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Meal Prep for Picky Eaters: A Parents’ Guide

A picky eater child with text that says "Meal Prep for Picky Eaters: A Parent's Guide"

“Meal Prep for Picky Eaters: A Parents’ Guide” was written by Bailey Gibbs and edited/reviewed by Gabi Abreu, BSc and Jackie Silver, MHSc, RD.

Medical Disclaimer: The information in this article is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be personalized medical or nutrition advice. For a plan tailored to your needs, please consult with a Registered Dietitian or qualified healthcare professional.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links with which I may earn a small commission but at no additional cost to you. Affiliate links help bloggers like me to provide you with free content. All opinions expressed here are genuine. 

Last updated: April 22, 2024

Intro to Meal Prep for Picky Eaters

“What are we going to eat for dinner?” A question we may ask ourselves multiple times a week. It can be stressful to come home after a long day and be faced with the task of deciding what to cook, especially with picky eaters in the family.

Both younger and older children can exhibit picky eating habits, further complicating mealtime. Adding to the complexity, there is no “one size fits all” solution to picky eating; each child has their own set of preferences and dietary needs. 

Meal prep for picky eaters is one way that we can alleviate some of the stress associated with dinner decisions and lunch packing for little ones. By investing time upfront, meal prepping can save you valuable time, cut costs, and streamline mealtime chaos. Today, we’ll explore effective strategies for meal prep for picky eaters, offering ways to simplify meal planning and cater to individual tastes and preferences.

A man in a white shirt is meal prepping and putting food into containers - meal prep for picky eaters

Understanding Picky Eating in Neurodivergent Children

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may exhibit selective eating behaviors and food preferences for a number of reasons. One reason is that autistic children may have sensory sensitivities relating to food temperature, smell, texture, or taste that may impact their food choices. These sensitivities can lead to a limited acceptance of foods or a preference for specific textures.

Research indicates that texture seems to be the biggest sensory factor that impacts food choice in autistic children. For example, smooth and creamy textures such as mashed potatoes, and lumpy textures such as oatmeal are less likely to be accepted by an autistic child. 

Autistic children may also have more rigid rules and preferences with food known as ritualistic eating behaviors. These behaviors may include presenting the food in a specific way or using certain utensils. For example, an autistic child may not want certain food because the branding or packaging is different. 

A girl is sitting at the table, not wanting to eat her food

There is also an intersection between picky eating and ADHD. Children with ADHD may have lower levels of dopamine which can cause them to seek dopamine through simple carbs and sugars. Simple carbs can provide a quick dopamine hit to a child with ADHD leading to a preference for these foods. 

Similar to autistic children, children with ADHD may also experience sensory sensitivities. They may experience hypersensitivity leading to avoidance of certain stimuli such as specific foods, or hyposensitivity, which is when the response to stimuli is insufficient. As a result, children with ADHD may gravitate towards foods with textures that provide more sensory stimulation for them.

Eating is a very complex sensory task that can sometimes be overwhelming for neurodivergent kiddos. Sensory sensitivities in autism and ADHD can actually overlap. It is important to keep the sensory aspect of food in mind when we meal plan and meal prep for picky eaters.

Creating a Supportive Mealtime Environment in Five Easy Steps 

Before we get into meal prep for picky eaters, it is important that we create a supportive mealtime environment for our little one(s). This crucial step lays the foundation for fostering positive associations with food and dining experiences for your child and makes meal time less stressful for all. So, let’s get into some practical tips that may help to establish a supportive mealtime environment. 

