Food & Recipes

13 Tips For Parents Of Picky Eaters From Top Chefs And Nutritionists

This advice should make dinnertime much easier.

Kids can be the toughest food critics. Gingerly place something cruciferous and green on your child’s plate, and it might just be met with a turned-up nose and a response more brutal than any insult Gordon Ramsay has ever hurled.

Negotiating with picky eaters at the dinner table is just one of those universal parenting dilemmas. And if you’ve dealt with this in your own home, you’ve probably wondered if you should just cave and throw some pizza or chicken nuggets in the oven to stave off any potential food fights.

The answer? Not just yet.

We turned to the pros—nutrition experts and celebrity chefs—to find out how they get their children to eat healthy. Here are their 13 top tips.

1. Limit Snack Time

Vicki Shanta Retelny, a registered dietitian in Chicago and a mother of two children, ages 11 and 10, says she limits snack time in her household.

“I don’t allow them to snack after 3 p.m., and then they are good and hungry for dinner,” she says.

2. Cook Together

Several chefs and nutritionists suggest cooking with your children as a way to essentially get them to be invested stakeholders in dinner.

“By them being active participants in the kitchen, they have more of an opportunity and desire to try new foods,” Retelny says. Her family, for example, tried a new line of cooking kits called “Dinner Hero.” It was easy for her children to follow three-step recipes and help make the meals from scratch alongside her.

“It’s great because they are learning how to follow a recipe, as well as measure ingredients and serve the meal,” she says.

3. Do A Taste Test

The taste test approach can take various formats, says Lisa Hugh, a registered dietitian from Maryland, who has two sons, one who is a good eater, and one who has a big appetite, but is picky.

She suggests asking questions like, “Do you like these shredded carrots or these baby carrots better?” or “Do you like these cooked carrots better with butter and salt or plain?” Or, you can also serve a small portion as a “taste test” and ask your children what they like about it, Hugh suggests.

4. Play “Red Light, Green Light”

Celebrity chef Tom Colicchio’s elementary-aged boys Luka and Mateo happen to be great eaters.

A few things the “Top Chef” judge says help: having his sons help him tend the backyard garden and re-presenting foods 10 to 12 times. (Asparagus went a few rounds in Colicchio’s household before it became a fan favorite).

But, one rule that has helped contribute to their healthy eating habits is a divvying up the kitchen into categories, says Colicchio, a five-time James Beard Foundation Award winner, says. The boys can eat anything in the “green light” category of fruits and veggies.

“They eat cherry tomatoes like it’s popcorn,” he says. Foods in the yellow category, like crackers, require them to proceed with caution and ask for permission. Sugar-laden beverages and candy are given the red light and are off limits.

5. Slowly Transition To Healthier Foods

When Mary Delasantos, a certified nutritionist from Lake Havasu City, Arizona, adopted her children at ages 9 and 11, they were accustomed to salty and sugary processed foods.

To get them to transition from processed foods to healthier options, Delasantos says she employed several strategies. Among them was a “slow transition.”

“Our children said they hated vegetables, and they loved boxed mashed potatoes,” Delasantos says. “So we made the potato flakes, but we also took a bag of frozen broccoli or mixed veggies and processed them together in the food processor with the potato flakes.”

After a while, she was able to get her children to eat mashed potatoes with fresh potatoes and veggies. And then baked potatoes stuffed with chunks of fresh veggies.

“These little transitions helped them stay comfortable with the familiarity of what they loved, and still learn to enjoy healthier options,” Delasantos says.

kids eating photo
Getty Images | Joe Raedle

6. Reintroduce A Food 10 Times

If your child refuses to eat a particular food, don’t give up right away, says Dr. Sonali Ruder, an emergency medicine doctor, trained chef and blogger at The Foodie Physician. “It can take 10 or more attempts over several months before a young child will accept a new food.”

Keep preparing a variety of healthy foods, she encourages, and remain patient but persistent.

7. Read Packages Together At The Grocery Store

Delasantos says she took her children to the grocery store with her every weekend and they were allowed to pick out foods the family would eat for the week. She set up parameters, though, on processed foods. For example, the foods couldn’t have any more than 3 grams of sugar per serving, the children needed to be able to pronounce all of the ingredients on the packages and the packaged food couldn’t have more than five ingredients.

“They had fun reading packages and discovering new foods they could make and eat,” she says.