21 Foods to Tempt Your Picky Eater

Before you say, "My kid won't try that," find out why experts think these healthy, adventurous-sounding choices should be regulars on your family's menu.

  • Johnny Valiant

    When your kid turns up his nose at tomatoes, would you expect him to go for tomato soup? Or if he isn't a fan of grilled chicken, wouldn't chicken satay be out of the question? Nah. There's a 50-50 chance your kid is a picky eater, according to a new Parents survey, and experts say these kids defy logic and may be open to new dishes you instinctively rule out. To come up with unexpected foods that your fussy child might favor, we tapped a variety of experts—a taste researcher, a waiter, a school-menu planner, a flavor creator, and a preschool teacher. Serve what's on their must-try lists, and you'll expand your picky eater's palate in a few weeks. Broccoli for all!

  • Johnny Valiant

    The Taste Researcher's List

    Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., scientist at the Monell
    Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia

    stir-fried broccoli
    Although soft broccoli can be mushy and smelly to kids, Dr. Pelchat's research shows that lightly saut?ed or stir-fried florets hit the right note. Sprinkle 2 cups cooked broccoli with 1/4 tsp. salt for that crunchy-salty combo kids adore without adding too much sodium.

    tomato soup
    Picky kids like the flavor of vitamin C-packed tomatoes, but not the squishy texture and seeds. Since tomato soup is generally lump-free and seedless, it's a great alternative. Make your own at home or pick up a reduced-sodium brand, like Amy's Light in Sodium Cream of Tomato Soup or Campbell's Healthy Request Tomato Soup. If you sense resistance, float in a few fun-shaped crackers.

    fried calamari
    Remain silent about squid, and pass off the dish as mini onion rings. "When I ordered this appetizer at a restaurant, my 5-year-old son swiped a piece off my plate and announced, 'This is the best onion ring I ever had,' " recalls Dr. Pelchat. Make a baked version at home to cut back on calories and fat.

    pomegranate seeds
    Sure, you've told your kid that fruit tastes just like candy. But pomegranate seeds actually do remind kids of sweet-and-sour candy. When pomegranate season ends next month, snag a bag of frozen seeds.

    chicken satay
    Meat is the usually the least offensive food group for most picky eaters, reports Dr. Pelchat. If you're having a hard time convincing your nugget-loving kid to try grilled chicken breast, cut it into chunks and put in on a stick. Be sure to cut off the pointy ends or cook on a Popsicle stick.

  • Johnny Valiant

    The Waiter's Menu

    Nicole Jones, server at a Japanese restaurant in New York

    edamame
    "I've seen kids in the restaurant make a game of popping the beans out of the pods," says Jones. At home, just lightly steam the edamame and sprinkle on a little salt.

    fish with teriyaki sauce
    "The kids who opt for cod or tilapia over chicken almost always do so because they like teriyaki sauce," says Jones.

    tempura green beans
    "Anything crispy makes kids happy," she says. At home, dip green beans in flour, eggs, and whole-grain panko bread crumbs. Place in a baking pan and spritz with canola oil. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 450?F.

    veggie dumplings
    These pasta-like pockets are a stealthy way to offer carrots and onions. They're easy to make with wonton wrappers.

  • Johnny Valiant

    The Menu Planner's Picks

    Jill Patterson, R.D., nutritionist for the Chartwells School Dining Services in Newtown and Weston, Connecticut

    bell peppers
    Traffic-light peppers—raw red, yellow, and green strips or circles—are the most popular veggie in Patterson's school district. "The name is a big help," she says.

    white pizza
    Some picky eaters pass on pizza because of the chunky sauce. So Patterson created a tomato-free version with olive oil, whole-grain crust (try Rustic Crust Tuscan Six-Grain), and shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese.

    hummus
    Patterson's school put this fiber-packed chickpea spread on the menu as a dip and a sandwich filling. "Kids like the creaminess and mild flavor," she says.

    yogurt parfait
    Picky eaters don't typically like mixed textures. Yet a create-your-own parfait station with yogurt, fruit, and cereal toppings is a big hit with kids, because helping to create the food often trumps other fussiness issues.

  • Johnny Valiant

    The Flavor Scientist's Choices

    Michelle Hagen, a flavorist for a large food- development company

    coconut waffles
    Shredded coconut balances the slightly bitter taste of whole grains and covers up their darker color. "I sprinkle it on whole-wheat waffles and tell my daughter, 'Let's make it snow,' " she says.

    sweet-potato fries
    Bake a batch of these spuds and serve ketchup on the side. Why? Kids will try new foods when they're served with something familiar.

    cinnamon
    This spice makes almost any food taste sweeter, even though it's sugar-free. Use it to entice kids to eat cooked carrots or applesauce.

    pineapple
    Most kids love the flavor, but the texture trips them up. Start by pureeing 1/3 cup chopped pineapple into 1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt. Next time, cut up bits of fruit to stir into yogurt. Then graduate to pineapple rings.

  • Johnny Valiant

    The Preschool Teacher's Cheat Sheet

    Diane Tunis, Head Start teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland

    cucumbers
    "The 5-year-olds in my class don't much like cooked veggies, but there are never enough cucumbers to go around," reports Tunis. Her theory: Cukes remind kids of pickles.

    frozen orange juice
    OJ with pulp (extra fiber!) is usually not a hit with picky kids. But if you freeze it in little cups or cartons and let it thaw for a few minutes, as Tunis does, it becomes an icy treat.

    celery
    You think blah diet food. Kids think crunchy fun. Fill with low-fat cream cheese, ricotta, or hummus.

    icy grapes
    Picky eaters often have a texture issue with the skin of grapes, but peeling them is a pain. Plus, you'll lose a lot of the antioxidants. The solution: Pop the grapes into the freezer, and the texture transforms. (Before freezing, cut grapes in half for kids under age 4 because they can be a choking hazard.)

  • Gemma Comas

    Picky Eating Recipes

    Easy Veggie Dumplings
    Wish your child would try carrots and veggies? Try this potsticker project.

  • Frances Janisch

    Terrific Tomato Soup
    This recipe has a mellow flavor and smooth texture, making it perfect for picky kids.

  • Bryan McCay

    Cinnamon Apple Smash
    Sprinkle spices on applesauce to make it more delicious and dessert-like.

  • Scott Little

    Slow Cooker Asian Style Tilapia
    The sweet sauce is a great way to convince picky kids to try fish.

  • Jonny Valiant

    Sweet Potato Fries
    Your picky kids will like these as much as the regular version.

    Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Parents magazine.