As a recovering picky eater myself, for pretty much my whole life, I know a thing or two about the struggle to make sure a picky eater has food they can eat that is nutritious and healthy.
When it comes to prepping meals for picky eaters, it’s important to ensure they always have safe foods or comfort foods available to them. If they don’t have those first, they’re a lot less open to trying new foods.
Whether you are a picky eater yourself, the parent of a picky eater, a family member, or a caregiver, it does take extra love and care to ensure your picky eaters’ needs are taken care of. In this post, I’ll cover nine healthy meal prep tips that can help you support your picky eater (or yourself) when it comes to meal prep for you or your whole family so everyone can have a more enjoyable healthy mealtime.
What is Meal Prepping?
Meal prepping has become a popular way of having healthy meals ready to go, whether that’s having dinner pre-made so when you get home it’s minimal effort to get food on the table or having lunches and snacks ready to go to eat elsewhere. Meal prepping is about having a meal ready ahead of time. Listed below are a few popular ways of meal prepping.
- Make-ahead meals: These are meals fully cooked in advance and are reheated for easy meals when it comes time to eat.
- Batch cooking: Making a large batch of a specific recipe, then splitting it into smaller portions to be frozen. This is a great option for anyone with freezer space and limited time when it comes to getting a meal ready. Batch cooking works great for soups, stews, rice bowls, lasagna… think of ready to go meals you might find in the freezer section of the grocery store.
- Individually portioned meals: This is a popular way of preparing lunch for the week ahead in which lunches are made ahead of time for each person for the next few days. So the day of it’s a grab-and-go meal.
- Ingredient Prep: Prepping all the ingredients required for specific meals ahead of time, this could be doing all the chopping and measuring the night before or morning of so when it comes to eat the meal the cooking goes much faster.
9 Healthy Meal Prep Tips for Picky Eaters
When it comes to picky eaters, regardless of how the meal is being prepped ahead of time or being prepared in real-time, these nine tips will help create a safe and comfortable foundation that may, will support the picky eater and may in time, lead to trying new foods.
1. Stress-Free Environment
Creating a stress-free, no-pressure, no-stress environment around food is one of the best things you can do to support a picky eater. You want food to be an enjoyable, fun, and relaxing experience, not nerve-racking or anxiety-inducing.
Whether you are meal prepping for a meal at home or to be eaten on the go, you want to create a comfortable environment. Keep your kitchen clean and organized at home and remove anything that may be stress-inducing, such as a television, news, homework, etc.
If the meal is going to be eaten outside of the home, including things that may support them in enjoying their meal, whether it’s a little treat, a special note, a great container, creating an enjoyable and comfortable meal environment is part of the foundation necessary for them t to even begin to expand their eating.
You also don’t want to be overly enthusiastic about them trying new food as well-intentioned as your enthusiasm may be, it can cause pressure and anxiety to try new foods as your picky eater will not want to disappoint you, yet they have an internal fear or discomfort of some sort they are trying to manage.
2. Use Food Chaining
When it comes to creating well-balanced, healthy meals for anyone with pickiness or resistance when it comes to eating new healthy foods, it is important to use “food chaining.”
Food chaining is the notion that you can use one safe food/comfort food to lead you to try another new food. This can help begin to expand the picky eater’s diet slowly and safely.
Food chaining can be a lateral move, such as changing the type of crackers you eat to a similar but healthier version or a different brand. The easiest way for a picky eater to eat healthier is to not focus so much on new foods but more on eating healthier versions of the food they like that have more nutritional value. This is much simpler, safer, and less overwhelming for a picky eater than trying an entirely new food altogether.
Keep the focus on nutrition rather than, the food itself. The great thing nowadays is that you can find healthy versions of just about any food, whether by searching online for new healthy recipes or taking time in the grocery store to find healthy alternatives. The good news is there are many options for traditional dinner ideas to make them even healthier.
Food chaining also includes adding in a new food that can connect with a current food. Such as having crackers they like alongside another new food such as a new cheese or adding a dip with them. In this manner, there is always a safe food as they taste just a bit of new food.
When it comes to meal prepping- food chaining is the best way to provide new things for a picky eater to try. Creating meals that include their safe food along with one new food or by making healthier versions of foods they already like.
