Let me start this by saying: it is not impossible to cook one meal for the whole family even with a picky eater in the mix, trust me, I have done it myself. I am doing it. I have been doing it for years now. And I want to pass on what I’ve learned through my journey and help other parents get to a place where they not only cook one meal for all, but can be more in control of meal planning, instead of being governed but what the fussy eater of the family does or doesn’t eat.
WHAT I’LL COVER HERE
- My experience with my own fussy eater, my son Nate
- The three step plan I created to help make your picky eater a much less-picky eater
- The level of commitment you’ll need and ground rules around starting this plan
- I’ll share all my tips & tricks for tackling the three step plan and your fussy eater
MY PICKY EATER
My eldest, Nate, was BORN a picky eater and yes I used to pander to his taste palate (or lack there of!) and was always batch cooking him separate meals or bunging chicken nuggets in the oven. Then my daughter came along, with her own set of problems (bad silent reflux!) and I no longer had time to be cooking different meals for Nate. So I committed to having him eat with us, whatever we were eating, and I made it work.
It didn’t happen easily however. It took persistence and time. I stuck to my “you have to eat it” guns. I ignored the whinging, rejected the refusals to not eat and was patient (which is very hard for me I promise you). Sometimes Nate sat there eating for way over an hour. But, he would eventually eat enough and that was the important thing.
Eating family meals together
The most successful way of tackling fussy eating is to eat family meals together. Stop making toddler specific meals or for older children, tailored-to-them meals. In 2021 a review by the University of South Australia was carried out of 80 health studies concluding that eating the same meal together as a family reduces fussiness around food. Eating together allows parents to role-model meal time behaviour and a demonstrate a positive relationship with food. It also provides distraction. As your child watches, listens and takes part in conversation, they focus less on their food. You can read more about the benefits of eating family meals together here >
INTRODUCING NEW MEALS
When I started to introduce new, varied meals, I always included ingredients I knew he liked. Then in time I started to branch out into ingredients he never wanted to eat. I paid attention to exactly what he would complain about within the meals and found ways of tweaking his servings sometimes to make them more “Nate” friendly. After a few months, he was sooo much better with food and just continued to improve after that.
ONCE A PICKY EATER, ALWAYS A PICKY EATER
I would say Nate is fundamentally still a fussy eater and probably always will be. The meals he LOVES are few and far between and these he wolfs down. Having said that, he WILL eat any meal I give him. And these meals do take him much longer to eat, he may leave a little and they are not without some comment that he doesn’t like this or that about it. But the goal for any parent of a picky eater should be to get their child to eat any meal, regardless of how much they like it, and we achieved that goal a long time ago.
YOU CAN DO IT!
I know from my experience, if you really commit and stick to making ‘one meal for all’, you CAN evolve your picky eater into a much less-picky eater. Below you’ll find my recommended three step plan, which I created after reflecting on how I tackled my own fussy eater problem. Also to help as much as I can, in each meal or side dish recipe post I have a Picky Eater section where I give tips on how you could adapt their serving, based on common picky eater dislikes. Obviously, every picky eater is different, but through this process you can listen to what your child complains about the most. Then you can identify ways in which to adapt their servings slightly to suit them a little better going forward.
THE THREE STEP LESS-PICKY EATER PLAN
The key to converting your picky eater into a much less-picky eater is to have a plan and stick to it. The plan is based on eating family meals together. Eating varied meals together as a family is the BEST way to curb fussy eating. Each family will progress through the steps at different rates. The rate will depend on how often you introduce new family meals as well as the stubbornness of your picky eater!
In addition, below the three steps you’ll find tips & tricks to help you navigate this process.
Start off with new family meals that incorporate 3 ingredients your fussy eater likes, across the 3 main food groups; carbohydrate, protein and a vegetable. If they don’t like any vegetables at the moment, choose more palatable, sweet ones like carrots, sweetcorn, peas or red pepper (sweet bell pepper). Avoid ingredients they really dislike. Stick to meal types they enjoy, for example pasta dishes, but introduce new meals they’ve not had before within that type.
Once you feel they are starting to tolerate new meals (don’t wait for them to love them!), go down to 2 ingredients you know they like in every new meal and introduce more ingredients they wouldn’t ordinarily want to eat. Still cook mainly meal types they like, but start to introduce different ones as well.
Good new meal types to start introducing to fussy eaters are:
- pasta‘s (mix of creamy sauces and tomato sauces)
- meat and poultry pies served with potatoes and vegetables
- meatballs and pasta or rice
- homemade burgers
- homemade breaded chicken
- meals with fruit in
- rice dishes with chicken or meats in sweet asian style marinades and sauces
- noodle dishes
- cheesy bakes
- casseroles and stews
Listen to any comments they make about what they really dislike about the meals and going forward you can bear that in mind and find work-arounds with meals. For example, you can substitute certain vegetables they hate in recipes with other vegetables they don’t mind so much. Or meals that have two vegetables, if they don’t mind one but hate the other, allow them to eat the one they prefer and leave the other. If you have a picky eater that doesn’t like tomatoes, for example, you could substitute chopped tomatoes with passata (or in the US tomato purée).
