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How Meal Planning Can Help Picky Eaters


If you have meal planned at all in your life, you know that it can help you spend less at the store, be more organized, and keep your stress down around cooking for your family.  But, did you know that meal planning might help improve what a picky eater, eats?  

Having a Picky Eater is Hard

As a dietitian who has worked with thousands of parents, I have seen how hard it is to put together a meal for kids that don’t eat a large variety of foods.  That becomes even harder when you are trying to make a meal last minute. Typically, by the time dinner rolls around, it just seems easier to feed that “picky” eater whatever you know they will eat.  It is too much effort and might seem like a waste of time to bother with something they aren’t going to eat anyways.  But this may cause a self-fulfilling prophesy because by serving kids the same few foods, you will just reinforce their preference for these foods or worse, they will burn out on them and eat even less variety.  

The first step towards improving a picky eater’s variety is coming up with a game plan.  It is important to have a balance between foods your kid likes and ones they might not like or haven’t tried yet.  If you don’t have anything on the plate that they are willing to eat, then they may become anxious or overwhelmed and bail on the meal all together.  Striking this balance of challenging non preferred foods and comfortable preferred foods can be challenging to say the least.  

This is where meal planning comes in.  If you need some help getting started or a quick review check out Meal Planning Basics here.  Natalie talks about how meal planning gives you the opportunity to increase variety and that is the ultimate goal with a picky eater.  So, here are a few reasons why these meal plans are such a valuable tool to help those less than willing participants.

How Meal Planning Can Help Picky Eaters

Ensuring a Preferred Food. Meal planning gives you the organization to make sure you have those comforting and familiar foods ready at each meal for your picky eater. As I already mentioned, this is key for the whole meal not going down the drain- literally. I would strongly suggest that you sit down and make a list of all the foods your kids eats at least 50% of the time.  Put these foods into three categories- starch/carbs, fruits/veggies, and proteins.  Most people are surprised at how many foods are actually on the list.  Now make sure at least 1 of these is served at each meal.  

Consistent Exposure to New Foods. Look at the foods on that list you made of all the foods they eat, do you notice any patterns? Are they eating only crunchy, soft, or white foods? Once you identify some of these patterns, you can plan some meals that gradually take them a little out of their comfort zone.  With each meal that you plan, slowly make small changes to some of the foods they eat.  For example, if you noticed that your kid seems to be avoiding anything with a mushy texture, but they love crunchy foods, then try to plan for some meals with foods that have crunchy outsides and soft insides.  It all may be in how you prepare the food.

Track Progress. Make some quick notes on how your kids reacted to a meal on your plan.  It is important to see success in interactions with food, too.  Some kids won’t even look at new foods, if yours touched a green bean for the first time that is success!  Having your meal plan as a visual will let you see the progress you have made and remind you to go back and try some foods that you had some progress with.  Often times, without this visual reminder, we get stuck in the same old rut and go back to cooking the same things.

Reduced Stress. The organization and reduced stress that meal planning brings is even more important for the picky eater, because parents of picky eaters are more likely to be more stressed and disorganized at meals.  Meal planning probably won’t take away all of the stress because now you have to work on getting your kid to eat some of these non preferred foods, but it will help a lot.  And, the less stressed we are as parents during meal time, the better our kids will eat.  

If you are looking for more strategies to help with your picky eater check out more of our strategies and recipes here.

Natalie Monson

I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.

Learn More about Natalie

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Thanks for your thoughtful tips, Alisha. Each parent is dealing with the food preferences of their family to varying degrees.

My thoughts: do your best in making a plan to introduce a variety of foods to your family. At the same time, enjoy the food and yourself and the company of your family!

Don’t heap praise or or scorn when children eat. Talk about something other than food at the table.

If you have healthy foods on the table that they do eat, along with new choices, they will get use to the smell and maybe the texture and taste of new foods.

Keep only healthy foods in your house. If you have an extremely picky eater, don’t offer filling non-foods like power bars between meals. Good luck!

Thank you thank you thank you for featuring this today. I’m in this boat with my child and sensory eating issues. Trying to find an OT who specializes in this! Too bad I live in Cleveland and not Pittsburg! But will start reading her blog!!! Thanks again.

Great post Alisha!! I have been planning to start weekly meal planning in February for Matt (my husband) and I. I never thought to do it for Connor, my picky 4 year old and and Evan, my 1 year old . I have started making my 4 year old try one new thing every day. He hasn’t been thrilled about it, but he is getting better. I am really excited to check out the recipes and ideas on this site!

Hey Michelle! So glad you checked it out! Definitely check out some of those picky eater posts I have, I think it will be really helpful! I am going to putting up a massive post index this week, so they will be really easy to find- I have written a lot about picky eating! The recipes here are awesome!

I am a picky eater and would rather starve for days then try anything new especially if i really didnt want to. I have been a picky eater my whole life my parents sometimes would force me to eat open my mouth etc and it just made me throw up. Picky eaters aren’t gonna always try thing.