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HELP! Family dinner ideas for picky toddler!

Our 2 year old son has been a very picky eater from birth. At his first birthday, he refused to taste the cake!

While working and pregnant with my second child (due in just a few short weeks!), I fell into the bad habit of feeding him meals I knew he would eat. But I'm ready to tackle this, and start exposing him to more foods at the family table. I don't want to cook separate foods for him, but I am willing to cook toddler friendly foods that can appeal to our whole family.

So what are some ideas? Anybody else succeed in helping picky toddler over come aversion to new tastes and foods? I'd love any recipes and strategies!

Here is a list of the few things he'll eat: Breakfast foods (cereal, pancakes and french toast, bacon); meatballs or kofte; noodles with pesto (not red sauce!); almond butter and jelly sandwich, yogurt, all fruit; breads; french fries (but not sweet potato).

Thanks for any ideas! I could really use some encouragement, as his refusals broke my will for a while.

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  1. Honestly, he eats a lot compared to some kids!

    - Try making pesto with spinach leaves or asparagus or broccoli. Use mostly basil at first, but gradually up the amount of vegetable.

    - use whole wheat bread, cereal, crackers...

    - Breakfast for dinner- whole wheat pancakes or ricotta pancakes with yogurt and fruit. Add in some baby carrots or other 'pickup' veggie that he might eat

    - Make your own baked french fries. Much healthier than the frozen type, but if you're in a rush, the Alexia brand is pretty good.

    - Explain the food. I do this with my friend's toddler, and she'll pretty much eat anything. I explain to her that carrots are orange because they have a special vitamin that helps us see well. Milk has calcium, which makes our bones tough and strong. Steak and hamburgers have iron to help us grow taller...

    5 Replies
    1. re: cheesecake17

      I'd love a recipe for ricotta pancakes! He doesn't currently eat any veggie, pick up or otherwise. I guess I consider him picky b/c we feel we always have to pack food for him; we can never show up to a dinner or restaurant and know that he'll eat. I'm hoping to get to a place where he'll eat more of what we consider dinner food.

      Thanks for your ideas!

      1. re: sljones

        I made them once, from a Bittman recipe.

        What about trying some sweeter veggies? Butternut squash? Sounds weird, but maybe mix some roasted cubes with fresh strawberries and a splash of maple syrup. He may eat it.

      2. re: cheesecake17

        Toss the broccoli, cut or chopped in really small pieces, in with the pesto.

        1. re: cheesecake17

          PLEASE HELP ME! My 3 yr old daughter refuses to eat meat ( the only exception is Ham deli meat only) She will not eat cooked or raw vegetables. She loves fruit, yogurt, and muffins. It doesn't matter if I grind meat or veggies, and mix it with pasta... she knows! And says, no mommy, I don't like it. I'm running out of idea's here... Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

          1. re: sncwells

            give her what she likes... and keep trying with the vegetables. I know my friend's kids didn't like meat but every so often she would offer deli turket and they would eat it. Try making you own muffins- add in wheat germ, bananas, pureed carrots.. whatever will add a bit of sweetness and bulk. Try sweeter veggies like sweet potatoes and butternut squash.

        2. Your picky 2-year old son sounds a lot like mine in terms of the things he'll eat. (Although I agree with the previous reply -- I don't consider my son particularly picky.)

          My tip: Nearly everything can be turned into a meatball or something resembling breakfast food.

          I've been making lots of variations of muffins or pancakes with veggies, fruits, and whole grains mixed in (bran muffins with pureed figs; pumpkin oatmeal muffins; savory spinach and basil muffins; corn and bell pepper pancakes). On the pancake front, I made fish cakes once with a thin batter and told my son they were "fish pancakes" -- shockingly, he ate them!

          It's also easy to finely chop veggies and add them to meatballs. Unlike, say, a green pancake full of broccoli, these look like normal meatballs if the meat to vegetable ratio isn't too high. Mushrooms are a great addition -- something my kid won't ordinarily eat, but he's happy to eat meatballs with little bits of mushroom, onion, and carrot mixed in. (You have to cook them before adding to the meat mixture.)

          2 Replies
          1. re: Pia

            Thanks for the ideas! I'd love some of your muffin recipes! Pumpkin oatmeal, savory spinach and basil, and corn and bell pepper pancakes!