A graphic showing how to create a supportive mealtime environment in 5 easy steps for meal prep for picky eaters
  1. It’s important to acknowledge and accommodate your child’s sensory sensitivities. As mentioned, eating can be a very over stimulating activity so it may be helpful to remove as many sensory triggers as possible from the mealtime environment. For example, be mindful of factors such as bright lighting, various textures, and loud noises. 
  1. Aim to eliminate or reduce any sense of pressure that the child may be feeling. Developing new eating habits and preferences is a gradual process that requires patience. Your little one may not become a vegetable enthusiast overnight, so it is crucial to set realistic goals and refrain from pressuring them to make changes quicker. 
  1. Try to involve the little one in the food selection process. There are numerous ways to empower your child with some control over their food choices. For example, get them involved in meal prepping, adopt a family-style serving approach, let them pick a new recipe from a cookbook to try for dinner, or try growing a small garden at home that they can be involved in. 
2 children are cooking together - the girl on the right is holding up a zucchini
  1. Dealing with a picky eater can be very frustrating at times. It is important to stay calm and practice identifying your own emotions in these situations. Acknowledge that it can be tough for you too, and while it’s okay to feel frustrated, make an effort to stay calm during mealtime.
  1. Try out the Division of Responsibility approach. This approach allows both the caregiver and the child to have responsibilities during mealtime. Caregivers are responsible for deciding what to eat, when to eat, and where to eat, while children have the autonomy to decide how much to eat and whether they will eat at all. This Division of Responsibility empowers the child to make mealtime decisions, contributing to a more positive experience overall.

Tips for Meal Prep for Picky Eaters

Meal prepping with a picky eater can pose its challenges, however, we have compiled some tips and tricks to make meal prep for picky eaters a breeze. 

As mentioned above, involving your child in the meal planning process can be immensely beneficial. When they feel included, they are more likely to be open to trying new foods. 

A graphic showing 5 tips for meal prep for picky eaters
  1. Explore New Recipes & Involve Your Child: There are many ways to get your child involved in the meal planning process. You can offer them options for different meals and allow them to pick their favorite. Flipping through a cookbook together and letting them select a new recipe can be a fun way to do this. Even something as simple as letting your little one pick the vegetable for tonight’s dinner can make a difference. 
  1. Pair New Foods with Familiar Ones: Offering a new food alongside a familiar food, can be especially useful for autistic children as adherence to routines and repetitive behaviors tend to provide comfort. One way to do this is by offering a new food alongside a “safe food, which is a food that provides joy and comfort. To learn more about safe foods check out Autism Safe Foods: Foods for Sensory Sensitivity
  1. Introduce New Foods Gradually: Make small changes over the course of days or weeks rather than making a big change all at once. This gradual approach can make the change a little less overwhelming for your child. 
  1. Get Creative Presentation: Experiment with different plates, utensils, or cut fruits and veggies into fun shapes using cookie cutters. You can also use bento boxes to make school lunches fun. Changing up the presentation can make new foods more enjoyable and less intimidating. 
Eggs, cucumbers, avocado, and bacon plated into the shape of an owl - meal prep for picky eaters
  1. Offer Dips & Condiments: Include a dip that your child loves alongside their meal. Providing a favorite dip can make the change a bit less overwhelming and offer a familiar flavor with the new food. Consider things like ketchup, hummus, gravy, or salad dressing. 

Meal Prep for Picky Eaters: School Lunches 

Deciding what to pack in your picky eater’s lunch box is not always an easy task. To make things easier for you, we’ve rounded up a list of some of our favorite lunch ideas for picky eaters below!

1. Homemade Pizza Lunchables

Homemade Pizza Lunchable – School Lunch Ideas – The Caterpillar Years

These homemade pizza lunchables are a great customizable lunch option for your picky eater. The small pizza crusts are super easy to prepare, and you can even involve your child in the prep. Let them pick out their favorite pizza toppings and you’ve got a simple lunch that your picky eater will love!

4 mini pizzas topped with basil and tomatoes - meal prep for picky eaters

2. Fruit Salsa 

Fruit Salsa With Baked Cinnamon Chips – The Girl Who Ate Everything (the-girl-who-ate-everything.com) 

This fruit salsa is a great way to incorporate fruits into your child’s lunch. Serve it with cinnamon tortilla chips for an extra flavor boost, or simply eat it plain. You can use your child’s favorite fruits in the salsa making it another customizable option! If your kiddo is not a fruit lover, make sure to include some safe / familiar foods in their school lunches that you know they will eat. 

