The Picky Eater Solution: How to Turn Your Child into a Plant-Based Food Adventurer

Father and son preparing food in kitchen

It seems every family has at least one kid who just won’t try new foods.

And there’s nothing more frustrating than cooking a beautiful meal, only to have your kids call it yucky or spit it out. But that’s kids… wearing every emotion and opinion right on their sleeve.

Because of this, some parents spend hours in the kitchen preparing individual meals catering to individual tastes, just to get their children to eat. Or they cave, and let their child eat whatever processed food makes them happy.

No one said parenting would be easy…

My husband Dave and I are parents to four great kids — all plant-based. Sounds like we’ve got it made, right?

Let me tell you, over the years, we’ve had our fair share of food battles. And when it comes to food battles, there’s one important lesson I’ve found to always be true:

Food battles are all about control and identity.

And although it may not feel like it in the moment — when your kids are throwing a tantrum over broccoli — them asserting their opinions about what goes into their bodies is actually a good sign. They’re developing a sense of autonomy.

They may just need a little help directing that energy toward making good choices like kale and mushrooms and quinoa instead of just white rice, bread, or veggie sausages.

My philosophy around picky eaters is to respect, educate, and involve your kids in eating.

And if you can do that, you can create little foodies who love variety, color, flavor, and have a positive identity around being adventurous eaters.

After having our own child and adopting three beautiful Cree children, we felt compelled to transition from vegetarian to a fully plant-based diet. For Dave and me, the transition was pretty smooth — not so much for our kids. But with a lot of patience and encouragement from us, all four kids are excellent food adventurers today and love kale and vegan brownies!

As a mother and plant-based Registered Dietitian, I’ve learned a lot through my own experiences and the experiences of my clients on how best to open picky eaters up to new, fresh foods.

picky eaters

Here are my seven tips to help you turn your picky eaters into food adventurers:

7 Steps to Helping Even the Pickiest of Eater

1. Start with What They Like

Starting with foods and flavors that are familiar for your children will help them feel more comfortable and confident.

Does your kid love peanut butter? Mine too! Try a chunky monkey smoothie with banana, peanut butter, and almond milk. When they get comfortable with that, add some cocoa powder for a chocolate flavor. That is perfect because once you add chocolate, you can add baby spinach too, and the color will still be a rich chocolatey brown. The flavor won’t change.

Kids who love peanut butter might try new fruits if you use peanut butter as a dip or drizzle. Start with dipping a fruit they love, and then introduce a new fruit. Apples, bananas, and berries all go great with peanut butter. But then, just about anything goes great with peanut butter.

Try venturing into the world of savory foods by making a peanut butter-based satay sauce. This sauce goes great with baked tofu or with a power bowl stacked with rice, beans, and veggies.

Starting with what is familiar to your kids, whether it is potatoes or pasta or peanut butter, will help you build their confidence to try new things.

2. Use Mealtime as Family Time

I know all too well that family life is busy, but mealtimes are sacred times.

Do you gather around the table at least once a day, put phones away, and take the time to enjoy food together and speak to each other? If not, it is time to build this practice into your lives.

Even with very young children, treating mealtime as a time to respect your bodies, each other, and the food you are eating is an important message. It is tempting to just eat in front of Netflix, but you will miss a great chance to model healthy eating behaviors for your kids.

And moms and dads, this is the time to start celebrating the foods you eat. Try different foods on the table and talk about what you like about them.

Your children learn by watching you, and mealtime is no exception. Fall more in love with food and one another at every meal.

3. Introduce Food Literacy

Language is important, especially around food.

Kids are quick to judge a meal, sometimes even before trying it, so in our household, we’ve set rules around food language. We don’t use words like yucky, disgusting, or even “I don’t like that” to describe food. Instead, we encourage our kids to identify what aspect of the food is challenging or new for them.

Giving your kids better knowledge, language, and skills around food will build their confidence and the feeling that they are in control.

Instead of your vegan alfredo sauce being “gross,” ask your kids if it was the flavor, the texture, the smell, or the appearance they were not sure about. This may take a little time to build because they may not even be sure what you mean by “texture.”

And that’s okay!

With a little time, education, and play, they will get the hang of it. Once they can better describe what they have a problem with, they will feel more in control, and you will be better able to address it.

Sauces with challenging chunks of veggies can be pureed, salsa that is too spicy can be mellowed, wraps with too much or too little avocado can be adjusted.

Tell your kids “I’m so glad you told me that this sauce is too garlicy for you! Next time I make it, I need you in the kitchen with me so you can help me get it right. You are the best little chef, and the food always tastes better when you help me.”

What kid would say no to that?