When you feel they are adjusting to having a variety of different meals with the family, and they are eating new foods they wouldn’t have touched before, you can go down to 1 key ingredient (protein, carbohydrate or vegetable) they are happy to eat in every meal. Try different types of meals and cuisines. Carry on listening to any comments they make about parts of the meal they really dislike and tweak recipes or servings if you need to going forward.
Don’t be afraid to start testing out dishes with a little spice. We quickly discovered that beef taco’s and chilli con carne (made less spicy) were my fussy eater’s new favourite meals!
At this point you may find there are things they really dislike still, and as they will now be tolerating a wider range of foods, it is ok to let them avoid those. For example, I still can’t get my picky eater to eat avocado or big visible chunks of tomato, but he will tolerate pretty much all other vegetables I give him, so I let him have a pass on those!
THE FINISH LINE
You’ll get to the point where your fussy eater will have adapted to this new way of eating. They may still complain or take longer than they should to eat, but they eat will enough in the end. You may have found along the way little things that your child still really doesn’t like and you can take those into consideration when meal planning and plating their serving. Overall though, you should be in a place where you can pretty much make what you want. Hooray!
COMMITTING TO THE LESS-PICKY EATER PLAN
In order for the three step plan to work, you need to be strong and stay committed to your cause. Once you start down this path, you have to stick with it for it to work. My advice is to cook new family meals and eat together consistently. If you cook a new meal one week and then don’t cook another for a few weeks, it will not have the desired effect. Neither will giving them new meals to eat by themselves. Plan to cook new family meals a set number of times (that you can manage) each week, and plan to start during a month when you have the time to dedicate to it.
THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF ALL…
YOU are in charge of the menu. THEY are in charge of how much they eat.
You can involve them in the meal planning by letting them have a choice between two healthy meals of your choosing, and that’s it. If you give them a meal and they don’t want to eat it, that’s their choice. If you decide to make them their favourite jam sandwich instead, they will quickly learn that all they need to do is to refuse to eat in order to get something else that they like. They will repeat that behaviour every new meal time, and subsequently you will get nowhere. Game over. You must be in charge of the menu, they must be in charge of how much they eat.
If you DO have a very stubborn fussy eater and they completely refuse to eat, simply take the plate away, and say nothing. Don’t even address it. If they ask for something else make it clear, calmly, that there is nothing else to eat. They may ask for their food back, they may not.
FEAR OF LACK OF NUTRITION
Once you commit to the plan and your child realises they won’t get anything else to eat, regardless of their refusal or fussing, they will at some point stop that behaviour and give in and eat. Remember, any meals your child misses will be made up for the with the next meal or the next day. Your child will not starve themselves to death. They will eat when they need to eat. Just make sure it’s not unhealthy foods and snacks they eat when that happens.
If in the early days you DO have a child who refusing to eat and skips a meals sometimes, it’s better to look at their food and nutritional intake across a week, not just individual days as they tend to make up for what they miss in the days after.
If it’s lunch they’ve refused, give them a larger, healthy and nutritious snack mid-afternoon. If a child goes to bed without dinner you’ll usually find they will make up for it mostly at breakfast time. It’s a good idea when this is the case to pack breakfast with added nutrients, so include a piece a fruit if you don’t already, give wholemeal/wholewheat bread with eggs or porridge.
It can be very stressful when you start a plan like this and go from giving a fussy eater the meals they like and are used to, to a whole new range of food. If your child refuses to eat or has a tantrum at the dinner table, just remember - this too shall pass. Breathe deep, let their behaviour go over your head and tell yourself you’ve got this, you can do this!
TIPS & TRICKS FOR INTRODUCING NEW MEALS TO A PICKY EATER
Here are some tips & tricks you can use alongside the three step plan:
PLAN, PLAN, PLAN
Set aside time each week to meal plan and find new recipes to try, you’ll need longer at the beginning in particular as you will be hunting for recipes that include ingredients you know your fussy eater will actually eat. And you don’t need to spend money on cookbooks, there are so many amazing food blogs out there to find great recipes on. Have a hunt on Instagram (and at who Together to Eat follows). Also you can google recipes containing certain ingredients.
This plan will only work if you can eat together as a family often, aim for once a day at least. Even if not all family members are home to eat together, as long as one parent is there, that will make all the difference. When you eat together and have the same meal, it enables you to role model expected meal time behaviour. Also, your fussy eater will see that others are enjoying the meal. It also allows you to turn mealtimes into a positive, bonding time together. Having a picky eater eat with siblings and friends especially has a big impact on how much they will eat, they usually feel a sense of wanting to eat as well as their peers. Read more about the benefits of eating together as a family here >
For the first few months, make sure that their other two meals of the day are balanced and ones they enjoy. That way if they don’t eat as much of the new meal as you’d like, you know they’ll make up for it with the other two that day, or the next.
Studies have shown that not talking about their food at all can result in them eating more than if the parent keeps telling the child to eat. They best thing to do is to not talk about what they are or aren’t eating, and don’t even praise them for what they have eaten. Make it a non-event and draw no attention to how good or bad they are doing with their food. What you can do instead is talk to them about other things. This will distract them from food they don’t want to eat, as well as allow you precious time to connect. And remember, YOU are in charge of the menu, THEY are in charge of how much they eat.
