10 Nutrition “Must-Halves” for Picky Eaters

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on March 30, 2010

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“Children can meet their nutritional needs without eating vegetables,” my nutrition professor announced to my college nutrition class. Every mom in the room gasped with relief. Of course the topic of healthy eating for picky eaters wasn’t high on my priority list at the time. But I’ll never forget the impact it had on parents – and now I understand why.

When it comes to feeding kids, it’s the parent’s job is to offer a nutritious diet. But we all know that the food we choose doesn’t always make it into the mouths of “>picky eaters. So what’ s a parent to do?

Have a plan!

Because it can take a while for little palates to come around, try pairing these easier-to-accept foods with other items they aren’t ready to eat (yet).

1. Offer tasty cantaloupe: Rich in both vitamin A and C, nutrients kids need on a daily basis, cantaloupe packs nutrition and a sweet taste. Have it as part of breakfast or for a snack and feel good knowing your little one is getting the same vitamin A found in green veggies.

2. Stock the pantry with ready-to-eat cereal: Picky eaters may not be eating many iron-rich foods, especially at-risk kids age 3 and younger. Finding a cereal that contains iron along with whole grains and fiber is key. One example is Cheerios which contains more than 40% of the Daily Value for iron and is a good source of fiber (try to keep sugar at 10g or less per serving).

3. Include vitamin C-rich fruits: Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron at meals. For picky eaters, make a habit of including strawberries, cantaloupe, orange slices and kiwi with meals, especially breakfast.

4. Serve sweet potatoes: Also rich in vitamin A, sweet potatoes have a sweet flavor that many kids like. Serve sweet potato fries with a sandwich and watch your kids attack.

5. Sneak in whole grains: You child won’t be able to tell that their macaroni and cheese is made with whole grains. There are many whole grain products on the market to experiment with — whole grain waffles, crackers and pasta. Check this listing from the Whole Grains Council.

6. Provide palatable protein sources: Most children get their share of protein from milk and yogurt but it’s the nutrients in eggs, meat, fish, and beans – iron, omega-3 fatty acids and zinc – that are essential for growth. Make healthier versions of chicken tenders at home, try French toast using a DHA-rich egg, serve meatballs with toothpicks and include nutritious beans as part of a burrito or finger foods for younger children.

7. Try veggies and dip: Keep serving veggies at meals but also try them at snack time. Kids like to dip veggies like carrots, zucchini and cucumbers in tasty dips like hummus or ranch dressing. A recent study showed kids age 4 to 10 prefer crunchy veggies.

8. Offer nuts: While nuts can be a choking hazard for younger children, they make a tasty and nutritious snack for kids. Try dry roasted almond slices which are crunchy and great topped on yogurt. Most nuts are rich in vitamin E, magnesium, zinc, selenium and copper.

9. Watch out for fillers: Children getting too much juice and milk may eat less food throughout the day. Stick to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation to limit juice to 4-6 ounces for children 1 to 6 years old and 8-12 ounces for kids 7 to 18 years old. And to meet their calcium needs, kids aged 2 to 8 years old need 2 milk products daily and older kids need 3.

10. Consider supplements: If your child won’t eat entire food groups like fruits and veggies, talk to your pediatrician about a multivitamin.

But even if you child doesn’t need a multivitamin, they might need other supplements. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfed infants and older children drinking less than 4 cups of milk per day get 400 IU of vitamin D daily. Omega-3 fatty acids are another supplement that might make sense for children who don’t eat fish. See DHA for Kids: The Complete Guide for Parents to see if your child is getting enough.

Do you have picky eaters at home? Are you worried about their nutritional status?

For more on what to feed your kids see our Nutrition for Children section.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Meal Plan Mom (Brenda) March 31, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Great tips! I am constantly puzzled by the number of parents that are happy to let their kids be picky eaters and cater to them (and many times their unbalanced eating habits as well!) True, it takes patience but eventually it will pay off (at least it did for us). Just recently came across your site…tons of good info. here!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 31, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Thanks Brenda. I just checked out your site and looks great! I can always more meal planning tips.

It’s tempting to cater to kids but it does more harm than good. Hopefully more parents are learning that.


Jennifer April 1, 2010 at 2:59 pm

Great Tips! Your suggestion of having a plan really does help with picky eaters. I have been astonished with the results with my 4 year old. Thank you so much for all your postings, they are so very helpful!


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 1, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Thanks Jennifer!! I don’t know what I would do without the structure of regular meals and snacks. I’m glad things are going well for you.


kristiina April 5, 2010 at 10:47 am

Thank you for this great list. I have an almost 3 year old and a 4 year old with varied likes and dislikes…we stopped giving snacks last week in an effort to create more hunger and better eating at mealtimes…it completely backfired. They were sooo hungry, they weren’t hungry and by day 7 of almost eating nothing, my 4 year old was laying on the floor moaning that his stomach hurt (hunger pains!). Today, I started a schedule. 7am breakfast/9healthysnack/noonlunch/3pmhealthysnack/5:30dinner….wish me luck!

And now I’m going to go back and search this site as I need all the help I can get!!!

Thanks again, kristiina


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 5, 2010 at 10:53 am


Young children need to be offered food every few hours. It’s really normal for their eating to be erratic which is why frequent mini-meals works best. For more info go to http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/category/feeding-strategies/

Some articles that you might find especially helpful include:

Good luck and let me know if you have any questions!


Liz - Meal Makeover Mom April 6, 2010 at 8:14 am

There are so many creative ways to get more veggies on the table. I agree with your recommendation to serve sweet potato fries. My two boys would eat them every day, that’s how much they love em. It’s funny … because the other day, I made quesadillas with sauteed zucchini (which was cut into 1/4-inch dice), white beans, lowfat cheese, and some seasoning. My 14-year old son said, “Mom, you know I don’t like zucchini,” to which I replied, “ah, but you’ll love it in these quesadillas.” After he tried a few bites, he declared that he loved me because they were so good (see, even teenagers can be sweet to their moms). BTW, your DHA link doesn’t work for me. Can you share it with us again?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 6, 2010 at 9:53 am


That quesadilla sounds delicious! Thanks for alerting me to the link. I just fixed it!


Tony VanK August 11, 2011 at 1:34 am

My 2 year old daughter has Autism Spectrum Disorder which adds sensory problems to an already picky palette. I have to find creative ways to get proteins into my kid such as blending avocados into fruit smoothies and using eggs in pancake mix and french toast instead of the water only mixes. I also give her soy milk since she is lactose intolerant.
There are several foods that I know she likes the taste of but if the consistency is wrong or her mood is ‘off’ then she just won’t eat. I find myself creating distractions in order to get her to eat which could develop into bad habits but I don’t know what else to do to get her a balanced diet.
I need to talk to her pediatrician to find a liquid multivitamin that won’t upset her stomach since I found that poly-vi-sol really tears her gut up.


Munaza July 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Hi. My three year old daughter doesn’t eat ANYTHING! This problem is ongoing since a year now. There are good days when she’ll eat one French toast during the entire day. I’ve tried convincing, punishing, cajoling but nothing works. Her lips are parched mot of the time. What should I do?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 27, 2012 at 5:16 pm

@Munaza — How is her growth? How many foods will she eat?


ashwini March 19, 2014 at 8:11 am

Miss maryann…. the case is same woth me… please help me…


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