Finding and preparing dinner ideas for picky eaters is such a daunting task. It creates anxiety, stress, and frustration…for both child and parent! There are some proven tricks and tactics to help a picky eater be more adventurous, and to go along with that resource, here are 10 easy, kid-friendly dinners for picky eaters you can make NOW with success. And even more important, an explanation as to why each meal works, so you can reuse the same principles in other easy kid-friendly recipes.
Why I Love These Kid-Friendly Dinner Ideas for Picky Eaters
As a mom of 6 children, it would have been nothing short of miraculous if I didn’t produce at least one picky eater!! As it turns out, two of my six are intensely stubborn picky eaters, my oldest son and my youngest daughter. Each threw me for a loop as a recipe creator. Did they not understand that I make my living by expanding the tastes of my readers….and there I was not able to do the same for my own children!
Luckily, after many years of failure trying a bunch of different approaches, I found solutions to their picky eating and they eventually grew into adventurous eaters. But it took time. And a lot more patience than I felt I had at the time.
These 10 easy kid-friendly dinners hit all the right notes over the past 28 years and I know they can work miracles for you as well. But, they need to be combined with the tactics and principles also in this post for long-term success. Take the time to understand the why behind each of the dinner ideas for picky eaters. Try out the involvement suggestions with your child. And be prepared to pick yourself up over and over again when you hit failure.
What Causes Picky Eaters?
Parents love to blame themselves for every challenge their child encounters but oftentimes, a picky eater is born a picky eater. Certain children are born sensitive to anything but bland smells, tastes, appearances, and textures. Usually, these children are also sensitive to noises as well. Think of all their senses as being on high alert at all times. This type of picky eater will need plenty of understanding about how their senses work but can learn to appreciate new experiences.
Sometimes picky eaters emerge out of the blue around the ages of 4-6. Suddenly, kids who would happily eat anything that was put in front of them, now won’t touch even their favorite foods. When this happens, it’s due to a child beginning to understand they can exert control over their own environment, and their food choices are an easy place to start. This is often the easiest to overcome by giving them more control in the planning and preparation of their food.
And yes, sometimes parental behavior is the cause of a child becoming a picky eater. In this situation, parents will quickly give in when a child demands something else to eat. For the parent, the battle over food isn’t worth it. Or in an attempt to avoid contention, they don’t expose the child to new foods on a regular basis. This type of picky eater is usually the hardest to fix because it is the result of learned behavior. When that same behavior stops working for the child to get what they want, they fight harder. And harder.
How to Fix Picky Eaters
If only the pediatrician could write a prescription to fix this problem! Instead, this solution falls on the shoulders of the parents. So, take a deep breath and put on your patient pants because this fix is not a quick one but it is worth every ounce of energy you give it!
- Bring hungry kids to the table. A child needs a physical incentive to try new foods. Hunger is nature’s built-in picky eater fix. Create a generous snack cut-off time before dinner and set the boundary of no snacks after dinner.
- What’s been prepared for dinner is what’s for dinner. They do not have to eat it, but you are not a short-order cook making different plates for different people.
- Don’t force a child to eat their food. Instead, invite them to do so and share what you love about that food. No guilt. No begging. No punishments.
- Don’t dismiss their fears about what’s on their plate. Instead, acknowledge their dislike and let them know you understand. Share personal stories of how you have come to enjoy foods over time by always taking a taste.
- Let a picky eater be actively involved in both menu planning and meal preparation. Children naturally take pride in their work and are much more likely to taste what they have helped prepare.
- Repeatedly put the same food on a child’s plate. It takes between 15-20 exposures to a new food for some children to even take their first taste, let alone develop a liking for it.
Why These Dinner Ideas for Picky Eaters Work So Well
Let’s start with the “why” in regard to these easy meals for picky eaters. Once these “why” principles are ingrained into weekly menu planning, they can be applied to an endless amount of other kid-friendly dinners.
- They provide a win for your child: The meals use the types of foods kids already know and love.
- They provide a win for you: In each recipe, there is just enough of a stretch to make small steps towards a better balance, in both nutrition and variety of food.
- They don’t look overwhelming: The meals resemble foods they are already comfortable with, and don’t overwhelm with too many colors at once. That only results in an immediate “I don’t like that!”
- They don’t taste challenging: The flavors and ingredients are already familiar. The dinners won’t be a whole new taste experience.
- They sound like foods they already love: When a child hears a name of a meal and it is one they can’t immediately make some type of association with, they will automatically believe they will hate it.
As you move forward finding recipes beyond these 10 dinner ideas, you’ll have a different perspective because now you understand these 5 critical criteria for picky eaters. Take the time to look at your own recipes and find those that qualify with these same 5 principles.
How to Use These Dinner Ideas for Picky Eaters with Success
Use these tips and tricks to slowly introduce a picky eater to these kid-friendly dinner ideas for picky eaters. Remember, this is not going to be a quick fix so be patient. Their rejection of food is not a rejection of you.
- Start small. Children don’t like a lot of change all at once. It creates a sense of instability in their growing brains and emotions. Pick one new recipe to try a week. Just one.
- Start with the one dinner that will instantly connect with your child, both by its title and its appearance. This creates an easy win while introducing them to the idea of new recipes becoming a regular occurrence.
- Let them pick which recipe they want to try first. Again, work to eliminate their intense feelings of not having control when it comes to their food. Get them involved so they do have input and a level of control.
- Make the recipe as written first. After your child knows what this recipe is and has become comfortable with it, then try a few small changes. They may or may not notice the changes such as adding more vegetables or protein to a recipe.