As I mentioned in the plan, listen to what they complain about the most. This will allow you to tweak recipes or their servings, with minimal effort, to make them a little more likeable to your fussy eater.
IT TAKES TIME
If your child refuses to try a new food or tries it but doesn’t like it, you need to keep in mind that some children need to be offered a food several times before they will be happy to try it and once they try it could take several more times after that to get used to it - so don’t give up!
CUT BACK ON THE SNACKS
Try to eliminate unnecessary snacking and when they do have snacks, keep them light. Fussy eaters will be fussier at meal times if they aren’t all that hungry. Children only need one snack between each meal time.
OFFER A CHOICE OF VEGETABLES
Meals with 2-3 vegetables in are often good for fussy eaters as you can allow them to leave one they are really adverse to.
Try meals with a fruit element to them, this often makes meals more palatable to picky eaters who like fruit (and babies/toddlers).
ROAST YOUR VEG
Try serving roasted vegetables instead of steamed or boiled. The roasting process caramelises vegetables, bringing out their natural sweetness, so fussy eaters often prefer them this way.
Meals with a sweet sauce or marinade can work well with picky eaters. Look for recipes containing maple syrup, honey or brown sugar etc. Often these are asian style recipes.
If you have a child who is not good with fruit you’ll need to get creative! Test out home-made smoothies, fruit salads, make compote to add into yogurt, give them pieces of fruit like banana and strawberries to dip into a little melted chocolate and try making puddings and cakes with fruit in.
Trying meals with hidden vegetables to start is fine, but don’t solely cook these as your picky eater needs to get used to eating visible chunks of vegetables.
When cooking new meat dishes, it’s a good idea to incorporate meatball recipes; beef, pork, chicken or lamb. Texturally they are usually more palatable for fussy eaters, compared to chunks of red meat in particular.
Sometimes it helps to simply serve a fussy eaters portion in a more separated way. You can also add in one or two things they like that aren’t in the meal if you want to. At the end of my recipes I will add a note on adapting a picky eaters serving in this way, if it makes sense to do so.
Tomatoes are often a vegetable picky eaters don’t like. If they are adverse to visible chunks of cooked tomatoes in meals (like mine!), swap chopped tomatoes for passata (or in the US tomato purée).
You may find out (or already know) that your fussy eater isn’t a big fan of sauces. My son isn’t, but I get round that by dishing up his serving with minimal amount of sauce. An effective way to do this is using a slotted spoon, allowing the majority of sauce to drip off into the pan first. You can always check with them after a few mouthfuls if they’d like more the sauce. You could also give them a little of the sauce in a mini bowl or jug to add as they wish. Giving picky eater’s a little control over their meal can encourage them to eat.
KIDS COOK TOO
Having your fussy eater help you cook, can make them more eager to try a new meal. Each of my recipes has a Kids Cook Too tip recommending an element that younger children can help with. Older children can of course help with the entire cook, with supervision.
If your child is toddler or preschool age and they are already used to having fruit or yogurt with or after their meal, and they have made a good effort and eaten some of the meal, you can offer them some fruit or yogurt (or both) as a pudding NOT a replacement for the meal. It is important to wait until everyone has finished eating to give it to them and make sure you call it “afters” or “pudding’ and offer it to everyone else as well.
Don’t start offering cakes and biscuits and don’t offer anything if they’ve refused to eat any of their meal. Also, do not say, if you don’t eat your dinner you don’t get any pudding - remember, don’t pile on the pressure and draw attention to what they are or aren’t eating. They will learn by themselves that they only get offered “pudding” if they’ve eaten some of their meal and this will encourage them to put a good effort into eating each meal.
As you get further down the line of the Less Picky Eating Plan and your picky eater is a bit older, they may start asking when can they finish eating. If they do, give them a number of mouthfuls they still need to eat. That can often be much less daunting than saying they need to clear their plate or vaguely telling them to keep eating until you say so.
DON’T EXPECT MIRACLES
While following my plan, keep your expectations realistic. It will take time to get to the finish line and the length of time will correlate with how strictly you follow the steps, how often you serve new meals, and how firm you are about them being eaten. Don’t expect your fussy eater to enjoy every meal you give them, or discover they love something they once refused to eat, but you should be able to rest easy knowing they will eat a good amount of any meal you serve them regardless.
This will not be a miracle cure, they may always be a picky eater at heart, but they should at least be a much less-picky eater. The goal is to have them eat most of anything you give them, whether they really enjoy it or not!
Start browsing recipes now >
For more information and advice on fussy/picky eaters I would recommend UK visitors to have a read here on the NHS website and if you are a US visitor, then here on the healthychildren.org which is run by the American Academy of Paedatrics.
SHARE WITH ME
If you implement this plan, I would love to know how you get on with it. Just drop your feedback in the comment section below. Also, if you have any questions about the plan, comment below and I will get back to you as soon as I can. Good luck!
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