            He is pretty discerning, so something off color will stop him from trying (pink pancakes.) But I'm willing to give it a try!

            1. re: sljones

              Sorry to take a while to respond!

              Spinach muffins - I very loosely follow this recipe: http://www.laurens-kitchen.com/spinac...

              Corn pancakes: from Chow, with diced bell peppers added. http://www.chow.com/recipes/10057

              Pumpkin oatmeal muffins: from Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites. I can't find this one online, so I'll summarize it here:

              Sift 1 1/4 cups flour (I used white whole wheat), 1 T baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp cinnamon (I used pumpkin pie spice).

              Pulse oats in food processor until they are the consistency of cornmeal, then add to dry ingredients.

              Lightly beat 1 whole egg and 1 egg white. Add 3/4 cup pumpkin puree, 3/4 cup evaporated milk, 1/2 cup pineapple juice, 2 T oil (I left this out by accident, but they turned out fine), and 1/4 cup brown sugar. Fold wet ingredients into dry.

              Fill muffin tins about 2/3 full. Spoon 1 scant tsp apricot preserves on top of each muffin. (Not essential, but a nice surprise.)

              Bake for 20-25 minutes at 400 degrees.

          2. How about quesadillas? You can serve them with toppings and condiments (salsa, sliced avocado, sour cream, etc.), to make them more interesting for everybody else, and also possibly tempt him to branch out.

            1 Reply
            1. re: jlafler

              If you do quesadillas, add in a fruity salsa. Everyone will like it, and it may tempt your son since it's fruit.

            2. Our 20 Month Daughter loves dumplings. Even better if she can dip them in Hoisin sauce. I am lazy and buy the awesome premade ones at the Asian Market, but you could make your own and add lots of veggies.

              She is also not big on veggies, but will eat them frozen. And she loves roasted cauliflower. If we get it nice and brown and crispy she will eat a whole adult sized portion.

              1. Try raw veggies instead of cooked, my daughter will eat almost anything raw, she especially loves red pepper, but it you cook it she flatly refuses. you can also puree vegetables and mix into meatballs or muffins.

                1. I have an 18 month old who is a fairly good eater. So, it may be that I just have no clue what it is to be in your shoes. However, I often employ strategies, without even realizing it. So, if you're already doing this, please ignore. I don't give him unlimited snacks just before dinner or lunch. That way I know he is hungry. Second, I know he is curious, but he won't eat something new just because I put it in front of him. So I get to the kitchen and serve myself some food. Then I sit on the floor or a low chair and start eating it with relish. I don't say it is yummy or try to sell it. He gets curious and waddles over and since mom is eating it, maybe it isn't bad. He tries it and if he is hungry enough he'll even ask for more. At that point I ask if he wants to sit in his chair at the table and eat and usually the answer is "Chair! Chair!" Other times, if it is a simple enough thing to make while he watches and even have him help with washing the veggies etc., I plan to make it with him. Usually, the sound of a sizzle or a view of stirring something in the skillet gets him excited and he can't wait for it to cool enough to eat.

                  Next, and I know this is hard, I try not to take it personally, when he rejects the food. It is my job to provide nourishing food and to model good eating habits and it is his job to eat. If I only give him food he will like, I am not keeping my end of the bargain. As with other things at this age, he is still learning to do his job. Sometimes, my son goes to bed without having satisfied *my* requirement of how much of what he should have eaten. But that is okay. I think it is especially hard for mothers when kids reject food, since food is such an important aspect of early bonding with our little one. However, think about it this way - just as the child needs structure in other areas of development, he needs it in the food department too! My 18 month old tests me when I set boundaries in every other sphere of his life. Why would he not test boundaries in food? We saw some friends recently who have a very picky toddler. He would not eat anything unless he saw them sprinkle sugar on it. My friend said she was very unhappy about his picky behavior. I asked her what happens if she just does not give in to his request. She said she hadn't tried it. Apparently, he eats quite well at the day care - whatever is served. :-)

                  Lastly, and I say this very humbly - if you hide things you want him to eat into things you know he will like, you are really not tackling it. Do you plan to tell him after he's eaten the meatballs or pesto that those had broccoli or spinach in them? If you say you want to expose him to more foods at the family table, then do "expose" them. Let him develop a taste for them in their unadorned glory. You say in a response below that you'd like to go to a restaurant and know that he'll eat something. There are not many restaurants I know of, that hide veggies in their food.
                  I hope you will post back after you try some of the strategies recommended in this thread! I would love to hear what worked and what didn't. Who knows, my great eater might yet become a poor one! :-/

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: sweetTooth

                    Great response! You sound like a good Mother.