Special Considerations for Picky Eater Teens
Teenagers are not children and deserve to be given significant amounts of both trust and responsibility when it comes to their food choices. A teenager has the ability to help cook dinner each night or cook dinner completely on their own. Giving them this level of responsibility helps reduce their picky tendencies significantly.
Teach them how to menu plan, how to create a balanced meal, and how to cook that dinner. Over time, watch that teenage picky eater transform into a home cook wanting to try different kid-friendly recipes each week. Even teens who may not enjoy cooking will still tire of constantly making the same easy meal every time and begin to branch out into new dinner ideas.
Please be cautious about any potential body issues with your teen. Food choices and body issues are so closely tied together. Be sure not to demonize any type of food. There are no “good” or “bad” foods. Just different foods that provide different benefits for our bodies. Balance is key in all food choices.
How to Build Adventurous Eaters
Once you try a couple of these easy kid-friendly dinners for picky eaters and the suggestions above, grab your free picky eater guide so you can keep making steps forward. There are no quick fixes or magic solutions, but these 10 secrets will provide immediate progress and less stress.
10 Easy Kid-Friendly Dinners for Picky Eaters
For each recipe, I’ve included why they work for you, for your child, as well as recipe variation options. Click any picture or dinner title for the recipe.
Cheesy Pizza Roll Ups
- For you: a much healthier option than frozen or take out pizza.
- For your child: pizza + handheld + dipping = win
- Variations: try adding small chopped veggies, turkey sausage or pepperoni
Chicken Cordon Bleu Casserole
- For you: lots of protein and very easy to make
- For your child: both proteins are kid friendly and they love anything with a crumb topping.
- Variations: you can add veggies into the mix but I suggest adding them as a side dish instead so it doesn’t lead to overwhelm.
Cheesy Vegetable Pasta Bake
- For you: includes tomatoes & spinach
- For your child: kids are obsessed with pasta, tomato sauce, and cheese.
- Variations: add some chicken or beef for added protein. Don’t remove the spinach. If they pick it out, that’s perfectly fine. They will get used to seeing it and eventually try it.
Chicken Fried Rice
- For you: protein and veggies abound but not really “fried”
- For your child: kids love rice and generally like the veggies in this dish.
- Variations: you can use pork, beef, shrimp, or make it vegetarian. You can change the veggies, but don’t remove them. They need to get used to having them in their dishes.
Chicken Enchilada Casserole
- For you: lots of protein and easy to make
- For your child: simple southwest flavors without being spicy.
- Variations: you can use pork or beef instead and serve it with lettuce, tomatoes, and avocado on top if your child likes any of those.
Baked Potato Soup
- For you: very easy for kids to try when given toppings they like. Make it a fun “buffet” of toppings they can choose from.
- For your child: they get to choose what they put on top giving them control over part of what they eat.
- Variations: add more veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, pepper, or mushrooms. Make it as written to introduce it the first time, then try adding a vegetable next time.
Homemade Mac & Cheese
- For you: significantly healthier than boxed mac and cheese.
- For your child: kids are obsessed with mac and cheese.
- Variations: add some protein and veggies….after you have served it “plain” at least once.
Tater Tot Casserole
- For you: both protein and veggies in this quick dish
- For your child: two words….tater tots
- Variation: substitute whatever vegetable your child like best in the recipe
- For you: much healthier than take out or frozen pizza.
- For your child: first, pizza. Second, it is just fun food with dipping!
- Variation: use turkey sausage or pepperoni and finely chopped veggies
- For you: lots of protein from the chicken and black beans
- For your child: they love anything with cheese and something they can dip into salsa, sour cream, or guacamole
- Variations: use whatever protein you would like and you could add peppers, onions, and tomatoes as well.
Remember, these dinner ideas for picky eaters are great first steps. Keep using the principles in this post and in the picky eater guide to make lasting progress. I promise you can do it! This is how I reversed picky eating in two of my own children so I know where you are and what you are feeling. You’ve got this!
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Susan L. Burnett says
I’m going to show these to my grandson and let him pick one to make. He loves to bake cookies and cupcakes and these recipes may just be what will get him to expand to better foods.
Awesome! Glad they could be a help Sue!
Well, I do feel encouraged here… my picky teen wont touch tater tots, beans and most of the time tomatoes. Will however eat olives, mushrooms and sardines. What’s a mom to do…. I will not give up. I do have to watch how often I serve potatoes. And, those cannot be baked either. Looking forward to trying your ideas.
Good luck Jeanne and please contact me again if I can help out further! I do have a coaching program for parents that could help you out a lot.
My 7 year old son is the pickiest child anyone in our family has ever met (I blame myself because I also am picky but not like him) when he was a baby he would eat anything until he was about 2 and was given chicken nuggets from Burger King and he threw up for 2 days straight..he wouldn’t eat meat at all after that until a little over a year ago he finally tried chicken nuggets that I cooked. He literally only eats pizza, chicken nuggets (only mine or from wendys) or my moms spaghetti. It’s extremely hard to fix him something he likes and will eat. He eats JUNK FOOD, no problem. He hides candy and cookies in his room to eat and I’m so glad I just found this because I am going to get him to pick something and us fix it together and make it fun so he can get some REAL food in him. Hopefully it will work I know I have no worries when it comes to my 2 year old..she’s not picky at all really. Thank you so much for these ideas. ❤
You are very welcome Meghan! Please let me know if I can help further. I have a great one-on-one coaching program I know you would love.
As a picky eater of a child myself I only enjoyed 2 of these because I don’t do potatoes beans or most cooked vegetables
Carole Jones says
I guess 2 is better than 0 🙂