The dinner table is a valuable place to connect with kids at the end of a busy day, but picky eaters don't look forward to the meal like parents do. Having kids with unpredictable appetites, picky palates, or too much energy to sit at the table makes a pleasant dinner impossible. Check out the strategies below for accommodating picky eaters and bringing peace to your dinner table again.
At our dinner table, we've tried what feels like everything to get two neurodivergent kids to enjoy a meal. We've played their favorite music or listened to audiobooks while dining. We've let them pick the dinner menu. We've changed when dinner is offered to get around the effects of appetite-suppressing medications. If you feel like dinner is a struggle and you've tried everything, you are not alone!
This post is meant to share some of our best strategies for bringing joy back to dinner again. We aim to create eaters that value a diversity of nutrients, are willing to try new things, and see meals as a enjoyable part of the day where we can connect. Strategies in this post are meant for kids from age 6 and up; this is when dinner time struggles really started in our family.
If you feel you have a kid with an ever-decreasing list of "acceptable" foods, an aversion to entire groups of food due to textures, or one that cries or breaks down at the thought of new foods, please consult with your pediatrician. These are all signs that your child is more than just a picky eater and you may need more support than this post can offer.
Cooking for Picky Eaters
I find the simplest way to accommodate the picky eaters at your table is to modify a recipe so that everyone can enjoy parts of it. Modifications to a recipe can include any of the following:
- Pulling the Protein Before Saucing - If you sauté chicken as one step in the recipe, pull some aside to serve plain with a preferred dipping sauce.
- Omitting a Topping - Offer garnishes and toppings like olives, cilantro, salsas, sour cream, or pickles separately.
- Changing the Vegetable Cooking Method - Serve the listed vegetables raw instead of cooking them. Try roasting the vegetables rather than steaming them, or vice versa. Swap the listed vegetable for a preferred one.
- Offering Recipe Components Separately - Sometimes seeing all of the ingredients piled together (or touching) is overwhelming for picky eaters. Try serving the components separately rather than mixed. A burrito bowl is "gross", but separate piles of beans, rice, and cheese might be tolerable.
Try not to dismiss a recipe at first glance because your kid won't eat it as pictured. Here are some recipe examples that contain sections on how to make the meal more kid friendly:
The Safe Food Plate
Often when I am preparing a meal, there are ingredients I can toss onto a plate in their simplest form. Think the carrots and celery from a mirepoix, the fruit from a salsa, cubed cooked turkey before adding to a soup, etc. Often the picky eater objections to a recipe come from the cooked texture or "icky" sauce that accompanies the dish. Offering the ingredients in their simplest form can save you from rejection of the entire meal.
A safe food plate needs to be simple to prepare, almost as an afterthought. Add the tidbits from the meal prep and then a few more items to round it out. Add favorites - sure things that your kids always eat and consider safe or easy. Examples include grapes, apple slices, shredded cheese, hard-boiled eggs, or pretzels.
Bring a safe food plate to the table without fanfare. Place it among the other dishes on offer. It is simply another option for your kids to choose from when building their plate.
The Limited Dinner Alternative
The limited dinner alternative (or LDA) is a concept we came up with after a string of frustrating dinners. No one was eating anything I prepared, even if I'd asked them specifically what they wanted! Cooking one dinner is hard enough, but cooking a separate dinner for each of the picky eaters at your table is impossible.
An LDA is a mini menu of items your older kids can grab, heat, or prepare themselves if the dinner you bring to the table isn't going to cut it. Importantly, it is limited: you aren't giving kids free reign to walk into the kitchen and grab whatever they think counts as dinner.
Our list of LDAs changes weekly and it involves something they can either eat straight from the fridge or heat in the toaster oven. Our microwave is up high over the oven, so that's not really an option for them. If yours is accessible, add items that can be safely and easily heated that way, too.
Kids can grab an item from each category and have a decently balanced meal. They also have the option to just choose one thing to supplement what was already offered. What is important to me is that they can prep the items on their own and that it is quick.
Ideas for limited dinner alternative menu items are below:
- For proteins and fats - cheese (cubes, wedges, string cheese, Babybel rounds, etc.), hard boiled eggs, salami or deli meats, yogurt, nut butter, hummus
- For color - veggie sticks stored in water (carrots, peppers, celery), washed fruit (berries, apples, bananas),
- For carbs - crackers, tortillas, toast, pretzels
The DIY Dinner
Give picky eaters some power over how they build their plate. Offer dinners where the components are displayed separately and allow kids to pick and choose what they put on the plate. We call this the DIY dinner.
If I'm making a chopped salad, I'll just put the diced meat, beans, peppers, olives, cheese, etc. on a big platter. If the kids choose a few items plus a glass of milk or a pile of crackers I'm comfortable that we've checked the "dinner" box.
I'm not saying it has to be as fancy as this grazing platter! But when I see this I know that one of my kids would grab cheese, almonds, and grapes while the other would eat salami, cheese, grapes, and pickles. That's meeting a lot of the requirements of dinner!
Here are some recipes that can be offered as DIY dinners:
Meal Planning for Picky Eaters
When meal planning for picky eaters, involve the kids! Ask them their favorite meals and incorporate them into the meal plan a few times a week. Build in flexibility when meal planning so that if it's been a tough day for your kiddo you can swap out a favorite meal rather than trying something new that night. And don't forget to feed yourself! You get to plan meals you love, too.
Check out this kid favorites meal plan for ideas on how to break out of a rut of refused dinners. There are lots of ideas to bring the kids back to the table again! Also, visit the Family Meal Planning Strategies post for a refresher on weekly meal planning.
Don't Force Formality
Our dinner table is a bit more chaotic than average. Two kids that find it challenging to sit at the table means we have a lot of wiggles to satisfy. To accommodate this, we don't force the kids to sit still. They have the option to stand near their plates, are excused to go to the kitchen for an extra napkin, plate, utensil, etc., and there is often singing, dancing, or just a whole lot of talking.
We encourage good manners, of course, but when it is just our family at the table we are more relaxed. The primary goal of dinner is actually getting calories into bellies, so flexibility is a must. Try to offer alternative seating or reduce expectations for dinner table etiquette. Maybe even try playing a game or listening to an audio book at dinner!
Share Your Successes!
We'd love to hear if you tried one of these strategies and found some success in feeding the picky eaters at your table. Tag your photo with #planeatpostrepeat and mention me @planeatpostrepeat on Instagram or Facebook so that I can give you a virtual high five. Comment below with any other strategies that work for your family so that we can all benefit from your brilliant ideas!