Summer Fun Positive Food Activities: Make Your Own Muesli

Summer Fun Positive Food Activities: Make Your Own Muesli

By Nutrition Student, Deanna Ronne and Laura Cipullo Whole Nutrition Team

Now that the summer months are here, as a mom you’re probably lining up activities to keep your kids busy. Here’s a fun, creative, way to get your kids involved in making a nutritious breakfast or snack balanced with all three macronutrients – carbs, proteins, and fats. A trip to your grocery store, choosing their favorite ingredients, and mixing it may become a weekly pastime to cherish the entire year! Making your own muesli is affordable, easy, packable for day trip snacks, and flexible with the ingredients so perfect for picky kids and promoting the health.

Main Stream Breakfast Cereals

Many traditional breakfast cereals marketed at your children are made with refined grains, hidden sugars (like rice syrup, corn syrup, maltose and tapioca starch), and other “food additives.” Take a look at the “ready-to-eat”1 boxed cereal you have at home. Look at the Ingredients list, not the Nutrition Facts). Ingredients are listed in descending order, so if you see sugar listed as the first, second or third ingredient, just realize your cereal contains more sugar than any ingredients listed after it. This is cool with us, just use this as information. Know that this cereal is likely a low nutrient dense food (aka “Sometimes Food”) and is best eaten as a side to a sandwich at lunch or with a more filling food.

Also look to see what and how many ingredients there are. Many of the ingredients you don’t recognize, known as “food additives”, are meant to enhance the product’s texture, taste, appearance, nutritional quality or increase its shelf life.2 While fortifying cereal with vitamins and minerals improve the nutritional quality, other food additives like flavor enhancers (ex. artificial sweeteners) and preservatives (ex. sodium) generally do not. Most children’s cereals with refined grains are enriched with the vitamins and minerals lost during the refinement process.

The American Dietetic Association released a study in 2008 on the nutritional quality of children’s breakfast cereal showing that they are significantly higher energy, sodium, carbohydrate, and sugar, and significantly lower in fiber and protein than “non children’s cereal”.1

So consider buying cereal products that are for you, rather than kids! They are just as yummy but more nutrient dense. Most importantly, kids are incredibly active during the summer months, and need an energizing breakfast, that will fuel their days in the sun and keep their body clocks ticking.

Did you know?

Stronger cognitive benefits in breakfasts of oatmeal than for “ready-to-eat” breakfast cereals1.

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The “Recipe”

There really isn’t a recipe, which makes this idea so fun! You and your kids get to pick the ingredients. Go to your grocery store (preferably one with a “­­­­bulk department”, like at Whole Foods) and let your kids fill a bag with a cereal base of oats, granola, etc. Then, let your kids to find the rest of the ingredients! The set-up of most bulk food sections much resembles a candy store, so your kids will love it.

Here are some ideas:

  •  Nuts/Seeds: Walnuts, pecans, almonds, pumpkin seeds
  • Grains: Millet, Oats, Cooked Wheat-berries
  • Dried fruit: raisins, cherries, dates, cranberries, shredded coconut (no added oils or sugar)
  • Optional: dark chocolate
  • Cinnamon: add cinnamon 1 tsp to 1 cup muesli.

Let your kids be creative with this recipe, even let each kid make their own! As long as the base of oats/granola makes up most of the cereal, the added ingredients should be entirely up to them (with your direction, of course). It is important that kids have a healthy relationship with food. Show them how excited you are to pick out nutritious ingredients for your own muesli, and they will get excited with you! Happy Eating.

Breakfast and Picky Eaters

Breakfast remains to be one of the most important meals of the day. If you are dealing with a picky eater who only wants to eat, say, Frosted Flakes for breakfast, it is okay. Most important is they eat something before they walk out the door. This is the same for Mom and Dad. While it is important to try new things with your kids, force-feeding doesn’t work. Instead practice exposure therapy, let them make their muesli with the main stream cereal if that helps them expand their nutrition repertoire.

