Frustrated with your toddler or older child refusing to try new foods and only eating the same couple meals everyday? Getting into the kitchen together can help! Cooking with picky eaters isn’t a quick, magical solution. However, as a mom of a picky eater and a kids cooking instructor, I’ve seen how hands-on exposure will build positive connections with food. Over time, that trust can lead to more adventurous eating and enjoyment of more foods. Moreover, even if your child refuses to try the food, there are still many benefits gained from cooking together!
Additional support and when to get professional help for picky eating:
I’m not a dietitian and the information you see in this article is not medical advice. If you have any concerns about your child not gaining weight or being physically ill when eating, please reach out to your pediatrician and talk about seeing a pediatric dietitian.
There are many online resources and picky eating courses if want guidance on really ending mealtime battles and helping your child learn to eat more foods. My friend Kacie of Mama Knows Nutrition has great picky eater course as well any many articles that can help: START HERE.
Social media can be tricky and sometimes make us feel bad about our parenting. However, it’s a great place to connect with and learn from experts you might not have in your area. I’ve learned so much about feeding my kids from the many pediatric dietitians on Instagram. Some of my favorite pediatric dietitians to follow are: Kids Eat In Color, Mama Knows Nutrition, Feeding Littles, Feeding Picky Eaters, Motherhood and Meals, Veggies and Virtue, and The Lean Greenbean. (I could list more, but these are a good starting point.)
Why is cooking with picky eaters beneficial?
Cooking is an important life skill that leads to healthier eating habits and meaningful connections. Starting early is beneficial whether or not you consider your child a “picky” eater. However, getting “picky” kids into the kitchen can be particularly helpful. Why?
- Exposure: The number one obstacle in getting kids to try more foods is fear or unfamiliarity. If a child has never had touched a carrot, it’s foreign and hard to trust. Getting that carrot from the fridge, washing it, helping to peel it, and stirring it in a pan, these are all examples of exposure opportunities that happen in the kitchen. Each little exposure makes the food more familiar and therefore less scary, and then often this process of exposure leads to tasting.
- Pressure free: When washing a carrot there’s no expectation to eat it. Kids are involved in the process and don’t need to focus on the “scary part” of eating something new. Picky eaters need as many of these pressure free opportunities to build positive connections with food as possible. These connections help them build trust and eat these food in the future.
- Control: Often times toddler pickiness comes from wanting control over what goes in their bodies. Kids want to experiment with gaining some control because so many decisions are made for them each day. Therefore, letting kids make some choices when it comes to their food can make a big difference in whether they eat it or not. Cooking together allows for more opportunities to have control. Kids are seeing what’s going into the dish, how it’s made, and taking part in aspects of the preparation (dumping, stirring). Being involved makes them feel more invested in the end result.
- Fun! : Kids, toddlers especially, love to mimic and be involved with the daily jobs their beloved grown-ups are doing. They get excited to cook with you because it seems so special to do that adult responsibility. Use your toddler’s curiously to explore new foods in the kitchen while you cook: smell a spice you are adding to a dish, explain what it is, where it comes from, or what it tastes like, and maybe all that information will lead to your child tasting the dish, if not now then in the future.
Tips for cooking with picky eaters:
- Start small: You don’t have to make a whole recipe together! Just have your child help with one small task while you are already preparing something in the kitchen. Ask for help” “Hey, Sam, can you help me stir the ingredients in this bowl? My hand is so tired.” While he is stirring, talk about what you are making and what’s in the bowl. Ask what he smells or if anything looks familiar. Then send him on his way to play again. These tiny interactions with food add up and will make a difference over time.
- Play: If your child is really hesitant about cooking with you or shows no interest, it may be helpful to let him play in the kitchen first. Take some of his favorite toys in the kitchen and set up a play area on the floor or at a table. While he’s playing and you’re cooking, there are opportunities for food exposure. He is getting the sounds and smells of the cooking, you can talk to him about what you’re doing while he’s playing. Eventually, you can see if he’d want to help with a tiny little part. Also, you can try and involve the play in the cooking a little bit. For example, if he’s playing with cars, ask if his car wants to see what you are chopping on the cutting board. He can bring his car over to take a look. Have some carrot peels? Maybe his car will want to drive through them then help put them in a bowl?
