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How to Please Fussy Eaters

Young children need a variety of foods to get the energy they need to grow up healthy. Read on for information from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on creative ways to serve up breakfast and lunch and tips for picky eaters.

If you have specific questions about your child's nutrition, talk with your child's doctor or a registered dietitian.

Off to a good start...breakfast

Breakfast gives children energy to carry through an active morning. Children who skip breakfast may not concentrate well at school or may lack energy to play. They also tend to eat unhealthy foods as snacks.

Cereal with low-fat milk is a favorite, but sweetened cereal can have a lot of added sugar. Check the Nutrition Facts label before buying. Although the percent daily values on food labels are based on calorie levels for adults, they can still be used to select more nutrient-rich cereals (and other foods). Choose cereals with less than 10 grams of sugar and at least 2 grams of fiber per serving. If your child prefers a sweet taste, jazz up unsweetened cereal with sliced peaches or bananas, strawberries, or blueberries.

For children who don't like traditional breakfast foods like cereal or toast, try one of the following recipes:

  • Breakfast shake: Combine milk, fruit, and ice in a blender. (See "Milk—whole or reduced fat?")

  • Frozen banana: Dip a banana in yogurt, then roll it in crushed cereal. Freeze.

  • Leftovers: Serve whole wheat spaghetti or chicken hot or cold.

  • Peanut butter snack: Spread peanut butter on whole wheat crackers, a tortilla, apple slices, or jicama slices. (See "Safety check.")

Milk—whole or reduced fat?

The following are guidelines about what type of milk to give your child.​

Age Type of Milk
Younger than 12 months Breast milk is best; iron-fortified formula should be used if breast milk is not available.

12 to 24 months

Wholemilk. Your child's doctor may recommend reduced-fat (2%) or low-fat (1%) milk if your child is obese or overweight, or if there is a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease. Check with your child's doctor or a registered dietitian before switching from whole to reduced-fat milk. Note: Breastfeeding can continue after 12 months of age as long as is desired by mom and baby.
Older than 24 months Low-fat (1%) or nonfat (skim) milk

Lunches worth munchin'

Children who help make their own lunches are more likely to eat them.

Following are ideas to make lunches fun!

  • Use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into fun, interesting shapes.

  • Decorate lunch bags with colorful stickers.

  • Put a new twist on a sandwich favorite. Top peanut butter with raisins, bananas, or apple slices.

  • For color and crunch, use a variety of veggies as sandwich toppers: cucumber slices, grated carrots, or zucchini.

Picky eaters

Even the most nutritious meal won't do any good if a child won't eat it. Some children are picky eaters. Others eat only certain foods—or refuse food—as a way to assert themselves.

Try these ideas to make your family meals pleasant:

  • If your child refuses one food from a food group, try another from the same food group.

    • Try deep-yellow or orange vegetables instead of green vegetables.

    • Try chicken, turkey, fish, or pork instead of lean beef.

    • Try low-fat flavored milk, cheese, or yogurt instead of low-fat milk.

  • Boost the nutritional value of prepared dishes with extra ingredients. Add nonfat dry milk to cream soups, milk shakes, and puddings. Mix grated zucchini and carrots into quick breads, muffins, meat loaf, lasagna, and soups.

  • Serve a food your child enjoys along with a food that he or she has refused to eat in the past.

  • Try serving a food again if it was refused before. It may take many tries before a child likes it.

  • Invite children to help with food preparation. It can make eating food more fun.

  • Add eye appeal. Cut foods into interesting shapes. Create a smiling face on top of a casserole with cheese, vegetables, or fruit strips.

  • Set a good example by eating well yourself. Ideally, eat at least one meal together as a family every day or try for 3 to 4 times per week.

Note: The amount of food and number of servings children need daily from each food group depends on their age and how active they are. Some parents worry because young children seem to eat small amounts of food, especially when compared with adult portions. Don't worry about how little a child eats. A child who is growing well is getting enough to eat. If you are concerned, talk with your child's doctor.

Safety check

Food safety

Remember 2 important rules to prevent food-borne illness:

  • Everyone should wash their hands well before and after meals.

  • Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. When there's no refrigerator to store a bag lunch, following are ways to keep food safe:

    • Tuck an ice or freezer pack into the lunch bag. Or use an insulated container to keep hot foods hot.

    • Add a box of frozen 100% fruit juice (unsweetened). Note: The AAP recommends that juice be limited to 4 to 6 ounces per day for children 1 to 6 years of age, and 8 to 12 ounces per day for children 7 to 18 years of age.

    • Freeze the sandwich bread and filling— or other freezable foods—the night before.

Last Updated
What's to Eat? Healthy Foods for Hungry Children (Copyright © 2012 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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