  1. Schwartz, M. B., Vartanian, L. R., Wharton, C. M., & Brownell, K. D. (2008). Examining the nutritional quality of breakfast cereals marketed to children. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 108(4), 702-705.
  2. “Global Food Additives Industry.” PR NewswireMar 19 2013. Web. 31 May 2015 .
  3. Bulk Foods Aisle in Grocery Store. N.d. “Photo Courtesy”, n.p.
  4. “Harvard University; Dietary Intake of Whole and Refined Grain Breakfast Cereals is Linked to Lower BMI in Men.” Lab Law Weekly (2006): 88. Web. 1 June 2015.


Whole Wheat Banana Muffins

There’s nothing much better for breakfast than a hot fluffy muffin right out of the oven. The only thing that can make it better, is baking them with your children! With Mother’s Day coming this Sunday, we wanted to help you get the day off to a fun start with family time in the kitchen. For a twist, top each muffin with a dried banana chip for that extra special touch.  We’re sure that everyone will love these Whole Wheat Banana Muffins.


Photo Courtesy of Cooking Light
Photo Courtesy of Cooking Light



  • 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 large ripe bananas, mashed
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 12 dried banana chips, optional



  1. Preheat oven to 375°F; mist a standard 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray or line with paper or foil liners. In a large bowl, combine both types of flour with baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
  2. In a separate bowl, mix bananas with eggs, sugar, milk, butter and vanilla. Whisk until smooth. Fold banana mixture into flour mixture just until combined and batter forms; do not overmix.
  3. Spoon batter into muffin cups; place a banana chip on top of each one, if desired. Bake until a toothpick inserted into center of a muffin comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes. Let cool in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then turn out onto rack to cool completely.


*The original post for this recipe can be found here.





A Conversation with Kia Robertson from "Today I Ate a Rainbow"

A Conversation with Kia Robertson from “Today I Ate a Rainbow”

Early last week, I had the pleasure of having a conversation with founder and president of Today I Ate a Rainbow, Kia Robertson. Today I Ate a Rainbow is an interactive program, developed by Robertson, working to increase daily consumption of fruits and vegetables by encouraging children—and parents—to attempt to consume a full rainbow daily.


Here is some of our conversation:


LC: First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your philosophy at Today I Ate a Rainbow?


KR: Our main goal is to help parents set healthy eating habits for kids. Healthy eating is this big idea and everybody has their own opinion, so we decided to focus in on just fruits and veggies—that is one thing we know that everybody needs. And, let’s be honest, most of us are not meeting the daily requirements—especially our kiddos. We really want to make it fun and easy. So the concept of a rainbow, thinking of the colors, is so simple. Even for little two year olds to grasp. We made it really basic.


I started out doing this for my own daughter when she was four years old. We started doing chore charts, and she loved it—and I love charts—and so we just whipped one together to see how many colors we were eating. I had just come across a little text somewhere saying that kids should be eating a variety of colors, and I had never thought about it like that before. We quickly discovered that she was eating a lot of green and orange, but that was about it. It was a really great eye-opening thing for our whole family to start tracking what colors we were eating; and Hannah, being four, was all of sudden saying, “Mommy, I need some bananas. I need to get my yellow!” or “Blueberries so I can get my purple!” It was so cool to see a little kid taking interest and ownership. So that’s how it all started and we really feel like its something simple, because parents are so busy, we want to put something out there that is quick and easy for parents and for the kids.


LC: A lot of what you talk about it taking “ownership” and “responsibility” over your body as a child. Can you say more about that?


KR: Yes! Usually, [kids] are just going to eat what is put in front of them. They don’t usually have that active role in, say, going out and picking the food at the store or farmers market or deciding together “what should we eat.” Whereas, when we are thinking about the rainbow and the rainbow chart, it really gets everybody thinking about it. I’ve heard from so many parents where they are just like, “My kid is asking for things. This is so weird!” It’s such a strange thing, especially with little ones when they say, “Oh, I need an apple!”