                  2. Children will usually eat what their parents eat, if not they usually go hungry...

                    1. we did a couple of things when the kids were little and had little band width in their tastes. in general we combined an interim concessionary position with a longer range plan. over the short-term we prepared things the kids actually liked--chinese noodles with peanut butter sauce and broccoli, eg. or sauted chicken breast and broccoli.

                      at the same time, we got the kids involved in food selection, meal planning, and preparation. two-year olds can't chop but they can stir--or seem to stir. and they can learn techniques. before she could speak clearly my daughter reminded me while we were making a birthday cake, "use some pachment papuh, daddy."

                      the idea is not to make the dinner table a war zone. if the adults bend a little toward the kids while teaching the kids to enjoy more foods, it'll work out.

                      1. My son, who is now 13, is an even more adventurous eater than I am. When he was little, we would just ask him to taste things, and if he didn't like it, we'd just thank him for trying. However, he had to taste the dish each time we ate it, something he was willing to do knowing that he wouldn't be forced to eat something he was unfamiliar with. A taste was somehow different, and now he eats absolutely everything -- snails, squid ink pasta, you name it -- things that I would have refused to taste when I was his age. However, in my family, I was berated for not eating the delicious Italian foods that everyone else was eating. I think that the difference is to not make a huge deal of it. You like, you don't like it, OK, but thanks for trying.

                        1. Have you tried letting him cook with you? Most kids will eat, or at least try what they make. Granola is a great way to start. It's fun to make and there are a bunch of ingredients to eat along the way.

                          I agree with the previous post from sweet tooth. Hiding food ends up backfiring on you. If you want them to expand their horizons, they have to know what they end up liking, so they can ask for it again. My 8 year old used to be very picky. At 2, the only meat she would eat was sausage. She has come a long way since then. I have learned that you need to keep introducing the same foods they turned away, over and over again. Their palates change over time and they will eat more variety as they grow.

                          She too, likes raw veggies over cooked. At first, I would add only a small amount to pasta, couscous or rice until I could serve it to her with more veggies than carbs. Try grating the raw veggies over things he likes, adding more as he gets used to it. I told mine that beets tasted like candy and she ate them. I grated beets (raw) can be added to a lot of foods.

                          Another thing you can try, is to have him lick the food to get a taste for it. I know it sounds strange, but when my daughter would like what she tasted, she would go back for an actual bite. If he likes salt, like she does, I would sprinkle a couple of grains (with a little lemon vinaigrette for the ones it won't stick to) on the food to be eaten. It worked for me with cucumber, beets, cauliflower, carrots, fennel, arugula and a bunch of others.

                          For brussel sprouts, shave or slice super thin and serve with lemon, olive oil, grated reggiano and salt/pepper. The kids love it (esp. once they lick it - ha ha).

                          Most important is to gain trust. If he says no, let it go and try again in a couple of weeks. If he knows that after he tries something, he won't be forced to eat it, he will be more apt to do so. Good luck. Things will definitely get better as he gets older.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: doughreme

                            Thanks for the great ideas. I agree that what I really want is for him to broaden his tastes, and know that he likes diverse foods. So I don't want to "hide" foods ultimately, or continue to make separate foods for him

                            But I think we'll need two different strategies. I'd love to have some more foods around that are nutritionally packed, so that I know that he is living off more than cereal and bagels. And i think involving him in making things like muffins and granola is part of a larger process of exposing him to the pleasures of all things food.

                            But for the family meals, I'll serve him what eat, with one food that I know he likes. I've seen this boy flat out refuse food for days, so I know this will be a tough road. But I think it will pay off in the long run.

                            I'm loving the concrete ideas for family friendly foods, so please continue to send ideas!

                            1. re: sljones

                              Have you tried to make things in miniature sizes?

                              When my brother was younger, he would refuse to eat certain foods, but if they were individual sized, he would try it. You could make him mini fritattas or quiches- start off with grated veggies, then gradually use larger and larger chopped pieces. He also agreed to eat mini pizzas- my mother would let him choose whatever he wanted on top.

