Curing Picky Eater Syndrome: 10 ways to get kids to eat real, healthy food

picky eaters

It’s amazing what kids will eat when they' re on the farm or in a garden — digging carrots from the earth, ripping beans from the plant (and taking the leaves with them), picking sugar snap peas, and pulling tomatoes from the vine. Kids love to grow their own food, too, like potted herbs in the kitchen, radish seed sprouts, and patio pepper plants. Last summer I overheard a youngster say, “I love cherry tomatoes, especially the little yellow ones!”


Too good to be true? It’s totally not. Getting kids to eat healthy real food is not that difficult. There are many ways to break the "picky eater syndrome," some will work for your kiddo better than others but I’ve found there are a few key steps that really help:  


1. Get kids more involved in farmers market shopping: Ask for their opinions about what to eat, and what to try, and they'll end up exploring the many colors and textures of in-season produce. Even having your child pay for purchases (you hand them the money, and they hand it to the farmers) can be a big motivator toward eating the food they were in control of buying.


2. Do science experiments in the kitchen with fruits and vegetables: For example, "dye" a glass of water red by boiling a cubed red beet in water and allowing the boiled water to cool (make sure to eat the beet!). Stick a celery stalk in the glass and watch as the stalk slowly "drinks" the red water, and the leaves turn red. 


3. Involve kids in meal planning: When children can take ownership of breakfast, lunch, or dinner, they tend to really think about what they'll be eating. Their first reaction might be chocolate cake for breakfast or pizza every night, but show them how you do your own meal planning, and what you take into account (nutrition, budgets, what's on hand) so they understand how meal plans work. 


4. Let kids play with their food: Have fun cutting different vegetables into shapes, stamp them in washable paint, and make veggie-stamp masterpieces! Slice a bell pepper across the middle to make a flower shape, cut a potato in half and carve a star on one half and a heart on the other, cut a broccoli floret in half to make a tree shape.


5. As you learn, they can learn: We can all use more skills in the kitchen. Sometimes, parents and children benefit from learning techniques at the same time. Have you always wanted to make your own granola, use cream from grass-fed cows to make butter, or learn some bread-making strategies? Don't be afraid to let your kid know that you're a student too, and you can explore these fresh skills together.


6. Taste-test something crazy: Visit your local farmers market and purchase a variety of different colored tomatoes. At home you can slice them up, sprinkle with a little sea salt, and try them all. Chilly on a cold, early spring day? Taste-test all of the different hot sauces you have in your fridge. Make sure to have a glass of cold milk on hand in case they’re really spicy. You will be surprised at how fun and crazy your kids will think trying hot sauce is!


7. Do some gardening: Purchase a community garden plot or create your own family garden in the backyard. Lacking space? No worries! There are plenty of options when it comes to container gardens (check out my Budding Farmers site for some ideas), or you can even try growing sprouts and microgreens indoors. They're very satisfying to grow, and provide quick, healthy greens. 


8. "Sneak" healthy fruits and vegetables into food, but don't be a sneak about it: Slipping vegetables into more foods is a common tip for parents — like making zucchini muffins, or pizza with cauliflower crust — but I believe you should let your kids know that the vegetables are in there. That way, they can learn vegetables are tasty, not something to hide.


9. Share books and magazines about food, cooking, and agriculture: Ask your child about recipes you'd like to try, show them photos in books and magazines, and look at photos of farms and farmers markets. Often, children are picky about certain foods because those items just show up on their plates, without any kind of context. But if they helped pick out the recipe, or saw the vegetable in a cookbook, they'll have a level of familiarity that could get them to try it.


10. Explore fun activities that use food as arts & crafts materials:  For example, kids will love to create their own egg buddies and grow tasty and nutritious herbs. Once the herbs have grown a couple of inches you can snip them off and use them as “micro-herbs” to top pizzas, salads, sandwiches, crackers with cheese, and more. “Micro herbs” pack a nutritional punch, so they're good for you in addition to being a fun project.


Make Your Own Herb Family

Materials needed:

* 3 eggs

* 3 egg cups cut out of an egg carton

* Glue

* Markers

* Herb seeds such as basil, parsley, and mint

* Cotton balls


1. Crack the top of each egg off and remove yolks and whites

2. Color your egg’s outfits on the egg cups 

3. Put the eggs in your egg cups cracked side up 

4. Draw a face on each egg

5. Carefully put the cotton ball inside of each egg 

6. Sprinkle different herb seeds on top of each cotton ball 

7. Place in a sunny spot and water the seeds, continue to water every couple of days 

(You can check out a video of this project on the Budding Farmers website)


We may be months away from the first sun-ripened juicy tomato right off the vine, but now is the time to lay the foundation and build up the excitement in your kids about the healthy real food journey to come! Let's learn, cook, and grow together.


All photos provided by Budding Farmers


Monica Irwin created the Budding Farmers Program, which teaches young children about healthy real food produced by their local farmers. She developed the program after working within the local food system as a CSA farmer, farmer’s market manager, community educator, and good food activist. She received her B.S. Degree from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and currently resides in Northfield with her husband Dan, daughter Harriet, and a little dog and big cat. Follow Budding Farmers on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook