A child refusing to eat vegetables

How to win over picky eaters

Got a little vegetable-dodger on your hands? Don't despair, try these some top tips at supper time, plus kid-friendly dinner ideas for picky eaters.

Feeding children is fraught with emotion, the desire to keep your kids healthy and happy is very strong, so it’s easy for kitchen table situations to get highly charged. It can be quite an unsettling experience when a happy eater changes their feeding habits overnight, and starts shunning everything you put in front of them. But most children will experiment with some form of pickiness or food refusal at some stage, and it is likely to be with the things you most want them to eat.

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No one wants to cower to their children’s demands like they are some kind of mini Alan Sugar, but it is easy to fall into the trap of offering multiple meal choices when your instinct is to keep your children fed, and dinnertimes can quickly turn into a battleground. But whether you believe in staying firm or being flexible, here are some ideas to help achieve happier mealtimes.

Get them involved

Browse through a cookbook together, or take a look at our healthy kids’ collection online, and let them contribute ideas to a weekly meal plan. You could also try taking them shopping to a market or supermarket and letting them select a fruit or vegetable they want to try.

Growing your own brings a host of benefits, like fresher produce and saving money. Try something that’s easy to plant and look after, like a cress head, herbs or tomatoes, which can all fit into a windowsill box. They are bound to be delighted at the process and enjoy giving the cress a ‘haircut’ or picking tomatoes for their supper.

Hide it

If you’ve got a serious veg-dodger on your hands then there are plenty of sneaky ways of getting the good stuff into them. Recipes like Spaghetti & meatballs with hidden veg, More-veg-less-meat Summer Bolognese and Pasta with tomato & hidden veg can soon start racking up their 5-a-day. Finishing a meal with fresh puds like frozen fruit sticks is a great way of adding extra nutrients, too.

Start small, think big

Try offering really small portions on a plate so it doesn’t look overwhelming, and you can always top them up as you go along. A starter of daintily sliced, colourful veg crudités is a good way of getting some good stuff into your kids when they are at their hungriest. Keep sweet foods well out of sight until the end of the meal – if you are packing a lunchbox, then try two separate boxes for sweet and savoury foods.

Patience and persistence

Don’t expect immediate results, changing your child’s attitude to food can be an ongoing journey and you may need to present a particular vegetable/dish a number of times before they are brave enough to try it. Familiarity is often key, and it is widely reported that if a child initially rejects a particular food, it normally takes at least 10 times for it to become accepted.

Make a meal of it

Put on some relaxing music and where possible sit down and eat together as a family. Making it a relaxing experience from the start can work wonders at defusing difficult mealtime behavior. Watching parents and siblings get stuck in can also be a great incentive for younger children to follow suit.

Get ahead

Ironically kids that are over-hungry tend to be the most difficult to feed, miss the window and mealtime meltdowns might be on the cards. Batch-cooking freezable recipes is another great way of reducing stress, meaning you should be able to sit down with your children as they eat and give them your full attention with a clear mind. Besides, cooking after a long day at work with a toddler clinging to your knees is never easy anyway.

Family meals: Easy fish cakes

Family meals: Easy lamb tagine

Family meals: Easy beef stew with sweet potato topping

Family meals: Summer vegetable curry

Rewards

Offering sweet treats as a reward for eating the main meal has the potential of setting up the ideology that healthy, savoury food is to be endured rather than enjoyed in its own right. Alternative treats like stickers for a reward chart might be just as effective for getting them to eat up, you could also try giving them a sticker for other things like trying something new or sitting patiently at the table.

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Got your own top tips for dealing with picky eaters? We’d love to hear your ideas…