- Read: Talking about food and cooking outside the kitchen can be particularly helpful. Many times reading about a certain meal or recipe make kids excited about those things and want to try them. Here is the Amazon list of my favorite children’s books about food and check out this blog post, Cooking and Culture: Children’s Books about Diverse Foods and Cooking.
- Use novel utensils: Have a child that doesn’t want to touch certain foods? Use small tongs to transfer food from a cutting board to a bowl. Let your child use a food pick to toothpick to interact with foods they don’t want to touch with their hands. I also like to have kids mash bananas (for baking) or avocado (for toast or guacamole) inside a resealable plastic bag. This is great sensory exposure without making kids get their hands dirty if they don’t want to. Plus, it’s super fun!
- Find opportunities to customize: Even if your child doesn’t help cook a meal or snack, having a chance to make a plate or garnish. Garnish is a “chefy” word that I love to teach to kids. It means to decorate or embellish the top of a dish or plate of food before serving/eating. Garnish sounds fancy. However, it can be as simple as adding sprinkles on top of a smoothie or ripping some basil over soup. Encouraging children to customize their own snacks or meals is an easy way for them to feel a sense of ownership and control over what they eat. This independence is key in creating positive and healthy relationships with food. Keep choices simple: “Would you like to add blueberries or strawberries on top of your oatmeal?” “Can you sprinkle this cheese onto our pasta for dinner? It will make it extra yummy!”Check out my free Ebook, Easy Snacktivities, for 8 healthy snack recipes that are designed specifically for kids to customize.
- Focus on produce: Most of us want to help our kids eat more fruit and vegetables, right? So make sure you give your child lots of opportunities to work with them. Washing a vegetable, getting an apple out of the fridge, peeling a carrot, and breaking cauliflower florets up with their hand –all examples of small ways kids can get exposure to produce. If you child loves to bake, find a recipe that includes veggies. Making a sweet treat with zucchini added isn’t only about the added nutritious. It’s also a great way to “make friends” with the zucchini and maybe eat it in different way in the future. I have lots of great baked goods with vegetables on my site including,
But my child won’t eat what we cook!
I know you’ve probably heard someone say “if your kid helps cook the meal, they will eat it.” But that’s not necessarily true! You may have experienced this before and know how frustrating it is! You put all this time and effort into cooking together, making the mess, and then you go to give your little one a bite of what you’ve made and….no! His lips are sealed and face is all scrunched up…I know because it’s happened to me with my own kids many times before. So, we’ve talked about cooking being beneficial even if there’s no eating involved and how it can lead to you child eating food eventually. Now, how can we make this a little less stressful for us?
- Set expectations low but stay positive: You child may only want to cook for a minute and may not want to eat what you’ve made. Expecting that ahead of time will cut back on frustration and disappointment on your part. However, don’t let your kiddo know that you aren’t expecting certain things. It’s important to still be enthusiastic and try to have fun being in the kitchen together. You want to encourage your child to do new things in small little steps, and you just never know what will happen unless you both keep trying.
- Picking the recipe: Make sure you are cooking something you will eat or be able to give to someone else to enjoy. That way, if you child isn’t eating the dish you’ve made, it won’t go to waste and that will cut back on the frustration factor. It can help get kids excited about cooking by involving them in choosing the recipe. If you want to do that, just pick out two recipes that you’ve approved and let them decide between the two.
- Time to taste: Pressure free exposure is the way to build trust between your child and food, so we have to extend that concept to the tasting part too. Be as casual as possible about wanting your child to try the food. Sometimes our kids can see how badly we want them to taste something and that pushes them in the opposite direction. Add the food to a plate with a meal you already know they enjoy. If your child does not want the new food on his plate, put it in a separate bowl to the side. Use a fun dish or utensil to serve the new food. Have you child serve the dish you made together to you or a family member. Make sure to eat the food in front of your child and give him lots of positive feedback even if he isn’t willing to try the food himself.
Lastly, remember to not put too much pressure on yourself or your child to change eating habits or adopt new activities too quickly. Try to focus on having fun and keep trying!
Want to read more about cooking with toddlers and kids?? Here are my top posts on cooking with kids:
Solving Common Problems: Helping kids want to cook, getting messy, and only wanting to make sweets.
Get started with making simple, interactive snacks with your child with this FREE ebook.
CLICK HERE to download, Easy Snacktivities