The earlier we can get kids understanding [the importance] of eating these fruits and vegetables and that it feels so good and makes them feel strong and helps them to be smarter—whatever it is—the better; because it is harder to create those habits, or try and recreate habit, as an adult. So setting them when they are really young, I think is fabulous. And connecting the dots for them that the food they eat is going to impact the way they feel and how they go about their day.


LC: As a parent, have you seen any differences in your diet since starting Today I Ate a Rainbow with your daughter?


KR: Oh, yes! Personally, just to give you a little backstory, I was a super picky eater my whole life. As a kid, I would pick out carrots in the carrot cake—I was dedicated to not eating vegetables at all. So, when Hannah came along, I really didn’t want her to go through the picky eater struggles because it’s actually very hard and socially limiting because you don’t want to go to new restaurants, and it’s stressful to go to other people’s houses because you don’t know what they are going to serve.


Being a recovering picky eater, I honestly have a hard time getting all my colors if I don’t do a smoothie. Because it is still not something that is natural for me to do—to just grab an apple or a piece of celery. Whereas, for my daughter, who has grown up with this, it is such a normal thing, and it’s so easy for her that in just two meals a day her chart is filled! It’s such a simple thing for her!


It has really improved my diet a lot because when you have the chart up and you have one magnet and your kid has five already… it’s a little embarrassing! Let’s be real. The competitive side of me is like, “Oh! I need to get some more colors in!” And the really cool thing is, with all these colds going around, we rarely get sick anymore; eating all these fruits and vegetables have just boosted our immune system so much. There have been benefits for the whole family.


LC: Would you say, and I think I know the answer to this one, that your daughter is a more fearless eater than you are?


KR: Oh, absolutely, yes. Her attitude, just a willingness to try, is so good and just so much better than mine. She totally is. One time, we were with our good friends and they offered Hannah some octopus. [She ate it!] And there is no way I would, even now. Not happening.


LC: There are a lot of resources on your site for parents. Do you have any tips or advice for emphasizing positive change to your child when you’re exhausted, and tired, and at the end of a long day and just at your wits’ end?


KR: Just to go with really small steps. Ridiculously small steps that seem silly. It’s a slow process; don’t expect them to go from picky to adventurous right away. It takes a lot of time and patience. If they are willing to have that grain of rice or that half of a pea, celebrate that because one day, they are going to eat a lot more.


There are going to be some foods that people just don’t like – and that has to be alright. But what we have learned is that a lot of dislike comes down to texture. It’s easy to give up because it’s hard and its frustrating to make something for your kid and they don’t like it—especially if they reject it over and over again, you kind of start to take it personally. Studies show that it takes at least ten times to try something before they accumulate a taste for a new food.


LC: You spoke about texture and how that is a trigger for a lot of people. What are some other food sensitivities that you see with kids?


KR: Visually, they will just refuse to eat something if it doesn’t look good. Or if it’s green, in a lot of cases. I don’t know what it is about that color, but a lot of kids are just not into it.


If you look at it sensory wise; the way things look make a difference, the way things smell, that’s a really big thing. If you look at it from the perspective of sensors, that can be helpful when trying to feed a picky eater. You can see, based on the sense, what may be triggering it for them.


LC: You also say on your site not to overdo it, in terms of modifying a food. What would be a good example of this?


KR: I always suggest breaking it down. If eating a rainbow in a day is too much or too overwhelming, make it a rainbow a week. A color a day!


We don’t want to vilify food, that “good” and “bad” stuff – kids can really play into that. It’s more about asking how it makes you feel and not so much about what the food is. I think parents have so much on their plate already that adding that extra stress of “my kid isn’t eating right” is so hard, and it’s such an emotional thing – feeding our kids.


LC: It sounds like patience is a huge factor here.


KR: Yes, absolutely. Patience is huge. And persevering. You know, don’t give up. Don’t give up on your kids.





For more information, or to contact Kia and the Today I Ate a Rainbow team, check out their website at


Also, stay tuned for the exciting new Eat a Rainbow project coming out of the Today I Ate a Rainbow offices. It is an integrative program connecting teachers and parents, the two biggest role models our kids have, to get one another on the same page while encouraging healthy eating habits!

