Living with a picky eater can be maddening. Without patience, every meal can become a battle as the persnickety eater fights off having to try any new food. Lunch can be even more frustrating. Without a parent on hand at school to verify that a kid actually did eat what they packed, it’s anyone’s guess what they actually put into their body.
But there are some tricks and choices a parent can make when packing a picky eater’s lunch that will at least make sure that their kid is getting enough nutrients. It begins with putting as much variety in their child’s lunchbox as possible. (No easy task for a kiddo who may limit their intake to one or two food groups.)
Leah Hackney, RD, LD, CSP, a pediatric nutritionist who specializes in picky eating, says the main thing any parent of a picky eater needs to understand is that there needs to be clear differences between the parent’s responsibilities and child’s responsibilities.
The parent’s responsibility “really is to provide the food being offered and when the mealtime is occurring,” says Hackney. “The child's role in feeding is to determine if they eat the food that's offered to them and how much they need to eat for their bodies needs.” That’s it. Sounds simple. Might even sound like what you’re already doing. But it’s easier said than done. If, when a child sees they’re not being served what they want and the parent caves and gives in to their demands, then the tables have turned. The child now realizes they’re in control. Game over.
Once you’ve managed to wrangle control for your child, you need some meal ideas to get them started down the path to better eating. Hackney has some suggestions.
The key to encouraging a child to become a more diverse eater, Hackney says, is to be realistic. A picky eater isn’t likely to have an epiphany after one bite of broccoli and start eating every vegetable. The goal is small wins. “Give yourself grace,” says Hackney. Save the tough stuff, like introducing new proteins for breakfast or dinner and make lunch a place for small manageable changes. For instance, consider some of these menu ideas Hackney uses with her patients.
Side: Hummus with carrots
Side: Fruit cut in developmentally appropriate proportions
Side: Cucumber slices
Side: Hard boiled egg
Main: Shredded chicken
Side: Cheese slices
Side: Apple slices
More Picky Eater Ideas
While you’re packing lunches, consider these other ideas that might help expand your child’s palate. Get creative and think beyond just popping a new food in their lunchbox.
The Peanut Butter Hack
If you feel like your child’s peanut butter obsession has gone too far, consider there’s a whole world of nut butters to choose, from sunflower to almond. Find a low sugar alternative and pop it in your child’s sandwich. They might not even realize it’s a new blend.
The Smoothie Move
As previously mentioned, smoothies are a really great way to mask healthy ingredients like leafy greens, zucchini, hemp seeds, frozen peaches, and mangoes. When blended together, the sweetness of fruit can cover up what might otherwise make a child turn up their nose.
Nugget love is strong in the child world. But many frozen products look and taste very similar to nuggets, like veggie versions and fish alternatives, including popcorn shrimp. Mix it up but serve these nugget look-a-likes in a lunch just as you would the traditional variety and see if your child can tell the difference.
Put A Face On It
There’s a reason the bento box lunch trend has become so popular. Turns out making kid’s lunch super playful actually entices them to eat more and greater variety of items. So turn that left over spaghetti topping into a smile or cut chunks of melon into stars or use a cookie cutter to make a sandwich a fun shape.
Put a Stick on It
Kids are so tactile, maybe what they don’t like is the texture of a food more than its actual flavor. So help them avoid touching it by putting it on a stick. You could put some big strawberries on sticks or freeze bananas on popsicle sticks. The item will feel like a treat, but taste like a healthy choice.
If your child hates fresh fruit, serve it up another way: dried. You can buy plenty of premade dried fruits at the grocery, or you can invest in a fruit dryer online and create your own.
A box of plain carrots or cucumber slices is no fun. Even an adult would likely agree with that. Perk those veggies up by including a dip. You could make your own simple yogurt dip or include a ranch or other dressing dip to entice them.
Mix Up the Old Sandwich
You can make a sandwich out of a lot of things. Perhaps your kid will be more amenable to cracker sandwiches of ham and cheese rather than the old reliable white beard. Or you could go a step further and make lettuce wraps.
Bulk Up Bread
It’s hard to tell there’s zucchini in a really good loaf of zucchini bread. Or what about muffins with carrots in them? You can tuck a lot of veggies into bread items.
Ultimately, these ideas are just a start on your journey to open your child’s palate to new flavors. But throughout this process, one key thing to do is include them in the lunch making process. When they see the work that goes into every lunch, they might become more curious and take more ownership of their own eating choices.