                          2. Believe me, he won't starve. My daughter did the very same thing. One thing that works, but might not be the healthiest, is to have bacon cooking when he hasn't eaten for a while. The smell makes them want to eat and they will usually try something new at that point. You could try turkey bacon, but it certainly doesn't taste as good.

                            1. One family friendly meal that is surprisingly toddler friendly is a whole roasted chicken, green beans and maybe some roasted (with a little brown sugar, olive oil and cinnamon) butternut squash cubes. Chicken is pretty basic (and it smells so good while it is cooking!). Green beans and BN squash can be something the rest of the family would like and maybe you could get him to try a couple of bites of both. This is a pretty standard meal choice for our family and now one of my four yr olds sons (I have twins) favorite foods to eat is BN squash.

                              Another choice that actually is pretty child friendly (at least to most kids) is grilled salmon. You could add some brown rice and/or wild rice pilaf (might go over really well with little bits of dried cranberries in there) and some kind of green veggie.

                              One plus about either of these meals - if you cook them semi-regularly and your son gets used to them and will eat them, if you go out to a restaurant, most places would have something similar.

                              Good luck...

                              1. My daughter will eat anything if it's in the form of soup (she's now 6 and still has soup every single day, which puts worries of malnutrition right out of my mind ;-))

                                She also loves shredded roasted chicken (no skin), mashed potatoes, mild fish such as tilapia or grey sole dusted w/ a little flour and pan-fried, fish cakes, beef stroganoff over noodles, soft scrambled eggs w/ cheese on toast, chicken burgers, ravioli w Parmesan and butter, green salad with feta and tomatoes.

                                Hope this helps! And honestly, kids are curious eaters. If you sit down to eat together and not give them what you're eating, they'll probably want to try it. That's how my daughter got in the habit of having leafy Greek salads with us ;-))

                                1. I have two kids and I believe that the whole family should eat the same meal, I give them the opportunity to make suggestions, but I am the parent and we are not going to eat fish sticks every night either. IF they are hungry enough they will eat what you prepare, you need to be stong willed.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. Spaghetti carbonara (pasta, bacon, no red sauce)
                                    Risotto (has cheese, but not an inordinate amount; onions aren't visible, but you aren't hiding them either)
                                    Quesadillas. I never met a kid who didn't like quesadillas.
                                    I have a niece who does not consider beans vegetables, so while she won't touch broccoli or spinach or lettuce, she loves red beans, black beans, white beans, and green beans. (In New Orleans, most kids will eat red beans and rice.)
                                    Most kids like corn--will he eat corn?
                                    Chicken noodle soup
                                    Carrot soup w/ orange is slightly sweet, can pass as "fruit"
                                    Dumplings, ravioli, canneloni
                                    Falafel (along the lines of meatballs) sandwich w/yogurt sauce

                                    And I don't know if this will work w/your son, but once my girlfriend's son entered daycare, he suddenly started wanting vegetables and fruit. It seems the caregivers did a lot of talking about and drawing and coloring of broccoli "trees," asparagus "kings" (never really got that, but it seemed to work), melon and avocado "smiles" (simply slices), cucumber and zucchini "wheels."

                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                      The fruit and veggie shapes is what I do with my friend's daughter. We dip broccoli trees into "sunshine"- orange-based salad dressing. We also lay out vegetables in order of the rainbow and talk about the colors while she eats.

                                      1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                        This is true ...when kids see other kids eating different things it becomes easier.
                                        All kids go through stages where they may eat everything or nothing.

                                        1. re: nomadchowwoman

                                          Because the asparagus has a crown on top!

                                        2. My advice? Stop placating your child! Why do parents do this and then complain? Adults run the family, not the children.

                                          As children growing up my brother and siter and I ate what my mother cooked. If we didn't like it we didn't have to eat it, but there were no snacks later or special dishes.

                                          Cook what you want to serve your *family*. If he doesn't like it he doesn't have to eat. He won't starve, although he'll throw a tantrum of two. Put your foot down and don't let a child run your life.

