Creating Healthy Meals for Picky Eaters: Kids and Adults

Picky eaters, choosy eaters, fussy eaters: whichever moniker you use, they tend to have a laundry list of foods that are off-limits.

Though most people associate picky eating with children, it’s also common in adulthood. The average estimate of picky eating prevalence is 15–35% in kids and adults, but the number could be higher than that. Picky eating can be challenging to research (1, 2, 3).

Fussy eating may be a normal part of early childhood. Even so, stressed parents may grow frustrated seeing nutritious meals go untouched night after night.

Pickiness in adulthood isn’t void of problems either. Picky adults may feel anxiety and pressure to eat the same foods as their peers or coworkers in social or work settings.

And all-in-all, when picky eaters aren’t eating well, they may not get the nutrition their bodies need to function.

Read on to learn how picky eaters can enjoy healthy meals — adults and kids alike.

Foods and food groups offer a diverse set of nutrients everybody needs to function optimally. Balanced meals come from combining multiple foods and food groups together, which ensures good nutrition and promotes optimal health.

Balanced meals may include a combination of:

Building a balanced meal

  • Choose whole grains: Whole grains include brown rice, barley, oats, whole wheat or whole grain bread, whole wheat or whole grain pasta, and quinoa, and they offer important nutrients like fiber and B vitamins. Consider filling 1/4 of your plate with whole grains (4, 5).
  • Power up with protein: Chicken, fish, lean cuts of beef and pork, beans, lentils, nuts, tofu, and seeds are examples of protein-rich foods. Protein foods also offer essential amino acids that help your body make energy and support immune health. It’s recommended to add protein to 1/4 of your plate (6).
  • Incorporate fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables like bananas, avocados, broccoli, and spinach are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Fill up the remaining 1/2 of your plate with fruits, vegetables, or a mix of both (7).
  • Don’t forget dairy (or similar nondairy) foods: Try including eight ounces of dairy milk or a nondairy equivalent with meals.

The plate method can be a simple starting point for building healthy meals, but it’s imprecise and not generalizable to all foodways and eating styles.

Learn more about the foundations of healthy eating — and how it fits your preferences, lifestyle, and culture — in Healthline’s Definitive Guide to Healthy Eating in Real Life.

Summary

Eating a wide variety of foods gives your body the best opportunity for good nutrition. Balanced meals are made up of a combination of grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, and dairy.

Picky eating refers to an unwillingness to eat new foods or familiar foods. It’s usually coupled with strong preferences for specific foods (1).

Those preferences may be for foods of a certain taste or texture. For example, a picky eater may prefer easy-to-chew or crunchy foods.

In contrast, others may develop strong dislikes for certain tastes, textures, smells, or even the way food looks. Some adults and children may avoid green foods, creamy textures, or foods with strong aromas.

Research continues to try to crack the code on the causes and consequences of fussy eating (8).

Some kids may develop highly specific likes and dislikes regarding food if they live with a sensory processing disorder. Studies also suggest that picky eating may be the result of other internal and external factors.

For example, internal factors that might lead to picky eating include a child’s personality, temperament, or medical history.

Some external factors that may contribute to picky eating are rewards for eating, authoritarian styles of parenting, and pressure to eat when they don’t want to (9).

Though many caregivers and parents may unknowingly create mealtime pressures, it’s clear that forcing kids to eat when they don’t want to is unhelpful (10).

Of course, the problem with picky eating is that it can create eating habits that lack balance and well-rounded nutrition. Compared with typical eaters, studies report that picky eaters eat less fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables (11, 12, 13).

Some picky eaters may be at risk for lower intakes of vitamins and minerals like iron and zinc (14).

One study saw that 15% of the picky children preferred eating savory snacks versus meals. Still, exact differences between nutrient intakes of picky eaters and non-picky eaters remains unclear (15).

Severe picky eating can be dangerous if it leads to nutrient deficiencies and impaired growth and development.

If you have concerns about your child’s picky eating or have noticed major changes to their eating habits or growth, talk with a pediatrician or a feeding specialist.

Summary

Picky eating is characterized by hesitancy or refusal to eat new foods and familiar foods. The causes of picky eating aren’t well understood, though some reports state body-driven and environmental factors may lead to picky eating.

There are a number of ways to encourage children to try new foods in a way that’s safe, pressure-free, and calm.

The best way to start helping your picky eater expand their diet is to swap the “how do I get my child to eat?” mindset for a “how can I help my child eat?” mindset.

Many worried parents try to counteract picky eating with phrases like “take one more bite for me,” or even rewards, such as “if you eat more veggies, you’ll get ice cream.” But the reality is that pressuring kids to eat when they don’t want to can worsen picky eating (10).

It’s important to offer healthy foods at mealtimes that may fit their preferences.

Here are some examples:

  • For the child who only wants to eat white or beige colored foods: If your child only wants to eat beige foods, you can introduce nutrient-rich beige foods like skinless apples, boiled egg whites, jicama sticks, white whole-wheat bread, and cauliflower rice.
  • For the child who only likes crunchy foods: Children who only like crunchy foods tend to only want snacks like potato chips. Consider offering your child nutrient-rich foods with a crunch like sugar snap peas, baked quinoa, freeze-dried broccoli, and cashew halves. (Just keep in mind that whole nuts are choking hazards for children under the age of four.) (16)
  • For the child who refuses new foods: Make trying new foods fun and less overwhelming by starting with a small amount on their plate. Always include a well-liked food with new foods. Engage in some fun play during dinnertime like starting a green bean sword fight, making a veggie silly face, or dunking homemade nuggets into sauce.
  • For the child who dislikes soft, mushy textures: Offer crisp fruits and vegetables like sliced cucumbers, zucchini, and pears. Consider offering frozen peach slices or blueberries. Add yogurt or cottage cheese to homemade fruit smoothies. Serve air-fried tofu cubes.
  • For the child who shows no interest in vegetables: It can be a good start to offer vegetables in special scenarios like during a family picnic in a park. Including different vegetables at a time like this may allow for more casual exploration and peak your child’s interest in something they might refuse at the dinner table.