Helping Your Large Child Thrive in a Fat-Phobic World

Helping Your Large Child Thrive in a Fat-Phobic World

by Julie Dillon, MS, RD, NCC, LDN, CEDRD

“As a parent of a larger child, the difficult challenge is the voice inside my head telling me that I am doing something wrong. It’s telling me I am ‘letting’ her get fat and not doing something about it.”  —Jennifer, mom

We live in a world where fat bodies are discriminated against, bullied, and considered unacceptable. What if your child is larger than what society deems ok? It is important for you to teach your large child how to respect his or her body since our society will not. You will be your child’s advocate for healthy ways of experiencing food, exercise, and body image. Where do you start?

Source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

Unconditional Acceptance

Let your child know through your words and actions you accept him or her unconditionally.  If your child comes to you upset about his/her large body, let your child know you love them as he/she is, that you love them no matter what and no matter what size. Do not suggest a diet or exercising together.  If you were to do so, the suggestion sets up a condition. It says, “No, you are not ok as you are. I will help you change.”

Meals and Snacks

Set up regular meal and snack times so your child knows when food will be served. Older children and teens may start to feel ashamed of eating enough in public. They may restrict themselves to low-calorie foods when eating with friends. This way of eating is often referred to as “eating for show.” It means that even though your son or daughter is hungry for a variety of foods, he/she may feel like he/she should be restricting in order to repent for their large body. This leads many kids (and adults!) to eat more in private and even binge eat.

If your child knows your meal and snack times and falls into this “eating for show” trap, he/she can avoid binge or secret eating by consuming enough at the next meal or snack time.

Consistent eating times also offer the opportunity for every child in your home to learn how to detect, respect, and satisfy hunger and fullness cues. Besides promoting healthy eating, this also promotes positive body image.

High-Calorie Fun Foods

By banishing certain fun foods, you may set your child up to sneak foods or binge eat. Be sure to stock your house with a wide variety of wholesome nutritious foods. This variety will include fun foods too. Fun foods include cakes, cookies, and chips.  I encourage all families (no matter what body size) to offer cookies at snack time once a week. I also encourage a few fun sides such as potato chips a couple times a week with meals. Offering fun foods alongside nutrient-dense foods helps in many ways. It satisfies cravings, models moderation, and prevents shame and binge eating high-calorie low nutrition foods.

Jennifer has found strength thanks to professionals and others who have gone through the same thing. “I have to get grounded by people who understand. While I know my family is concerned, their way of ‘shaming’ her or me because of her food choices or size and trying to manipulate her diet makes helping my daughter so hard. Having other parents to talk to that have been there, BUT also agree with the Body Positive philosophy is essential for support. I also have needed the support of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to help me let go of my anxiety about this.”

Source: Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity


Every body is meant to move—not just fat bodies. Encourage all of your children to find activities they enjoy. If time and finances allow, let your children pick one organized physical activity per week. Maybe they will enjoy soccer, tae kwon do, salsa dancing, or ice-skating!

Do not make your large child do an activity that he/she does not feel comfortable doing. Avoid “no pain no gain” cliché philosophies. Instead of motivating, they will only shame your child more. Also do not single out any child and make him/her do an exercise while others do not. Moreover, don’t encourage more exercise in relation to foods consumed nor discuss completing a certain amount of exercise to burn off calories consumed. Thinking about food in this way is disordered and could set up genetically predisposed children to start practicing an eating disorder.

Jennifer states: “I try to listen to my daughter’s sadness and frustration about not fitting into ‘skinny jeans’ and not tell her she is wrong for feeling that way. But I also talk to her about how her body is going to change and grow forever and how learning to love it is the best gift. I talk to her a lot about how strong her legs are and how graceful she is when she is figure skating. Not about what her body looks like but the amazing things it can do.”

Your large child needs you to communicate unconditional acceptance in order to thrive in a world stereotyped against his/her body type. Avoid shame-based language, singling out, or punishment. Rather engage in modeling healthy eating, pleasurable movement, and respectful body image for all your children, no matter their size.