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: KiltedCook

                                            +1 ------- Offer the child a balanced diet..The same one you and your family eat! He want starve to death... I promise! ---

                                              1. re: KiltedCook

                                                Ha ha. You obviously either don't have children or don't have a picky eater. Don't cast stones until you've been in our shoes! My son is a very picky eater. He eats hardly any of the things listed above. I give him what we eat. I rarely make him something else unless it's just something that really won't be eaten (e.g. if we have a very spicy dish). Many nights he will just go without dinner with no snacks, etc either.. Many times there isn't even the tantrum. I don't give him snacks before dinner either. IT'S JUST THE AGE. I've tried hiding vegetables in other foods, but my son (who used to eat everything) won't eat most fruits, veggies, and meats, so that's difficult. He will grow out of it. My guess is that when you "understood" that you had to eat what was served or go hungry, you were probably older than 2. Maybe your mother was lucky and you ate everything, but not every child is the same. Parents "complain" because they'd like to find more creative ways to make their picky eaters eat better, not because they are bad parents. You have some nerve!!!! I can only hope that one day you have a very difficult and picky eater type child. May you eat your words.

                                                1. re: KiltedCook

                                                  Wow!! That sounds really easy and I guess you're lucky to have mastered this. For some people though, tantrums and refusal to eat can really wear you down, particularly if you have other things going on in your life. Do you really think these people would be on here asking advice if it was as easy as "cook what you want to serve them". Hop down off your high horse and try to understand that for some people it's not that easy.

                                                2. We had a sign in the kitchen when my girls were little: "You have two choices for dinner: take it or leave it."

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: susan1353

                                                    This is a great thread. Sorry to hear your child is picky although he sounds far less picky than other toddlers I know! Even our very adventurous daughter sometimes needs repeated exposure to the same food before she tries and then loves it. Some things she enjoys are:

                                                    1) Muffins/pancakes (for snack or breakfast). I really like the healthy cooking column in the New York Times (Martha Rose Schulman writes it). There's a great recipe for blueberry pancakes in there and I just made savory cheese muffins using her recipe as well. Actually this column is just a great resource in general.

                                                    2) Dinner ideas:
                                                    - Indian food - she loves lentils, esp if they are cooked with tomatoes and onions. I really like "Indian Home Cooking" by Suvir Saran as a resource. We have been surprised by the level of spice our daughter enjoys.
                                                    - Soup (lentil, white bean, tomato, etc). We usually serve our soups with paninis on the side (with nutritious fillings like spinach/cheese). Turns out our daughter loves dipping so she will eat several tiny paninis and most of a bowl of soup this way. Exploit the dipping thing if you can.
                                                    - Pasta (of course). Will he eat pasta with pesto? And could you start adding asparagus, green beans or broccoli to it?
                                                    - asian style noodles with peanut sauce, veggies, meat if you wish, etc.
                                                    - Room temp salads like quinoa with black beans, orzo, etc
                                                    - Pretty much any roasted vegetable. Veggies like cauliflower are surprisingly delicious when roasted.

                                                    Again, I have noticed that our daughter will *eventually* try almost anything if introduced enough times and without any pressure. I feel that our job is to provide a range of healthy foods to choose from, not to obsess over how much they eat.

                                                  2. This is probably not going to work for a child as young as the OP's, but I just heard what sounds like a promising tactic and wanted to pass it along: establish a policy that the child may have anything (within reason) s/he wants for lunch, if s/he eats everything being served for dinner. I would imagine it might work better if the lunch is the day AFTER the successfully-consumed dinner but having the lunch first IS a way of teaching the child to be responsible about fulfilling commitments, a good life lesson in general. It skirts the danger of establishing sugary food as a reward (clean your plate or you won't get dessert).

                                                    1. When my 23 month old seems too busy to play and disinterested in eating, I make dinner a play. We sit at the table and "cook" together. I let her make her own sandwich by giving her bread and toppings (hummus, avocado, chopped up broccoli, peas, and other veggies.) Other items that we "make" together are toddler sushi... have a spread of toppings, seaweed and let my daughter choose the topping. Her favorite combo is avocado and cheese sushi. Another idea is quick "pizza". We take a pita bread or tortilla, i let her nibble on some shredded cheese while spreading some on the bread with various toppings (no toppings, if she doesn't want any). Put it in the toaster oven and hot and quick dinner in a zip.

                                                      She finds it fun, though it can get quite messy.