Jennifer Anderson On How to Cook for Picky Eaters

on December 8, 2020

It’s 6:30pm. You’ve spent the last hour prepping and cooking dinner for your family, only to have your child turn up their nose and say, “EW”. 😨 Now what? Do you make them sit until they’ve eaten their vegetables? Do you send them off to bed hungry? Do you scrap the dinner and make something else? Isn’t it ironic that kids can be hard to feed considering they eat their own boogers?! 

There is nothing more stressful than worrying if your child is getting all the nutrients they need. The most popular question posted on our MomForce Facebook page is: how can you help get a picky eater to eat!  Thank goodness for Jennifer Anderson, registered dietitian and the food guru behind Kids Eat in Color. She is answering our questions about picky eating and how we can help our kiddos learn to love trying new foods. 

How long ago did you start your super successful Instagram page @kids.eat.in.color? 

So we started about three and a half years ago. I had this feeling for a while that I was not the only mom struggling with feeding my three-year-old. And maybe, just maybe, I could help another mother out! So, in January of 2017, I started the @kidseatincolor Instagram account, posting mediocre pictures of my kids, the preschool lunches I made in the kitchen and showing off a few tips and tricks I learned along the way.

Is there anything that moms and caregivers should do to help prevent picky eating habits?

I just want to assure parents that if you read all the books, took all the courses and followed all the advice, and your child still gets picky with food, it's normal and not your fault! You cannot 100% prevent picky eating. Some things are just beyond your control. That being said, I do have an insider tip parents should keep in mind. There's a developmental shift that happens around one or two where a child can become afraid of new things—they can get clingy and have separation anxiety. That can display in picky eating, as well, if you notice a fear of new foods. Be patient. 

What if you have a child that seemingly overeats? What are some cues you can look for to know they are satiated?

If your child is indicating that they want more food during a meal, give them more food. Don’t force them to finish what is on their plate. The more practice your child gets in serving up their own plate, the more they will learn how much food they can eat. Some kids just have trouble learning their own hunger and fullness cues. 

When your child is verbal, you can start teaching them. One way is to give them a glass of water and have them drink it until full and you can tell them that the feeling they have in their tummy is “full”. Typically, kids will eat until they feel full and not beyond. If you have a child who regularly overeats to the point of throwing up, then a visit to the pediatrician is in order. 

What is a “safe food”?

A “safe food” is a food that they usually like—because we all know that toddler tastes can change from day to day—and it’s a food they can eat as much as they want! That can be fruit, rice, toast, milk, or something else. 

Here’s a scenario: You have a 12-month-old who HATES eating and refuses everything placed in front of them. They will drink a bottle of milk, but nothing else! What do you do?

My guess is they’re probably a really strong, creative child and they don’t want you telling them what to eat. But there are some things that you can do to help them expand their diet over time. It may not be easy, but patience and consistency really do help. Start with the basics of having a meal and snack schedule. Put a variety of foods on the table and see what they gravitate towards.

How do you keep mealtime light-hearted and without food freak outs?

Three words: Let it go! Too often we're getting super stressed about who's eating what and why and where and how come they aren’t eating and did they get enough! So. Many. Worries. Instead, we need to remember our job is to provide a balanced meal and a proper mealtime with at least one safe food. It is then our child's job to eat. I know it’s easier said than done, but practice makes perfect. Put your energy into cooking food you enjoy and not giving attention to the negative stuff. Kids will respond to your energy. 

As you’re transitioning a child into solid foods, what are the things to watch out for when it comes to choking hazards?

I usually think of two things: shape and hardness. Anything round and smooth, like a grape, a hotdog chunk, even a Clementine wedge can create a choking hazard. A good way to judge high risk choking foods is that anything bigger than your pinky finger is something that a child could choke on. Also, you don't want to be serving chunks of hard things. If you want to serve an apple to a toddler who's just learned to eat, shred it up or soften it in the microwave. Making sure it has a little ‘squish’ to it will help lessen the choking hazard. 

What are your thoughts on those oh so convenient pouches?

I think they're extremely convenient! If you are on the go and your child needs some quick nurishment, those are great. The challenge they create when you habitually use them at home is your child will be missing out on all of the developmental and the sensory exposure they would get from those real foods. For example: a mango and kale pouch—what does it predominantly taste like? Mango. They are missing out on the taste and texture of the kale, as well as the texture of the mango. So they’re great for convenience, but not in place of real foods.

How do you avoid food waste with kids?

The fastest way to eliminate food waste is to stop putting food on your child’s plate. Give them more control over their food! I love serving dinner family-style. “Family-style” is a dining method where you put all of the components of a meal onto the table and allow everyone at the table to serve themselves. Make sure you include at least one safe food as well as any new vegetables or proteins that you’d like, and then let your kids dish up what they want! 

Everyone’s kid has that one friend who isn’t allowed to eat candy and then binges on it as soon as an opportunity arises! Is there any food that should be completely off limits?

I don’t think any food should be off limits. Because guess what? As your kids get older, they will have more agency. And then before you know it, they have hidden in the neighbor’s pantry, inhaling all the fruit snacks they can eat! But limiting certain things, like sugar or soda, isn’t a bad idea. If you want to give your kids cookies for a snack one day, that can take the allure out of those more enticing treats. And then the next day, when presented with cookies or fruit, they might pick the fruit instead!

Listen to the full MomForce Podcast episode for more of Jennifer’s food wisdom, and check out her website Kids Eat In Color for extra picky eater tips and tricks. You can also follow her on Instagram and Pinterest.