Are you all too familiar with, what I like to call, the dinner table nightmare? Everyone needs their own special made meals, getting to the end of dinner seems like a never-ending battle, and at the end of the grief half of the food ends up in the garbage. If these situations sound familiar, you are in luck. Check out these 5 tips on how to get picky kids excited to eat healthy!

Start with what they already know
Go on a food adventure
Make healthy meals fun
Make healthy living your lifestyle
Be a role model for your picky eater

About two years ago, all my stepson would eat was chicken, pizza, grilled cheese, and you know the rest. It was the pretty typical kid eating. The only problem was, I didn’t want to make two different meals for dinner every night. To be honest, my Charlie wasn’t the most unhealthy eater (he LOVES broccoli), but if it wasn’t on his vetted menu of 8-10 food items… it required a full-on battle royale.

Today, that is no longer the case. Going out to dinner or eating at a friend’s house are no longer dreaded events. He has grown to accept whatever is put in front of him. Not only will he try more, but he actually gets excited about healthy options! Imagine this… a kid begging for a kale smoothie.

Of course, this did not happen by accident. It took tons of research, experiments, headaches, and battles to get to this point. Here are some of the most useful tactics I learned to get my picky eater EXCITED about eating healthy.

1. Start with what they already know

If your child lives for pizza night or only eats chicken fingers, start there. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Make healthier versions of what they already enjoy. If they love getting pizza, skip your greasy local pizzeria and make it at home. This way you can control the ingredients going in to the pizza and end with a much lighter and healthier result. They aren’t going to complain about whole wheat crust, less sugar in the sauce, or less grease, becasue they are still getting what they love.

Picky Eater Making Pizza
Chef Charlie making homemade pizza

My stepson, like most kids, loves chicken fingers. This is one of the easiest starting points. Chicken! You can do chicken! Skip the deep-fried option and bake or air fry them at home. Charlie jumps for joy when he hears it’s “oven-fried” chicken night. Instead of getting out the oil and bread crumbs, I cut chicken breasts, coat them with almond flour and toss them in the oven. Serve it up with your child’s favorite dipping sauce and they won’t even know how healthy they really are eating.

2. Go on a food adventure

When I told Charlie I was going to write this post his exact words were,

“You never got me to eat healthier. We just went on food adventures and tried yummy things”

Oh, the smile that brought to my face.

The “Food Adventure” may be the best tip I ever stumbled across. Now that you have gotten past phase one and they are eating healthier versions of what they already enjoy, it is time to buckle up for what you are going to sell to as the adventure of a lifetime.

The idea of the food adventure is to build up the excitement and involve the kids in trying a new recipe. Again, start with what you know they like. In Charlie’s case, I knew he liked chicken, broccoli, and cheese. One of our first food adventures was barbecue chicken pizza. This may sound like an easy lift to those who have never experienced a dinner table nightmare, but typically this would have been a nightmare. The barbeque sauce being “too spicy” and not liking whatever the toppings were because he would prefer just sugar sauce and cheese.

He heard the familiar word “pizza” and felt it was approachable. Little did he know, the sauce was actually shredded zucchini (I never said they had to know everything). He was excited all week about our “adventure”. When the day finally came, he LOVED it!

We kept having food adventures every week ranging from barbecue chicken pizza, spinach breakfast muffins, vegetable stuffed chicken meatballs, to even kale smoothies. Some nights the main course was the adventure, others we had a familiar entreé with an exciting new side. Along the way, he found some things that he didn’t like, but they did not outweigh all of the new options that we had at our disposal

3. Make healthy meals fun

The best way to end the dinner table nightmare and get kids eating healthier is to make eating healthy fun. No one enjoys the meal battles, kids included. Putting an end to them and replacing them with fun will make healthier eating the preferred option.

There are a variety of ways you could make healthy eating more fun for these picky eaters. One way that works well is by including them in the cooking process. Whether it is making fruit and veggie popsicles or healthy versions of other snacks, if they are helping make them, they will be much more excited to try them.

Much like phase one, channel what they enjoy doing. Charlie loves to turn on the mixer and grate cheese. Whenever one of those fun tools is required to make a meal, he is the one doing it. He takes great pride in his hard work and is always more enticed to enjoy the creation as a result.

When I first started making him smoothies, we created an entire “blending” dance for when the blender turns on. We all have fun that way. Another favorite of ours includes back to buisness dinners. Whenever there is a big day coming up, be it back to school after a break I make sure we are having especially healthy meals. Charlie never even notices because he loves wearing a top hat at dinner and “talking business”.

Kid Eating Healthy in Hat
Charlie is enjoying a very serious dinner of sweet potato waffles, oven fried chicken, broccoli, and blueberries.

Coming up with unique ways that you can make meals exciting for your child will make them look forward to the healthy meal they don’t even notice.

4. Make healthy living your lifestyle

There are so many ways you can integrate a healthy lifestyle into your child’s life. Whether it is eating or getting in exercise make sure that your child knows the importance of staying healthy. When they have a stomach ache because they went to grandma’s and ate a gallon of ice cream, remind them how much better they feel when they have been eating healthy.

We make it a priority to spend as much time outside as we can. Your child will understand eating healthy when they can see and feel how strong it makes them. This might show itself in how fast they pedal their bike or how long they can stay swimming. Reminding them that it is the broccoli or strawberries that make them strong when they are doing the things they love encourages healthy living (I can’t tell you how often Charlie checks his biceps as he eats fruit and vegetables). When they make this connection, they can directly understand that food is fuel and medicine to our bodies.

Healthy Garden

When we first started expanding our horizons we also bought some new books that talked about healthy eating. There are many out there, but those that are funny and interesting seem to work the best. We had great success with Gregory the Terrible Eater by Mitchell Sharmat. We also read some books about where our food comes from. This can be particularly intriguing for tractor-loving kids out there. These books inspired interest in starting our own garden this year.

5. Be a role model for your picky eater

Kids look up to and absorb everything their parents do. This is a huge honor and a huge responsibility. If you want your picky eater to start living a healthy lifestyle they need to see you doing that too! It could look like picking out a crazy fruit at the grocery store to try together or maybe you start that garden and make food with the fresh produce together.

Whatever it is, being there with them as they expand their healthy eating makes a huge difference. If they need to eat fruit and vegetables with every meal, you should with them! It makes more sense to their growing brains that if they need to do it to be healthy, so do you.

It would be unrealistic to think that your picky eater is suddenly going to go plant-based and enter the Olympics, but with these tips, you and your family will be on your way to a healthier lifestyle with fewer dinner-time nightmares.

Have fun getting your picky kid excited to eat healthy!

Good luck!

Mom running Kid on bike