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Understanding Your Picky Eater: A List of Foods to Try (and How to Find More)

by | Apr 17, 2024 | Character

Don’t let the peas touch the pasta!

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. According to a recent review of studies on the topic, as many as 59% of kids are picky eaters.

When your kids won’t eat the healthy food you put in front of them, it’s easy to feel concerned.

We get it—and we have some ideas for pinpointing your child’s specific challenges, getting them the nutrients they need, and expanding their eating repertoire.

The Short Cut

  • Dealing with picky eaters can be frustrating for parents, but it’s also an opportunity to help your child build Character, one of the 5 C’s at the heart of the Begin Approach to helping them thrive in school and life
  • Try channeling your child’s desire for control in positive ways, like giving them choices at mealtimes
  • Involving kids in food prep (like grocery shopping, cooking, and setting the table) may get them more excited to eat
  • Be patient. Your child may need to be exposed to a food more than ten times before they try it!
  • A social-emotional learning program like Learn with Sesame Street can help your child manage their emotions (including feelings about food!) and develop other essential aspects of Character

Building a Picky Eater Food List

No foolproof food list exists for picky eaters. (Wouldn’t it make life easier?) But many kids do seem to consistently like:

  • Fruits
  • Smoothies
  • Muffins
  • Grilled cheese
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Plain pasta
  • Bread
  • Cheese
  • Beige foods (many of the foods above qualify!)

That’s not a lot to work with. So how do you expand the list?

If your child has even a few types of foods they’ll eat without fail, you’re at a good starting point. You can use this baseline to build a more varied list of foods.

Finding New Foods for Picky Eaters

1. Make a Slight Change

Try substituting a variation of the food your child likes. For instance, if they love bananas, try banana yogurt.

2. Add a New Food

Introduce a new food that goes with the one your child likes. If they like spaghetti and meatballs, you could sprinkle cheese on top.

3. Try “Food Chaining”

If you can figure out what category—like salty, smooth, or hot—your child’s food preferences fit into, you can suggest they try other foods in that category.

If your child likes raisins, for instance, they might also like dried blueberries (both are chewy). Or if they like french fries, you could give them some salted edamame (both are salty).

4. Experiment with Condiments

If your child won’t eat carrots, will they eat carrots dipped in ranch dressing?

5. Deconstruct Your Meals

Sometimes it’s not a particular food a child doesn’t like—they just can’t approach a mix of foods. Instead of serving a burrito, maybe fix a plate with separated beans, rice, guacamole, and slices of tortilla.

6. Invite a Friend

Sometimes having a friend who is a courageous eater inspires a child to be culinarily brave too. See if you can share a meal with one of your child’s friends and serve something the friend likes and your child doesn’t—yet.

7. Vary Your Food Prep

Sometimes the negative response is about the way a food is prepared. Your child doesn’t like raw red pepper? What about sauteed? Or roasted? Or folded into some hummus?

8. Make Eating Fun

Try to make mealtime as stress-free as possible. Your kid will be more open to trying new things if they’re feeling calm and happy. You can try using cookie cutters to make shapes out of food or play a game at the dinner table.

tips for parents of picky eaters

More Picky Eater Food Ideas

Some other good bets on foods a picky child might eat:

  • Mac and cheese—you can even add some cauliflower
  • Baked potatoes—offer a few different toppings
  • Bagel pizzas—again, try some different toppings
  • Breakfast for dinner—scrambled eggs and toast, for instance
  • Chicken fajitas—this one works well because it starts off deconstructed
  • Yogurt drops—some kids won’t eat yogurt because of the consistency, but will eat drops of yogurt frozen on a cookie tray
  • Fruit or vegetable muffins
  • Fruit kebabs
  • Peanut butter between crackers
  • Dried fruits or veggies
  • Smoothies
  • Grilled cheese
  • Soup
  • Fish sticks

Foods to Avoid for Picky Eaters

No two kids are exactly alike, but there are some foods kids seem to consistently resist:

  • Mushrooms
  • Tomatoes
  • Seafood
  • Spicy foods
  • Olives
  • Avocados
  • Strong-smelling vegetables, like onions and cabbage

Kids also tend to have categories of foods they don’t like:

  • Bitter and sour (like lemons)
  • Lumpy (like cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit on the bottom)
  • Slimy and slippery (like eggs)

Many kids also have a general aversion to foods touching each other on the plate!