Easter Egg Cookies

Easter is only 10 days a way!  Besides your traditional Easter egg hunt and dying of Easter eggs, what do you have planned?  Have you ever thought about starting a new tradition with your family in the kitchen?  Don’t just create Easter eggs with your family this Easter, establish the new custom of designing your own Easter egg cookies!  Let your imagine go wild with the unique designs and vibrant colors of spring.  Share your creations with us on Facebook or Twitter!


Photo Courtesy of Cooking Light
Photo Courtesy of Cooking Light



  • 1 ½ cup all-purpose flour (about 6 ½ ounces)
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ¼ cup butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Food Coloring Optional



1. To prepare cookies, spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, stirring with a whisk.

2. Place granulated sugar and butter in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended (about 5 minutes). Beat in 1 teaspoon vanilla and egg. Add flour mixture, beating at low speed until blended.

3. Place dough between two sheets of plastic wrap. Roll dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Chill 1 hour.

4. Preheat oven to 375°F.

5. Cut dough with a 2 ¼ inch egg-shaped cutter. Place cookies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 375°F for 8 minutes or until edges of cookies are browned. Cool cookies 1 minute on pan. Remove cookies from parchment; cool completely on a wire rack.

6. To prepare icing, combine powdered sugar, milk, and ¼ teaspoon vanilla; stir until smooth. Add food coloring, if desired. Stir well. Spread or pipe icing onto cookies.

The recipe and photo used in this post were courtesy of Cooking Light. To see the originally posted recipe please click here.

Mom's Pumpkin Pancakes with Dark Chocolate Chips

*This recipe was originally published on the Big City Moms’ Blog. To see the original please click here.

Mom’s Pumpkin Pancakes with Dark Chocolate Chips

by Laura Cipullo, RD, CDE, CEDRD, CDN, and Mom

Every week I whip up a batch of “homemade pancakes” for myself and my oldest son. Everyone loves these pancakes— including my clients who eat many meals with me. Make them Sunday morning and serve hot. Freeze or store the remainder in a Pyrex dish to serve each weekday morning. These pancakes taste so yummy that I can almost promise your kids will go to school having eaten a balanced breakfast. And while most moms don’t have to time to make everything from scratch, these pancakes are what I call “value added” or “nutrition added.” For time’s sake, I start with a basic wholesome pancake mix and then add in the nutrition.


See full recipe on the Big City Moms’ Blog.

10 Ways to Say I Love You


So Valentine’s Day is coming up. How are you thinking of showing your love? Do your children celebrate in school? I ask you to take some time to think, “Does your child equate Valentine’s Day with chocolate hearts?” or the message of “We show love with candy?” If your child associates holidays or even birthdays with food/candy, especially “treats,” now is the time to create a new healthy association.

So why I am saying this? Because when kids equate food with love, they may eventually look to food for love when they are lonely, feel empty, and/or feel sad. This situation can domino as an adult and even turn into emotional eating and binge eating. Ideally, we teach kids that food and feelings should not be merged, well not all of the time anyway. Rather, food is fuel for wellness, and feelings are feelings that are best managed with coping skills.

This holiday, show your love with hugs and kisses! Plan a special night for the whole family.

Give your child a card that lists all the reasons why you love them. Gift them a heart picture frame with a family picture. Can you share some chocolate? Well, of course you can! The idea is to teach your child how to express love and celebrate in meaningful and truly special ways. Ideally you want your child to equate love with family or something kind, but not just food.

Here are some ideas to create new Valentine’s Day traditions!

  1. Create construction paper flowers with your children: on each petal, you and your child can write what makes him/her special and unique.
  2. Practice kindness for the fourteen days leading up to Valentine’s Day. Remember that actions speak louder than words.
  3. Frame and gift a picture of the family doing something together that everyone loves.
  4. Plan a family outing on Valentine’s Day to go ice skating or bowling in honor of celebrating your love and the love of life.
  5. Hang a chalkboard in your kitchen with all the ways that your family can express love.
  6. Think of what makes you feel good inside and incorporate that into your family.
  7. Ask teachers at school to have parents come in to read books about love and kindness rather than giving bags of chocolate
  8. Send cards to family and friends listing all the fun times you have shared.
  9. Turn off you iPhones, screens, and mind! Just devote the night to your child/children. Play games, read, and just be together.
  10.  __________________________________________________________________

You can fill in the rest. Let us know what #10 is for you.