Remember, children often want what their parents are eating. Be a role model for the children in your life by eating a well-rounded diet yourself.

Serve deconstructed meals

Picky eaters may refuse to eat foods that are cooked mixed together, such as casseroles or stews. Serving meals deconstructed means keeping all of the major food components separate to help reduce anxiety at the kitchen table.

Tacos, stir-fries, salads, and build-your-own bowls are examples of deconstructed meals where your child can choose which ingredients they want since they’ll have separate foods to choose from like shredded cheese, rice, grilled chicken, and black beans.

Avoid making separate meals for your picky eater

When dinnertime is drawing near, it can be tempting to prepare a family meal and a secondary special meal to please your little one’s picky palate.

When your child knows they can easily refuse foods because they will get what they want anyway, it can make it much more difficult for them to eat the meals the rest of the family enjoys, further engraining their picky habits.

Add new flavors to dishes

Children sensitive to bitter tastes may be more likely to enjoy foods with bitter flavor profiles if they’re seasoned.

Your child may accept vegetables better, for example, when paired with extra flavors, such as ground ginger, low-sodium soy sauce, dried dill weed, or dried basil.

Consider involving your child in cooking vegetables with spices and having a taste test at mealtime.

Summary

Overcoming picky eating involves creating new experiences with foods. Children may do better when parents keep mealtimes positive and model eating plenty of nutritious foods.

If you’re an adult picky eater, you may desire to eat a diverse array of foods because you know it’s good for you. Trying new foods may not be easy, and you might feel embarrassed of your current eating habits.

Picky eating can be a life-altering problem, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you feel you need that support. But remember that you don’t need to feel ashamed; it’s important not to let your eating habits affect your self-worth.

Here are some suggestions that may help you overcome your picky eating.

Start small and make a list

Combating picky eating doesn’t mean forcing yourself to eat all trendy foods like tempeh or biltong if they’re not to your taste. It helps to pace yourself and take things one step at a time.

Consider making a list of the foods you don’t eat and think about simple substitutes you can make.

For example, if you don’t like eating beans, you might consider trying similar foods like lentils in a chili. You can try beans in various forms like bean dip, hummus, or roasted chickpeas.

Maybe you’ve never enjoyed certain fresh fruits but would be open to trying them in different forms like freeze-dried as a snack or pureed and mixed with yogurt. Doing this may help you build balanced meals that are realistic for you.

Recreate your preferred foods with more nutrient-dense swaps

You might also consider making a list of the meals you eat often that you know you like and find comforting, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs, or fried rice.

By changing one thing about the way you prepare your go-to meals, you can be on your way to expanding your food variety.

For example, instead of using white bread for your peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can try using white whole wheat bread for added vitamins and minerals.

You can also add cooked vegetables to your safe foods in subtle ways. For example, you might steam cauliflower, celery, or carrots and chop them into tiny pieces to mix into the spaghetti sauce or fried rice dishes.

Consider trying new spices and seasonings with meals, such as dried thyme, dried oregano, cracked black pepper, or smoked paprika. Stick to minimal amounts at first so you don’t overwhelm yourself with too much flavor.

Try vegetables with mild flavors

Many picky adults have goals to eat more vegetables as a step to improving their health.

Aiming for vegetables with mild or sweet flavors can be the best way to begin because they tend to be more acceptable to picky tastebuds.

Vegetables considered mild in flavor include cauliflower, cucumbers, zucchini, and spinach.

Sweet tasting vegetables are sweet potatoes, carrots, delicata squash, and sweet peppers.

Seek out likeable recipes

Consider looking for recipes that use ingredients you like. These may help encourage you to cook with new herbs, spices, and flavor agents like lime juice or vinegar.

  • Picky adults who want to eat fish: Try making oven-baked fish nuggets or whip up a canned tuna or salmon dip to eat with pita chips.
  • Picky adults who want to eat veggies: Blend spinach or celery into a fruit smoothie or finely chop fresh spinach to sprinkle on top of a cheesy flatbread before baking.
  • Picky adults who want to eat whole grains: Cook pancakes or bake muffins using white whole-wheat flour, which is just as nutritious as whole-wheat flour but softer for easier eating.

Summary

If you’re a picky adult, consider slowly making changes to your eating habits so you don’t overwhelm yourself. Finding nutrient-dense swaps for your favorite foods can be a good place to start.

Picky eating is a common problem. It’s not just seen in children but can be a reality for individuals across the lifespan. The problem with picky eating is that it can compromise your body’s ability to get the nutrients essential for healthy function.

Working through picky eating problems takes some patience and creativity for kids and adults.

Caregivers of picky eaters can help create positive, stress-free eating environments that help encourages kids to eat without force or coercion.

Offering healthy foods that fit your little one’s preferences and inviting them to help cook can be a good start. Parents should also role model healthy eating behaviors for their kids.

Adult picky eaters may feel stress or frustration about their selectivity with foods and desire better nutrition. Starting small by incorporating realistic changes can be a step to successful adoption of new foods and building balanced meals.