3. Ham and Swiss Envelopes

Ham ‘n’ Swiss Envelopes Recipe: How to Make It (tasteofhome.com)

This take on a classic ham and cheese sandwich will make a great addition to your child’s lunch box. They are easy to prepare and you can customize them by swapping for your child’s favorite meat or cheese. 

4. Homemade Ground Turkey Nuggets 

Ground Turkey Nuggets in Air Fryer | Create Kids Club

These homemade ground turkey nuggets are a great alternative to store-bought options. This protein-rich recipe is not only delicious, but also easy to make and pack in your child’s lunch. You can also customize it to your child’s preference by swapping the ground turkey for ground chicken. You can make a large batch in advance and store them in the freezer!

Turkey nuggets on a brown baking sheet

5. Pita and Hummus 

Hummus & Carrots Bento Box Lunch | MOMables

Hummus is a very versatile dip that can be used in many different ways. You can make a simple hummus bento box lunch by adding some of your child’s favorite veggies and some pita chips to dip. 

Meal Prep for Picky Eaters: Family Dinners 

Choosing a dinner idea that everyone will love is not easy, especially when you have a picky eater in the family. Opting for customizable meals is an excellent solution as it allows everyone to select their preferences, without having to cook separate meals. Check out some easy, customizable family dinner ideas below. 

A graphic listing ideas for meal prep for picky eaters: family dinners

Pizza Night 

Pizza is a favorite for many, and it is also incredibly easy to customize. Prepare a bunch of different toppings such as pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, onions, and any other favorites your family enjoys. This allows everyone to customize their own personal pizza with their favorite toppings. If your little one doesn’t like sauce, they can still make their own pizza with the other toppings offered!

Tacos

Tacos are another great customizable meal option that allows everyone to customize their plate. Serve tortillas, followed by your favorite proteins such as ground beef or chicken. Offer a variety of your family’s favorite toppings to ensure that everyone can assemble their own tacos according to their preference.

Sandwiches

Sandwiches are another versatile choice for both lunch and dinner. Sset out an assortment of deli meats, cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, and other veggies and let each person create a sandwich to their liking. To make it even more fun, use cookie cutter shapes to make fun-shaped sandwiches. 

Pasta 

Serve plain pasta alongside a variety of sauces and toppings such as sauteed veggies, meatballs, parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes. Let your little one dress up their pasta to their liking. Try prepping some of these items in advance (such as meatballs, etc.) to make dinner night assembly even easier!

4 plates of pasta with different toppings - meal prep for picky eaters

Stir Fry Bowls 

Choose your base such as rice or quinoa and a protein such as chicken or beef. Prepare a variety of veggies such as broccoli, carrots, and bell peppers and serve with one or two sauce options. Everyone in the family can make their own customized stir-fry bowl. 

Omelette Bar 

Who doesn’t love breakfast for dinner every once in a while? Omelettes are super versatile and can be filled with family favorites like cheese, mushrooms, and spinach. Let each person create a personalized omelet for a different and creative dinner. 

Resources for Parents

Fortunately, parents who may struggle with the challenges of meal prep for picky eaters are not alone. Many families experience similar struggles. Below are some resources to provide support and further ideas for managing picky eating:

Color Taste Texture: Recipes for Picky Eaters, Those with Food Aversion, and Anyone Who’s Ever Cringed at Food

This cookbook delves into various aspects of food aversions including texture, color, and taste. This book is full of amazing recipes and offers insights into altering the texture or taste profile of dishes to ensure they appeal to your little one’s palate. 

The Picky Eater Cookbook: Fun Recipes to Make With Kids (That They’ll Actually Eat!)

Filled with recipes tailored to please picky eaters, this cookbook breaks down each recipe into easy-to-follow instructions, making it perfect for involving your child in the cooking process. It aims to get your child excited about cooking, develop basic culinary skills, and introduce them to new foods.