The above may not be for everyone, but it is definitely one of the many things I want to do for my kids and clients, with the hope that they never have to experience disordered eating and/or an eating disorder.

The Way We Gingerbread…

Can cookies, gingerbread homes and baking be a part of a healthy holiday season? Yes, they sure can. Do the cookies and candies need to be low fat or just a healthier version? No way!!! Read on to learn how to turn cookies and candy into just another food in the pantry.

One of my family’s favorite holiday traditions is to make Gingerbread Houses! There are some places around NYC that supply endless amounts of candy and a pre-constructed, edible gingerbread houses for families to visit and decorate houses. This can produce a complete sugar meltdown or become the ideal opportunity to let children explore how food makes them feel.

When baking or making holiday yummies with the kids, it’s most important to make sure they are well fed and not hungry before they reach for the candy bags. So, first thing, I feed my boys lunch. I was actually quite surprised at how very little they picked on the candy while decorating their homes. When they did want to eat a piece, they looked to me…to get a nod of approval. And I nodded yes…each and every time. Of course they could eat the candy. It was part of the fun. In the back of my mind, however, I hoped that it wasn’t the only fun for them.

Amazingly, when we got home, they didn’t want to eat the homes they’d created. Rather, they were so proud of their “masterpieces” that they quickly put them on display. My oldest son Bobby’s home still sits on our console as a holiday decoration. Unfortunately, I must also admit that my youngest son Billy’s gingerbread home had to be displayed on a much higher level. Because he still has a hard time understanding that this food is low in nutrition. One day he’ll understand that if he eats just this, not only will he stay up way past his bedtime, but he also won’t be hungry enough to eat a food that his body really needs.

When Billy asks for his house, I ask myself: Did he eat something denser in nutrition yet? I ask him if he ate his meal yet? I more often than not take it down from the higher shelf for him. My hope is that he realizes he can have the candy…just not at every whim. He can have it some of the time, because it is a “sometimes food.”

Just today, Billy asked for his gingerbread house because his brother Bobby was having a candy or two from his house; two weeks later, Bobby’s house still displays most of the candy. I asked Billy if he’d eaten lunch yet and he said yes. But then he walked away and went off to the kitchen to eat a yogurt. He didn’t ask me for the candy house again; he just ate his yogurt and went to play with his Legos.

So I think he is getting the message about “sometimes foods.” He knows he can have them some of the time but is less able to manage this concept without parental guidance because he is so young. My oldest son has mastered this thought and impresses me every day with his ability to leave food on his plate. Bobby even leaves cookies in his lunch box to save for another day, or the afternoon, when he knows he will really enjoy them.

As parents, think about teaching your children internal self regulation. Rather than restricting your children and sending messages that junk food equals bad food, help educate them on the need for eating nutritious food the majority of the time and eating less nutritious food just some of the time.

 Tips for making some foods “sometimes foods”:

  1. Explain what nutritious food is. For instance, it may be high in vitamins, minerals and nutrients to help kids grow or help their hearts to be strong.
  2. Explain what “sometimes food” is. Educate your children that certain foods are not necessary for growth but still can help by providing some energy. Let your children know that certain foods are lower in vitamins and minerals and should only be eaten some of the time…and only if your children regularly eat enough of the foods that help them grow, feel energized and prevent them from getting sick. These foods taste yummy but will not be so yummy if eaten all of the time.
  3. Let your children have a “sometimes food” with lunch three days a week so the food becomes neutral; you’ll be teaching moderation.
  4. Don’t make a big deal about “sometimes foods.”
  5. Allow your children to eat all foods so they don’t hide or sneak food.
  6. Role model eating all foods in front of your children.
  7. Limit the amount of “sometimes foods” in your house to about three per week so your children aren’t forced to make too many decisions about these foods.