3. Plan Ahead
Creating a healthy meal plan is a simple way to plan for your meal prepping. Picky eaters tend to like to feel as if they have control and predictability around their food. Planning helps support these two things they need to feel safe and comfortable when it comes to mealtime. When they know they will have food to eat that they like at mealtimes, it helps limit anxiety and stress.
Planning also allows thoughtful food chaining to take place and to make more well-balanced meals. To build more well-rounded meals, it’s always a great idea to build off favorite foods. Many picky eaters tend to like refined carbs; by planning, you may be able to swap some of those refined carbs for whole grains. For instance, rather than white bread, try whole-grain bread or crackers.
Depending on where the picky eater is at in their age and journey, they can help decide what they’d be willing to try that would be similar but healthier. Incorporating new foods may mean you have to make two batches of foods at times, such as whole-grain brown rice and white rice, but the goal is as the transition is made, everyone will be eating whole grain rice. This is also where planning comes into play.
Having rice already made and in the freezer significantly reduces prep time. This also allows the picky eater to try a small portion today and again the next day. Freezing also allows you to have their “special” foods ready to go.
When transitioning to new foods, note that often the first day is just a bite; that’s all they can handle. They start to learn that the food was okay, and maybe they’ll be willing to do it again the next day and the next day. Eating new foods tends to be a progressive journey, one step at a time. This is where meal prep can really support a picky eater so small portions are readily available.
4. Repeated Exposure
As mentioned in the previous tip on planning ahead, repeated exposure is also important for picky eaters. Having two similar options, a safe one and the same new food a few days in a row, allows them to dip one more toe in each day.
Another option is to always have just a little extra food in the center of the dinner table or just a tiny amount of new food on the plate if you pre-plate your meals. Repeated exposure is part of the process of a picky eater’s journey. Having new foods or foods others eat in front of them allows for curiosity and an open invitation to try new food without any pressure.
I can think of many times I reached for a new food because it was just sitting in the middle of the table, with no pressure to try it and others were enjoying it. I would also do this in situations where it felt safe and that there were no expectations, that I knew it wouldn’t become a “big deal” either way if I tried it and did or didn’t like it.
Guacamole is a great example of this, I used to hardly have any guac on a chip, the tiniest smidge but none of my friends ever said anything or made a big deal out of it, so I continued with my tiny dips, and overtime I was comfortable enough and started going all in and really enjoying a full chip of guacamole.
I’m also more likely to try foods that I’m familiar with that I’ve seen others enjoy many times before, like the chips and guac example. All my friends from different groups all seemed to enjoy it, so I eventually realized I must be missing out and started giving it a try.
If you are prepping a meal for on the go, maybe you include one grape or one raisin. A serving size or even small portions can seem overwhelming to a picky eater, and they can instantly put their guard up. Still, just a little bit, just one cracker, or one bite-sized new food continuously presented to them is more likely to be given a try than forcing a new food in its entirety on them.
5. Involve the Picky Eater in Meal Prep
To be more comfortable around new foods and try new foods, you have to be around them, learn about them, experiment with them. Whether you are dealing with an adult or a child, get them in the kitchen with you to do meal planning and meal prep, include them in the experience, let them have a voice in the process.
Meet them where they are at, let them help prepare the meal. Rather than encouraging a brand new food, start with small changes. Can you cut the sandwich differently? Could they try a different flavor of a favorite food or drink or a try different brand? Look for the tiniest ways to create a different experience.
Make this time as enjoyable and as fun as you can. Food and mealtimes can bring on anxiety and stress for a picky eater. Try not to add to it by talking about their picky eating. Instead, make the kitchen a fun place- play fun music, dance in the kitchen, act silly, or have a great fun conversation. This is one of the best ways for a picky eater to open to new and different foods.
6. Create an Inclusive Meal Time
When working with a picky eater, you always want to do your best to include them in the same meal. While they may end up eating different food, you don’t want them to feel or look separate by entirely excluding them from the meal. Look for similar foods that could lead to natural food chaining.
Get creative if they are a picky eater that doesn’t eat tacos but does eat pizza. For example, if you have a taco night, can you make it a Mexican cuisine night? Can you turn softshell into more of a Mexican pizza, maybe you have to break out some tomato sauce, but maybe with one or two additional ingredients (or adjustments), they could partake in the same meal and feel a part of it without feeling entirely different.
Creating meals with one main dish and several side dishes is a great way to have inclusivity and choice at family dinners.