A mom and her daughter is looking at a cookbook and cooking together

Food Chaining: The Proven 6-Step Plan to Stop Picky Eating, Solve Feeding Problems, and Expand Your Child’s Diet

This book is a wonderful resource for parents of picky eaters to learn the practical technique of food chaining and how to apply it to expand your kiddo’s diet.

Stories of Extreme Picky Eating by Jennifer Friedman

Jenny Friedman is an amazing dietitian with an expertise in feeding picky eaters. She has a wonderful Instagram account with many practical tips. Her book is a rich resource with case studies from real clients and what she did to help expand their diets.

We Can!® Parent Tips: Picky Eaters

We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition) provides evidence-based parent tip sheets covering various topics, including strategies for managing picky eating. These resources offer practical advice to support parents dealing with selective eaters.

Shop Courses – Kids Eat in Color

Kids Eat in Color is an excellent online resource for parents struggling with a picky eater. This online platform offers a wealth of articles covering different aspects of picky eating, along with a rich collection of recipes. Additionally, Kids Eat in Color provides an online course designed to equip parents with effective strategies and connects them with a supportive community facing similar struggles. 

Reaching out to a Registered Dietitian is another great option to gain some support. An RD can provide personalized guidance and support to help you and your picky eater. 

A girl is holding a fork with a carrot and is covering her mouth - meal prep for picky eaters

Equipment Recommendations

5 Pcs 9″ Unbreakable Divided Dinner Plates

Leak-Proof 5-Compartment Bento-Style Kids Lunch Box

OmieBox Bento Box for Kids

30 Pcs Mini Cookie Cutters Set

40 Pcs Silicone Lunch Box Dividers, Reusable Baking Cups

50 Pcs Animal Food Picks with Storage Box

Conclusion 

Meal prep for picky eaters presents its challenges for families, and understanding the intersection between picky eating and neurodivergent children is crucial. Picky eating can stem from various factors such as sensory sensitivities, strict food preferences, or particular dietary rules. It’s important to recognize that eating is a highly sensory experience that can occasionally overwhelm your child.

Creating a supportive mealtime environment is one way you can help your picky eater develop a positive association with food. Getting your child involved in the meal prep and providing customizable dinner options are just a couple ways we can make mealtime go a little smoother. 

We hope this article gave you some new tips and tricks to implement into your routine to assist in meal prepping for your picky eater!

How do you navigate meal prep for picky eaters? Let us know in the comments below! Your insights might just help another parent facing similar challenges. 

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Bailey Gibbs is standing in front of a flower tree in a black tshirt, smiling

About Bailey

Hi there, my name is Bailey, and I’m excited to be a part of the Jackie Silver Nutrition Team creating educational blog content. I am currently working towards a Bachelor of Science (Hons.) in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Western Ontario, graduating in the fall of 2024. I previously studied at the University of Waterloo where I obtained a BSc. (Hons.) in Psychology. At my core, I want to help people by combining my knowledge of nutrition with mental health and I aim to work as a clinical dietitian. In my spare time, I enjoy long nature walks and spending time with my cats!

About Jackie

Jackie is a Registered Dietitian whose mission is to empower and support the neurodivergent and physically disabled communities through nutrition. Jackie runs a virtual private practice and blog which has simple recipes and health information tailored to these communities. She loves cooking, exercising, traveling, journaling, and spending time with family and friends.

Check out her full bio here →

A headshot of Gabi Abreu

About Gabi

Gabi Abreu, BSc, is a Nutrition & Dietetics graduate from Toronto Metropolitan University and the Blog & Social Media Manager at Jackie Silver Nutrition. She is also the founder of the Working Woman’s Health Collection. WWHC was created with the purpose of inspiring women to achieve a healthy relationship with food, while taking into consideration the busy lifestyles that we live today. Beyond her professional pursuits, she loves experimenting with new recipes, trying new workout classes, and indulging her love for adventure through travel!

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