and feels like for YOUR meal plan.

Questions? Comments? Tips? Share in the comments. Or talk to me if you need help figuring out what a successful meal plan looks like for you. That’s my specialty. ๐Ÿ™‚

15 ways you can eat more at home, starting today

But actually, choose one or two. Do not try to do all at once.

I just put the 15 ways in the title because it’s more clickable. This is the world we live in. You can read this blog post, or watch this video about why it’s so important to start small

  1. Figure out one meal you can easily make at home, that you like. Start making it once a week on a day that you have time
  2. If right now you cook and eat at home 1 day per week, try to add 1 additional day
  3. Categorize your days to cut down on decisions – Taco Tuesday or Pizza Friday or Meatless Monday
  4. Make a Brainless Crowd Pleasers List
  5. Make an “emergency meal” list – this is like brainless crowd pleasers, but eaaaaassy (e.g. hot dogs and mac and cheese, PBJ, scrambled eggs and toast, Chicken Caesar salad from a bag), something you can cook at home when you don’t have time or energy. It’s ok if most of your meals are like this. They don’t have to be fancy.
  6. Consider using a snacky meal on a day when you just can’t even
  7. Have a different family member plan or prepare on different days of the week (Age-appropriately of course – your toddler cannot make dinner by themselves). This can be a great way to get kids involved and more excited about food.
  8. Don’t plan to make involved or new recipes on days you know you will be busy! (These are great days for an “emergency meal”. Or for going out, if that fits with your goals)
  9. Pick one new recipe to try per month
  10. Use convenience items if you can afford it and they are available. What parts of cooking at home do you hate? Can buy a product to eliminate that? I hate washing lettuce – I’m much more likely to eat salad if I have pre-washed greens. We eat a ton of frozen veggies. Hate cooking raw meat? Buy it frozen and pre-cooked, or choose meals that don’t involve meat
  11. Don’t mind leftovers? Making a big pot of soup or chili to eat throughout the week works well
  12. Do mind leftovers? Freeze any leftovers for a few weeks from now (this doesn’t work for things like salad obviously)
  13. Don’t get stuck on needing to cook at dinner – maybe cooking lunch or breakfast is a better fit for you
  14. Do half and half – do a takeout entree and homemade salad or veggie. Or reverse – make some baked fish and get some fries from MacDonalds.
  15. Use a meal service or let me get you started with a meal plan toolkit!

New year, new you? Try one small habit, not two

Click here if you want to watch/listen instead of reading

My New Year’s Resolution is to start writing titles that sound like Dr. Seuss books.

Haha not really.

I know there will be approximately 70,000 blog posts or articles about making New Year’s resolutions and why you should or shouldn’t, etc. I’m not here to convince you about whether you should make a resolution or not.

What I do know is that the beginning of a new year causes lots of people to think about goals and aspirations. And a lot of those goals will be related to nutrition, so I’m here to tell you what I know about nutrition goals.

Nutrition goals are hard.

Changing anything is hard. If you’re trying to start doing something that you’re not used to doing, it’s going to be hard. If you’re trying to stop doing something you’re used to doing, it’s going to be hard. It’s just the nature of making changes.

There are surely psychological and behavioral studies that will explain the how and why it’s hard, but look – you probably know that from experience. I know it from my own experience and from the experience of working with probably thousands of people trying to make nutrition changes.

So here’s two things I want you to remember:

Start small

Choose 1 or 2 small things that you are confident you can do. And by confident I mean, you are like 95% sure that you will do it. (I know I said not 2 in the title, but it just rhymed, just don’t choose too many) Something that even seems a little bit too easy is fine, especially if you are just starting this change.

If you have a big goal like “eat healthier” or “lower my cholesterol” or “cook at home more” or “run a 5k” – that’s good! You set those big goals as your end game and use them to decide what your small goals are.

Choose small goals that will move you toward your big goal.

For example:

  • Eat healthier -> eat a fruit with breakfast every day
  • Lower my cholesterol -> find a whole grain bread you like to eat instead of white bread
  • Cook at home more -> Find two recipes that you can make easily and wouldn’t mind eating once a week (or talk to someone about planning meals for you so you don’t even have to think about it)
  • Run a 5k -> Commit to walking 10 minutes 3 days per week

Making these small goals gives you a hit of accomplishment along the way, before you make it to that long term goal. Kind of like a save point in a video game. This gives you more confidence and motivation to make new goals (a cycle of accomplishment) instead of making large unrealistic goals and feeling bad when you don’t reach them (a cycle of defeat)

There are lots more people who have written more about starting small/achievable goals; I really like how the Lazy Genius explains it here

Give yourself credit

Remember what I said just a few paragraphs ago? Making changes is hard. So give yourself credit when you’ve made a change, even if it’s a small one!

Did you hear that?

Give yourself credit for making even a small change!

If you eat a fruit with breakfast most days when you didn’t before, or you now cook two meals at home per week instead of one – good for you! You made a change! You are progressing in the direction you want to go.

If you’ve made progress – you eat more veggies, you drink less soda, you walk more often than you used to – give yourself a sticker*, or a pat on the back, or a little dance in your kitchen, whatever helps you celebrate

*The stickers thing is working for me right now. It gives me a small bit of childlike delight when I can mark that I exercised or completed a blog post with a pretty sticker hehehe

Then take that celebration energy and decide the next change you want to make!


Sometimes knowing what small steps to start with can be difficult – this is where a professional can be helpful. A good dietitian (or other professional if your goal isn’t nutrition related), can help you figure out the first steps to take to reach your big goal.

If your goals are related to meal planning, prep, or cooking, I can help with that! I’d be happy to help you get those wins – click here if that sparks your interest

If you are looking for nutrition help and advice in general (not related to meal planning, etc.), you can find a dietitian near you here

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.