Make It Easy With A Picky Eater

Mother and 2 daughters eating breakfast
Mother and 2 daughters eating breakfast. Getty Images / Henrik Sorensen

The one life-changing tip to make life with picky eaters easy. 

There is so much advice on how to deal with picky eaters that the information overload is as big a problem as your picky eater’s dining habits. Dealing with mealtime drama is hard enough without an onslaught of advice that ultimately makes you feel like you’re doing everything wrong. So here’s what I propose instead:

Ignore all of it, the advice and especially the kids.

The dining table is a natural place for kids to flex their independence, which makes it very easy for mealtime to become a battleground. The only way to keep from fighting is to, well, not fight. Given that we’re not robots (ah, if only I could program myself to not get drawn in), these are the best ways that I’ve found to keep the emotional stakes down, which helps me tune out all of the noise.

Let everyone contribute to the meal plan

Though you’re the cook, I’m a big believer in allowing the rest of the crew to weigh in on what’s for dinner. As I see it, having a say in what you eat goes a long way towards fostering a love of food, so consider everyone’s tastes—and, yes, even the one who’s only willing to eat white food.

I realize that giving picky eaters a choice is not always simple business. Keep a list of foods that you are willing to feed the whole family that also meets your little or picky one’s standards. When it’s time for them to have their say, give them your limited list of options to choose from. And every once in a while, let them choose whatever they want for dinner, even if you don’t love it. After all, they eat what you want most of the times—why not turn the tables?

(Plus, tell me you haven’t eaten a bowl of cereal or ice cream for dinner in your time.)

Mix, match, and pull apart recipes

Giving everyone a say does not mean that you have to be a short order cook. Rather, you need to be a strategic cook.

As you decide what to cook for dinner, think about meals in terms of their elements: protein, sauce, carb, and vegetable. Is there at least one component that everyone at the table can enjoy? If there is something that a bunch of people like, can it be served separately or pulled out easily? Making one meal with pull-apart components is much easier than feeling like you have to make more than one meal every night.

Stay calm, and parent on

If you have an extremely picky eater on your hands, all of this talk about mixing and matching recipes and allowing choices probably sounds quaint—or maybe like a complete joke. Having worked with parents who spend every meal managing food drama, I know how genuinely exhausting it can be. But there is good news (that might feel bad at first): Unless there are medical, sensory and/or emotional issues at play, picky eating is a parenting issue.

Like any aspect of parenting, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Think about the parenting strategies that work best in your family—and not just the punitive ones. How is your child encouraged? What helps her feel confident? Empowers her to try new things?

What seems to have gotten lost in the flurry of picky eating advice is that we’re not just trying to teach our children to eat spinach, but are also hoping to raise joyful eaters. Keeping yourself happy and calm at the table is just as important as coming up with strategies like the “just one bite” rule. I’ve found that giving everyone a choice, making delicious food that I love and has at least a little something that my kids can enjoy, and refusing to argue is how I can ignore the noise and enjoy dinner.

But if these things don’t work for you, ignore me, too, as you figure out your own way to make it easy. 

Try this recipe for delicious Thai Chicken Burgers with Quick Pickled Carrots!

Stacie Billis is a food writer and the author of cookbook "Make it Easy: 120 Mix-and-Match Recipes to Cook from Scratch—With Smart Store-Bought Shortcuts When You Need Them." Her Thai Chicken Burgers with Quick Pickled Carrots recipe is taken from her cookbook and reprinted with permission from Da Capo.