15 Nutritious Snacks for Picky Eaters
By Jenna Braddock, MSH, CSSD, RD, ACSM-CPT, a mom and consultant sports dietitian who works with Clif Bar & Company
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.
Children go through many stages of development as they grow. As parents, some of these stages are easier to manage than others. Picky eating behavior is one stage that can certainly be a challenge as it often catches you by surprise and can be highly emotional.
Picky Eating Prevalence
If you are a parent of a picky eater, take heart — you are not alone. Studies have found that picky eating tendencies appear in anywhere from 6%-50% of the population of children. The most widely accepted definition of picky eating is children who “consume an inadequate variety of foods through rejection of a substantial amount of foods that are familiar (as well as unfamiliar) to them.”1 It can be frustrating but also very normal for children to change their minds on foods all the time. Many kids can likely be labeled as picky eaters at some point in their growing years, but it’s usually a phase that passes with time.
Researchers can’t quite nail down the age where picky eating habits peak, but it does seem to begin most commonly in the toddler years. For many kids, picky eating habits can continue during grade school, and it’s not uncommon for some of these tendencies to follow them into their preteen years too.1
How to Encourage Picky Eaters
Picky eating tendencies in children can arise for many reasons. One of the most common is related to parental modeling of eating behaviors. Kids follow the behaviors of their parents. Therefore, the more variety in the parents’ diet, the more likely children are to adopt similar eating habits, now or later in their life.
While you can’t control your children’s eating preferences, there are many things parents can easily do to promote a positive eating environment.
- Use positive language to describe food and the kind of eater your child is. For instance, when my child says, “I hate that food,” I will follow up with something like, “You may not like it now, but one day you might.”
- Model the behaviors you want your child to display by eating a wide variety of foods, trying new things, and talking about taste preferences. In our home, we will talk about how some foods may not be our favorite, but we eat food for a lot of different reasons.
- Provide a reasonable variety of options that allow children some choice in their eating. A good rule of thumb is to provide two choices for either a snack or item in a meal.
- Think about the textures your child prefers and try to offer options that are similar. On occasion, offer one other option of a different texture to expose them to it, keeping in mind it can take up to 15 positive exposures before they decide they like the food. This helps children become comfortable with the idea of food variety and may lead to better acceptance later in life.2
- Change the shape of less desirable foods to see if it helps with acceptance. For example, broccoli slaw is a fun alternative to whole broccoli that can taste less bitter and be easily incorporated into meals.
- Get your kids involved in grocery shopping and food prep. Give them the freedom to pick one food item or choose a recipe to make together.
- Stay the course and stay calm. Know that many families deal with picky eating seasons, and allowing negative emotions to heighten will not help. The goal is to help your kids be open and adventurous eaters as adults, and this can take years of investment to create.
Nutritious Snacks for Picky Eaters
Think of snack time as an experimental and exploratory eating time. It’s the perfect opportunity to present new flavors or textures alongside other favorite foods. Perhaps you present one bite of a new food with your child’s go-to choice. Take the pressure off by encouraging your child to simply explore the food through their senses of touch, smell, and sight and describe it to you. Don’t pressure him or her to put it in their mouth to taste it right away. The more they explore the food, the more they may feel comfortable tasting it.
Texture and flavor are important qualities to consider when presenting new snacks. If your child enjoys crunchy textured foods, then offering other crunchy snacks to try may be more easily accepted.
Here’s a list of tasty snacks, organized by texture, to try with your picky eater.
Chewy Texture Snacks
- CLIF Kid Zbar® is an organic snack bar with a soft-baked texture and delicious familiar flavors kids love like Chocolate Chip, Iced Oatmeal Cookie, Chocolate Brownie, and Cinnamon Roll. With energizing whole grains and a good source of fiber,* this bar can fuel even the pickiest of eaters during playtime.
- Mini muffins are just a smaller version of your favorite muffin and happen to be a delicious and familiar vessel for nutritious ingredients. Mini is always more fun! Try these recipes for whole-grain-based Morning Glory Muffins (try using only one mix at a time — carrots, apple, raisins, or nuts) or Whole Wheat Blueberry Muffins and simply bake them in mini muffin tins for about two-thirds of the baking time.
- Quesadillas are a kid-friendly food that can easily be turned into a snack-size portion. Use smaller tortillas and fold them in half after stuffing with a sprinkle of shredded cheese. You can try adding an ingredient to the cheese stuffing like a tablespoon of beans, shredded zucchini, or avocado to encourage tasting new foods.
- Toast can be like a blank canvas for little snackers to create a masterpiece. Look for white whole-wheat bread that is a softer and more visually accepted whole-grain option, and present several topping choices for kids to play with. Sliced fruit, nut butters, avocado, cream cheese, dried fruit, granola, and more can be fun options to try.
- Fruit leather and dried fruit are a great way to encourage trying new fruit. Allow kids to play with them, cut out fruit leather shapes, and create food art. Trying a certain fruit leather or dried fruit may lead them to try the fresh fruit version.
- Black olives are very fun to play with; who hasn’t stuck them on all five fingers as a child? Olives are a nutritious, whole-food snack your child might be open to trying. It’s an easy side to add to meals too.
*Per 40 grams. Contains 4-5 grams of total fat per serving.
Crunchy Texture Snacks
- CLIF Kid Zbar® Protein is a crispy snack bar that comes in delicious, familiar flavors like Cookies ‘n Creme, Chocolate Chip, and Cinnamon Crunch. If you struggle to get protein into your picky eater, this bar provides 5 grams of hunger-helping protein from dairy and pea protein in a tasty, crunchy on-the-go snack.
- Popcorn is actually a nutritious snack choice. It’s a whole grain, it contains fiber, it’s fun to eat, and it comes in a variety of flavors.
- Apple or banana chips are one way to introduce these staple fruits to your kids. Both of these are delightfully crunchy and lightly sweet.
- Cucumbers seem to be a well-liked green vegetable by many children. Serve them with various dips to encourage interest.
- Building your own trail/snack mix is a fun afternoon activity that encourages kids to play with their food and serve their preferences. Add a couple of items that may not be their current favorite to encourage them to experiment.
Smooth or Creamy Texture Snacks
- Smoothie bowls are basically the same thing as smoothies in a glass, just poured into a bowl and eaten with a spoon. For reasons beyond my understanding, some kids (including my son) just like this version better! You can even make it more fun by letting them add toppings.
- Pizza sauce, offered as a dip for produce and crackers, is a fun way to eat your vegetables. Challenge your kiddos to make the most interesting snack combo and provide dippers like celery sticks, cucumber slices, tiny pieces of broccoli, bell pepper strips, string cheese, and crackers.
- String cheese comes in a variety of flavors and encourages kids to play with their food while they eat it.
- Drinkable yogurts may be more appealing to kids than eating yogurt with a spoon. The texture is more like a thin milkshake and comes in fun flavors and packaging. You can even poke the top with a straw and drink it.
Remember that this season of picky eating will not last forever. Remember the goal, which is to expose your child to a variety of foods, encourage their curiosity, and plant the seeds for interest in nutritious food choices later in adulthood.
- Taylor, C. M., & Emmett, P. M. (2019). Picky eating in children: causes and consequences. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 78(2), 161–169. https://doi.org/10.1017/S00296...
- Levene, I. R., & Williams, A. (2018). Fifteen-minute consultation: The healthy child: “My child is a fussy eater!”Archives of disease in childhood. Education and practice edition, 103(2), 71–78. https://doi.org/10.1136/archdi...