For more information on “sometimes foods,” please refer to the Healthy Habits workbook at


Help! My Child is a Picky Eater!

Dr. Heather Maguire is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D) and the author of the parent training manual, Get Ready… Get Set… Go! It’s Time to Create Behavior Change! As the mother of two young children, she applies her knowledge of behavioral science to everyday parenting. Visit her website for more information.

Photo Credit: orangeacid via Compfight cc

Help! My Child is a Picky Eater!
By Dr. Heather Maguire

Kids, food, and behavior… Where should I even start? A story from my own childhood comes to mind. When I was a toddler, I decided that the only food I wanted to eat was saltine crackers. Being a stubborn individual even at such a young age, I gave my mother a run for her money. She offered me peanut butter and jelly, but I said, “No!” She put cereal in front of me, but I refused to touch it. At dinnertime I refused to even look at the spaghetti she had made. In situations like this, what’s a parent to do?! Now that I’m a mother myself, I have come to realize that food can be one of the most challenging parts of parenting. As parents, we are charged with caring for the health and wellbeing of our kids, but it is not possible to force children to eat what they do not want to eat. No parent wants his or her children to “starve,” so we are tempted to cave in to our their requests. Recently I overheard a mother explain that her pediatrician recommended letting her toddler snack on whatever he wanted during the day, as long as she supplemented his nutrition with a popular meal replacement beverage. I’m not saying there aren’t cases where extreme measures are warranted, but to me this sounded like a horrible long-term solution to picky eating! Looking through the lens of applied behavior analysis, here are six strategies that have helped me tame the beast of the picky eater in my own home. I hope they will help you, too!

  1. Say goodbye to packaged snacks

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “If they’re hungry, they’ll eat.” This is very simple, but very true! One way to encourage children to eat is to make sure they’re actually hungry when mealtime comes around. This may mean eating less during the periods in between meals. Now I am not suggesting that you cut out snacking all together, but you can control what snacks you offer your children. Personally, I have made the decision to only offer fruits and veggies as snack options in between meals. As opposed to snacks like chips, cookies, and crackers, fresh produce is less likely to curb one’s appetite for more than a short while. I am not saying you have to cut out packaged foods completely, but it may be better to serve these items right after meals or just occasionally as a special treat rather than as snacks.

Photo Credit: antonychammond via Compfight cc
  1. Timing is everything

As parents, we often have to be strategic in interactions with our children. If Sofia is feeling under the weather, didn’t sleep well the night before, and had a rough day at school, it is probably not be the right day to offer her a new food or try to get her to eat a food she has previously rejected. Sounds obvious, right? Well, let me share where parents often go wrong. Rather than using this strategy proactively, they use it reactively. Once they place food in front of Sofia and she refuses to try it, then they give her a preferred food. Unfortunately this often results in a pattern of food refusal that can hang around long after the bad day has been forgotten. Therefore, try to prevent food refusal by offering preferred foods on the hard days, but do your best not to cave in once undesired behavior has been displayed.

  1. Dangle the carrot

This is a simple, yet scientifically verified truth that can be applied to several areas of life. In food terms it equates to, “After you eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert.” Now, this does not mean that you need to offer dessert or other junk food to your children on a daily basis. Rather, choose foods that you feel comfortable offering to your child on a consistent basis (e.g., juice, crackers, popcorn, etc.). In order for this to work, there are two key things to keep in mind. First, the food has to be something your child really likes. Second, this strategy will work best if you keep your “carrot” valuable by not offering it to your child in other circumstances.

  1. Sometimes easier is better

This strategy is specifically geared towards younger toddlers who are still developing fine motor skills. As a human species, we are more likely to do things when they are easier, and it takes more motivation to do things that are difficult. Therefore, even if your son or daughter can independently eat, you may want to help them… at least with their first few bites. You may find that after the first few bites your child eats independently. Why is that so, you ask? Without getting too technical, food is naturally rewarding when we are hungry and so our bodies encourage us to keep eating until we are full.


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