5 Simple Ways to Encourage Healthy Eating in Picky Eaters

Have picky eaters? So did we. Children with autism and special needs are notorious for that, but I've got 5 simple ideas to help you get on track!

Have you got picky eaters?

I think it’s pretty universally well known that special needs children can be considered by most to be picky eaters.  I know, it’s not so much that they’re just “picky eaters,” but more likely sensory issues and routines adding to the “pickiness.”

Sometimes it’s beyond what we can fix, but I think there’s always a little improvement we can make with our “picky eaters.”  Eating healthy can be a struggle for all of us, honestly.  As adults, we’re tempted daily by the oodles and gobs of food that present itself to us.

In the blink of an eye, we can literally have almost any food item that we want, delivered right to our front door.  Papa John’s recently added GF pizza to their line up, as has Dominoes, so my budget is the only thing keeping me strong there!

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We don’t have anyone looking over our shoulders, telling us what’s good, bad, or in-between. We make our own decisions on what we eat when we eat and how much we plan on eating. It’s the love/hate of being an adult, right?

Now, think about your children in the same way

Your children are products of their environment, often, at least to a degree, in spite of any other factors which come into play. What bad habits you have, they may start to have as well.

Children learn by example, plain and simple. Teaching children from a young age the importance of eating healthy is a lesson that they will continue to build on and learn throughout their entire life!  You can do this!

My son started out as a “picky eater.”  With the advice of a BCBA (more on this soon) and a ton of effort on our part and my son’s, we’ve ended up raising some pretty adventurous eaters, especially considering where we started.

Our last ABA tech said once how lucky I was to have such an amazing eater…  I told her there was most certainly no luck involved in that.  She was shocked to hear he was once a picky eater!

If you’re serious about wanting to set them up for success in knowing how to eat and live healthy, here are a few suggestions to help you accomplish starting that journey with your child.

Have picky eaters? So did we. Children with autism and special needs are notorious for that, but I've got 5 simple ideas to help you get on track!

1. Shop smart when you have picky eaters

If you’re telling your child to eat healthily, but then going to the store and are stocking up on chips, sweets, and neglecting fruits and veggies, the message to them won’t stick. Our children rely on us to grocery shop for the home…  whether they like it or not!

What an awesome opportunity to not only teach your child about the benefits of eating healthily.  Stock your home with fresh fruits and veggies for them to snack on any time that they choose!

If you talk the talk, walk the walk.  I struggle with this some days too, but I try to make it the general law of the land aside from occasional treats.  This will help you stay on budget, and meal planning will help you stick to it too!


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2. Cook smart

Most times, lunch, dinner, and breakfast are made by parents. Take advantage of this opportunity to showcase to your children how eating healthily can also be delicious. No one truly enjoys just eating steamed veggies day in and day out…so shake it up a bit!

Try making some spaghetti squash noodles or cauliflower rice.  If the cauli rice freaks you out, add some flavor!   Wait until they’re eating it to let them know that they’re actually eating veggies.  Or try hiding vegetables, worst case scenario- that’s where we started out.

It’s a great example to show them that there are so many fun ways to cook and stay on track! A fun dessert idea that is healthy as well? Avocado or black bean brownies. Seriously, they won’t know the difference and they are so yummy and healthy! Have fun looking for fun recipes to create for them.

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3. Include them

Make them a part of the meal planning and preparing. Have your little ones do the research to find out different ways to cook brussels sprouts (I love them roasted with balsamic!) and them have them help in creating that dish. If they help in making it, they are more apt to try it!

If they’re reluctant to even cook with you, try inspiring them with some Master Chef Jr.  Our kids can’t wait to get in the kitchen after watching an episode of that.  Skill Trek is another great resource full of kitchen related life-skills and a whole lot more.

4. Do everything in moderation

Teaching your child about healthy eating is important, but don’t let it ruin the balance or fun of life, of course. Be mindful of how often you are talking about it with your little one. If they feel that it is constantly being preached to them, then they may not react well to that either.  Or they may become obsessive.  So not we want either!

It’s a balancing act for sure!

While nourishing our bodies with the vitamins and nutrients that we need is important, it is also important to let your child know that its okay to have sweets here and there, too. The feeling of not being able to have anything outside of the healthy realm can be way too restrictive to some.  Unhealthy even in my opinion.

With moderation, sweets can be fine!

Have picky eaters? So did we. Children with autism and special needs are notorious for that, but I've got 5 simple ideas to help you get on track!
Even most picky eaters have at least one fruit they enjoy, Let them sill up on it- the fruit in sugar, paired with its fiber isn’t like table sugar!

5. If they aren’t hungry for their meal…

Then they aren’t hungry for anything – period.

I know that seems harsh for some.  It did for me when our BCBA promised our son wouldn’t starve.  I wanted to cry a little…  but then I’d think of my son being crazy unhealthy as an adult and knew that was no better.

So this is how we do it.  What we make is what we make.  They receive their plates like the rest of us.

I never, ever, force a kid to eat anything.  I have strong feelings against that. Also, I don’t prepare things I know they truly, simply can’t stomach.  With some such items, we have a 1-bite try it rule.

But if they “aren’t hungry” or don’t want to eat, the plate gets put up or in the fridge.  They are reminded that (yay logic!) if they aren’t hungry, it means they aren’t hungry, and that’s ok, but there’s no new food until the next meal time.

If they don’t eat lunch but want chicken nuggets (or whatever your struggle is) before dinner, then they have to eat the other food first.  Usually, if they’re truly full, they won’t even try.  If your picky eaters are still hungry, they’ll usually get too full anyway after eating for a bit.  Just be careful here- you don’t want to be encouraging binge eating either.

To avoid this, my rule is they can have any fruits or vegetables they want in between meals if they’ve finished the last meal and are still hungry.  Offering nuggets (etc…) between meals because they’ve finished an entire plate of food may not be the best move.  If you’re new to this method, the first few days are hard…. hard.  But once you get through it and stick to it, it gets so much better!

Have picky eaters? So did we. Children with autism and special needs are notorious for that, but I've got 5 simple ideas to help you get on track!

Bonus tip-

Get them gardening with you.  They’ll be so proud of their fruits and veggies that curiosity will likely have them wanting to at least try the fruits of their labors!


Your turn: Have you tried any of these tips with your picky eater or have any to add? Sound off in the comments!

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Author: Jill C

Jill is a Christian, homeschooler, "boy mom", and special needs parent. Jill has ADHD and has learned firsthand how adapting environments can be key to finding success! Her current mission is to empower parents whose desire is to homeschool their special needs children and helping them squash their self-doubt!

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