3 Reasons Why Your Child Might Be a Picky Eater

Why Your Child Might Be a Picky Eater

Not all kids are picky for the same reasons. And sometimes, if you can identify why they’re being picky, it can help you expand their menu.

1. Fussy about Flavor

Bread and butter, pasta and butter, crackers—and butter! Some kids only eat simple flavors.

Try introducing more complex flavors gradually. Bread, butter, and jam. Pasta, butter, and parmesan cheese.

If your child is really wary of trying new tastes, see if they’ll “play” with the foods first. “Draw” a face out of veggies. Let your child build a fort out of broccoli on their plate.

Any way they can have fun while getting familiar with food moves them a few steps forward.

2. Portions Are Too Big

Your child might be overwhelmed by the amount of food on their plate. Try giving them small portions, like two carrot sticks, a couple of slices of apple, or one small piece of chicken.

If your child asks for seconds, great! But starting small will help them feel less overwhelmed, emotionally and physically.

Kids’ stomachs are only as big as their fists, so they don’t need as much food as we do.

3. Our Kids Watch What We Eat

If you only eat certain foods every day, your child is more likely to do the same. Maybe you can try new foods together.

And when you do, you may truly not like something. That gives you the opportunity to demonstrate how to handle that too!

If you were a picky eater when you were young, try talking with your child about your own experiences. This can help them feel your empathy and may make them more open to trying new foods.

4 Tips for Parents of Picky Eaters

Now that you’ve got a general idea of why your child has become a picky eater, you can try some of these ideas for inspiring culinary risk-taking.

1. Give Your Child Some Control

Once children become toddlers, they begin to understand the concept of control. Food may become a way to wield it.

Avoid power struggles when you can, for example by letting your child leave the table early. (They may not have the attention span yet to sit through a meal.)

At the same time, see if you can find creative ways to give your child control, like bringing them to the grocery store and letting them choose a new healthy food.

You can also try presenting your child with one food they like and then a choice between two new ones. That freedom may entice them to be brave.

2. Have Them Help in the Kitchen

A hands-on approach is a good way to learn for many kids, so see if you can give your child a job to help you prepare food in the kitchen.

If they’re a part of making it, they may be more interested in trying it! Depending on your child’s age, they can help by:

  • Unwrapping butter
  • Opening containers
  • Measuring flour
  • Cracking eggs
  • Stirring ingredients

While you’re cooking, you can create opportunities for them to taste foods without placing the need to eat in the spotlight. Try asking them to take a sip of the smoothie to see if it needs more strawberries. Or give them two cheeses to choose from for the mac and cheese.

Role-playing is also a great way to relax your child. They can pretend to be a server and bring food from the kitchen to the table. That way they can handle the food in an imaginative way and begin to develop a fun, positive relationship with it.

3. Add New Foods Strategically

Kids tend to prefer sweet and salty over bitter and sour, so try new foods with those tastes first, like a new kind of fruit, or corn sprinkled with some salt.

Depending on your child’s age, bite-sized pieces and soft finger foods can make the eating experience easier too. And don’t forget dips. They’re a great way to expand your child’s palette. Guacamole and hummus are two good options!

4. Keep the Goal in Mind

Food prep and mealtimes can become stressful points in your child’s day when you’ve got a picky eater. Building their emotional resiliency by teaching them about feelings can help them (and you!) deal with that stress more easily.

Remember your big-picture objective: for your child to develop a positive relationship with food. They’re going to need it to stay healthy, strong, and full of energy for their entire life.

Building Character for Eating with Begin

Photo illustration showing photos of kids using the Begin brands: Little Passports, HOMER, Learn with Sesame Street, and codeSpark

At Begin, we know building social-emotional skills (including around eating!) can be a challenge for many families. And we also know how essential they are to kids’ development.

To help make it easier for parents, we partnered with Sesame Workshop to create Learn with Sesame Street, a social-emotional learning program that helps kids develop empathy, kindness, self-worth, and more. There’s even a fun hands-on game about eating!

If you’re looking for ways to make mealtime with a picky eater easier, check out Learn with Sesame Street today!


Dr. Jody Sherman LeVos
Jody has a Ph.D. in Developmental Science and more than a decade of experience in the children’s media and early learning space.