4. Get Them in the Kitchen

Speaking of the best little chef…

There is nothing like preparing food to help your kids overcome their pickiness. Build your children’s sense of pride and ownership in the meal, and they will be more likely to try the food and enjoy it. Here are a few ideas for how kids can get involved:

  • Let them help with meal planning by offering a couple options of what is for dinner (like bean burritos or chili and rice) and let them pick.
  • Introduce age-appropriate tasks: tasks like measuring and mixing are great (and help build numeracy too!), or let them push the buttons when making dips or smoothies in the blender.
  • Appoint one child at a time to be your official taster for the meal. Give them a little spoonful of the food before you serve it, and ask them if it needs a little cumin or salt or pepper or a squeeze of lime.

Your kids will likely be proud to help, and more likely to enjoy the food at mealtime.

Make sure to thank them at the table for their help, and make a big deal of the improvements they have made.

5. Offer Meals with Choice

Sometimes offering a meal with lots of options on the table can be easy and take the pressure off you and your kids.

Try baked potatoes, fajitas, tacos, or wraps with lots of colorful and healthy toppings in bowls on the table.

This can work particularly well for families who are transitioning to a completely plant-based diet (it did for mine!).

Make a rule that everyone needs to choose at least three toppings (like corn, black beans, avocado, tomatoes, or spinach), but let them choose which ones.

You can even make a game for who can come up with the best color variety, and celebrate having unique chooses. Then just dig in and enjoy.

6. Try the Tiny Tastes Strategy

The “tiny tastes” strategy  comes from a piece of research in the UK which found that kids may need to try a new vegetable 10 times before they like it. Trying vegetables can be easier if you start with just a tiny (and I mean really tiny) taste.

Try a rice grain sized piece of the veggie first. It is not too intimidating, and it is over in just a moment.

I’ve found that it works well if parents try the tiny taste with their children and then talk about the experience together. Maybe even get your child to feed you your tiny portion so they feel in control, and they see that they’re not the only one trying new things.

Then continue to increase the size and frequency of that vegetable. The more vegetables children enjoy, the more open they will be to trying others.

Be sure to show your kids not only the tiny, rice-grain sized slice of the veggie, but also introduce them to the whole veggie too. Let them hold it, learn its name, watch you slice it (or slice it themselves with a little help). Maybe look up a photo online so you can see how that fruit or vegetable is grown.

Even better — start a little garden yourself.

7. Help Build Their Food Identity

The most important thing you can do for your kids is to build their identity as adventurous eaters.

Once they make this mindset shift, you will find it so much easier to build the repertoire of foods they can enjoy and meals your family can eat together. Instead of complaining about how picky they are, brag to your friends (in earshot of your child) about the new vegetables and fruits they have been trying lately, and how adventurous they are becoming with their food.

Speak enthusiastically about the amazing smoothie they made, or their great suggestion to add more lemon to the hummus, and how much better it tastes now with their input.

By describing your kids as little foodies, they will build an identity around food. There is nothing more powerful than this in overcoming food aversions.

From Picky Eater to Plant-Based Foodie

As every parent knows, there are many challenges that come with raising children…

And food is certainly one of them.

As excited as my husband and I were about transitioning to a plant-based diet, I was equally unsure if my kids would ever be excited about doing the same.

But over time my kids learned to love food and now embrace it as part of their identity.

With these tips, some patience, and a positive mindset, you and your children will become great partners in the kitchen — and that reward is worth the effort.

Start today with some tiny tastes, and let the adventure begin!

Ready to get started? Get the free Picky Eaters Plant-Based Playbook here.

About the Author: Dr. Pamela Fergusson operates a private practice in Canada, where she promotes health and healing through a plant-based diet. She is a Registered Dietitian with a PhD at the University of Liverpool and her Master’s in International Health at Sweden’s Uppsala University. Pamela and her husband Dave have four children, and she loves to speedwalk ultramarathons. Read her nutrition blog and find her on Facebook.

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Comments

  1. Christine says:

    Great article! I never had any children of my own, but if I had, I would have loved to implement these strategies for developing in them a positive association with food. I didn’t grow up vegan, or even vegetarian, but one thing I appreciated was that my parents never forced my sister or I to eat anything we didn’t want to. The only thing my mom required was that we have at least 1 bite of either a new food we were unsure of, or a food that we generally didn’t like. I always hated vegetables as a kid, but I think that being introduced to them in small bites when I was younger enabled me as an adult to keep trying foods occasionally to see if my tastes had changed. Sure enough, as I got older and continued to try different veggies, I found there were some that I began to like, and now, years later, I can say that I don’t think there’s any vegetable that I don’t like!

  2. I wonder what your advice would be for a parent with a kid on the spectrum who has genuine texture and taste issues. I love vegetables but he won’t even touch one. You can forget about peanut butter. We’ve worked with occupational therapy for years and he still only has 2-3 things he will eat. If I try to force the issue, he might actually eat the food I present…then it will come right back up and we will have a mess. I really am curious. I don’t even plan to make him fully plant based. I just want him to eat a veggie every now and then.

  3. Thank for sharing the inspiration, Pamela!

    It must be one of the biggest challenges of parenting, but the reward is huge if you win the food battle 🙂

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