13 Dinner Strategies for Picky Eaters

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Busy schedules, lack of inspiration, and youngsters flexing their independence are just a few of the things that can throw a wrench into a peaceful dinner. If you have dinner goals, here are tips and some yummy recipes to help you achieve them.

1) Make a Plan

Make a simple template and sketch out a plan for the week. Build around themes like meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, and Pizza Friday. Pasta is usually an easy sell to kids and can be a one-day-a-week staple ingredient.

Experiment with pastas made from different grains such as brown rice and quinoa to expose your family to a wider variety of nutrients by adding vegetable to make a colorful pasta salad.

2) Never Underestimate the Power of “Brinner”

Kids will rarely shy away from having pancakes, French toast, and other popular breakfast fare at suppertime. To make the meal satisfying, include higher protein options like eggs, chicken sausage, and Greek yogurt. Use 100 percent pure maple syrup (and keep the portions modest) and include some fiber-rich fruits like pears, berries, and mango to round out the menu. This recipe for French toast is always a crowd pleaser.

Serves: 4

  • 3 large eggs
  • ¾ cup lowfat (1%) milk
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus more to taste
  • 8 slices whole grain bread
  • 4 teaspoons unsalted butter
  • Canola oil cooking spray
  • 100% maple syrup
  • 2 cups fresh seasonal fruit

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, vanilla, and cinnamon; set aside.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat and spray with nonstick spray. Melt 1 teaspoon butter in skillet. Dip 2 slices of bread into milk mixture, making sure both sides are well coated. Place bread in skillet and cook for 2 to 3 minutes per side or until golden brown (sprinkle with additional cinnamon, if desired).

Repeat with remaining slices of bread. Transfer to a warm oven until ready to serve. Top with maple syrup and fruit and enjoy!

3) Raise Farmers’ Market Junkies

Learning where food comes from can inspire even the pickiest eaters to try new things. Take your kiddos to the local market, hand them five bucks, and let them decide what’s on the menu. The only rule should be that they try it. You can also use the outing as an opportunity to teach them about what types of produce are in season at different times of year. Come home and add the star ingredients to dinner favorites like pasta and pizza.

4) Everything Tastes Better When Dipped

Kids love to dunk their food. Allow for more dipping opportunities by offering healthy options like hummus, guacamole, homemade sauces, and salad dressings along with the main course.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own, look for store-bought condiments with simple ingredient lists. If you try this recipe for edamame hummus though, it'll be a simple way to get more protein into picky eaters (recipe adapted from First Bites: Superfoods for Babies and Toddlers).

Serves: 4

  • 2 cups shelled frozen edamame, thawed
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons whipped cream cheese
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • juice and zest of one lemon
  • kosher salt and black pepper

Place edamame, olive oil, cream cheese, honey, lemon juice and zest,1/2 teaspoon
salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in a food processor and run until smooth and creamy. Serve with whole grain pita chips or veggie sticks.

5) Divide Up the Work

Give those busy little bodies some responsibility at dinner time! Allowing the kids to touch, see, feel, and taste how the meal was put together will peak their interest and excitement for eating. Even if your kids prefer to simply watch the cooking, they can still participate.

Other jobs can include setting the table, pouring the drinks, and helping their younger siblings to the table.

6) Offer One Thing Everybody Likes

Avoid sour pusses at the table. Every night, aim to offer at least one food that everyone likes to eat. Nothing overly fancy or time consuming is required—ideas include whole grain bread with olive oil for dipping, a favorite vegetable, or even a beverage. Instead of alienating the child that you already know isn’t a fan of the meatloaf you made, welcome them to the table with a beloved foods. Hopefully everyone will be encouraged to eat something.

7) Forget the Power Struggle

Treat the dinner table like Switzerland. If your child refuses to eat what you’ve prepared, so be it. Fighting usually just breeds additional conflict and can quickly escalate to a World War 3 type of evening.

Whatever you do though, please don’t get up and prepare something else for them. Just accept their choice not to eat what you made. This usually gets old really quickly and you’ll find your youngster will become more likely to get their head in the game the next day.

8) Disconnect (This Goes for Mom and Dad, Too)

Mealtime should be technology free for everyone. Resist the temptation to check email, text, or to snap Instagram shots of your plate. Turn off the TV and practice the lost art of conversation. Play a game like “eye spy” or simply go around the room and ask everyone to share something about their day or the upcoming weekend.  

9) Lower Your Expectations

Don’t let social media pics fool you. There’s no such thing as a perfect dinner and that’s perfectly fine. On some nights recipes will suck, kids will pout, and you’ll want to burn your kitchen to the ground, but don’t worry, you get to do it all again tomorrow. Happy dinners and happy eaters are all about trial and error.

10) Get Your Hands Dirty

Finger foods like tacos, potato skins, homemade pizza, and lettuce wraps can be made super healthy and are just plain fun to eat. Make a (reasonably sized) mess and enjoy every minute of it. Try this recipe for sticky chicken lettuce cups. Note: schedule bath time after dinner on these nights.

Serves 4

  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into strips
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon reduced sodium soy sauce or tamari
  • ¼ cup mild honey
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds
  • Serving suggestions: lettuce leaves, shredded carrot, sliced cucumber, lime wedges, Sriracha

Place chicken and cornstarch in a large resealable bag. Close bag and toss to coat the pieces in cornstarch. Heat oil in a large wok or skillet over high heat. Add chicken and brown on both sides. Add soy sauce and cook for 1 minute before adding honey and sesame seeds. Continue to cook, tossing frequently until sauce is thickened and chicken is cooked through, 7 to 10 minutes. Serve chicken wrapped in lettuce leaves and topped with desired toppings.

11) Create an Arsenal of Family Favorites

Undoubtedly, certain recipes will rise to the top of the favorites list, so embrace it. Make these dishes once a week or a few times a month and ride that train until the kids up and change their minds. It’s oh-so comforting to make something everyone looks forward to eating.

12) Kids’ Choice

Every so often let the kids have free reign over the menu. Even if their request is ridiculous, see if you can find a way to accommodate some of it. Cheese and crackers may not make a dinner, but add some chicken soup and sliced cucumbers and you’re in business. Sometimes the best meals happen by accident.

13) Order It in Every Once in a While

Last but not least, know when to throw in the dish towel and order take out. A crazy work schedule or 5 back-to-back after school activities won’t allow for a thoughtful and well composed home cooked meal. Dial it in with out guilt once in a while.

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