Depending on your picky eater’s journey, having them pick out and make healthy new recipes with ingredients they know they already like is a great way to try a new combination of ingredients together for new food.
If you do have to make more separate meals for some reason, is there a night you can all eat the same meal, or everyone has their favorite food night? You want them to experience the feeling of feeling included, sharing a meal, not always feeling different because of their meal choices.
7. No Labels
You also don’t want to make assumptions or label them as “they don’t eat salsa” because then they won’t, even if they haven’t eaten it the 100 times before when it’s been served. I didn’t particularly appreciate being called a picky eater, because I didn’t want to be one, but I didn’t know how not to be one either.
If possible, avoid using any labeling terms of being picky around them. Labeling them with a food they don’t eat or as picky helps keep the door closed. Giving them options is an open invitation to let them take a step when they’re ready without making it a big deal or garnering a lot of attention about it.
A great way to entice anyone to try new foods is to make food as inviting and appealing as possible, especially for picky eaters, so presentation does matter. Put the extra effort into creating a nutritious meal that not only tastes great but looks just as good. Everyone responds to how a meal is presented; think of how much more delicious food looks when it’s presented at a party or sit-down fancy dinner. How often do we say things such as “that looks so good.” Our eyes send clues to the rest of our bodies about what to eat.
9. Role Model
Being a role model is an essential piece in supporting a picky eater. This is true in many areas of life as well. As they say, “actions speak louder than words.” Model eating various foods yourself, allow your own body language and expressions to share how you are enjoying the food.
Use language that shares how good the food tastes without telling the picky eater they need to eat it. For instance, share with the table how much you enjoy the hints of rosemary in the chicken. You also want to model this with foods the picky eater is also eating, subtly helping them identify what they do enjoy about the foods they are already eating.
Taking care of your own health by eating well-balanced, healthy meals is the best way to help a picky eater. Children and adults pick up more on what we do than what we say. We all may look at an athlete or television star and like the things they like- we see this in advertising all the time. Be a role model for them and love them.
We are all constantly influenced by the people and information we surround ourselves with. Even as an adult, I look at people whose skin is glowing and beautiful and then find out what they are doing what they are eating. It’s their role modeling that has helped me to expand my own eating options and eat healthily. Keep surrounding yourself and your special eater with positive, healthy role models and information.
Picky Eater Perspective
As a recovering picky eater for most of my life, I’m going to share a secret with you- Whether your picky eater is 2, 22, or 62, there are underlying reasons why they are a picky eater, whether it’s the power struggle of being two years old and making your own choices or whether it’s an older child or adult that may have texture, sensory, physical limitation or emotional attachments with food, or some other reason, there is an array of reasons why people are picky eaters.
The most important thing for you to do as a loved one (or for yourself if this is you) is to be loving, respectful, and support this person, not shame them or judge them. For some people, their limited diet is about comfort and safety; it’s like having their safety blanket with them.
When it comes to picky eaters, keep in mind that if they don’t have safe foods first, they’re not trying new foods. For whatever reason, a particular food helps them feel safe like a favorite blanket or warm drink does for some people. There’s a consistency, an expectation of a feeling that it gives them comfort and safety. When people’s attachment with food is more safety and comfort-related, you’re likely to see the same consistency in foods they will and will not eat.
For others, it may be a power struggle. A power struggle will have less consistency in the foods they are asking for. For instance, they might refuse to eat spaghetti one night, but they eat it just fine another night. There could still be emotional reasons underlying, but overall they are using food at the moment to manage their emotions.
And for others, it could be a physical thing or aversion to certain textures, flavors, smells, etc.
But what is important to know is it’s not really fun for the picky eater, and it’s not as easy as many people think to just try new foods. So taking time to meal prep to ensure they have food to eat, a healthy meal to take with them, and a place at the table is the most loving and caring thing you can do!
Eating nutritious food is more important than what a picky eater eats. Support picky eaters by finding healthy versions of foods they enjoy. Give them time for their taste buds to adapt. Over time use food chaining and bite-sized portions to provide exposure to new healthy foods. Keep mealtime inclusive and include them in meal prep as much as possible.
Always being respectful of a picky eater’s choices, compassion, and support rather than judgment goes a long way.
Karla Kueber is a Certified Evidence Based EFT Practioner and Health Coach, with a double Masters Degree in Education. She works with people to overcome emotional eating, curb cravings, and overcome resistance to eating new healthy foods. You can learn more about coaching with her here.