Sneaky food swaps for picky eaters

Alternate title: How I’ve kept my kids from getting scurvy on their preferred diet of jelly beans and begging for jelly beans. 

At David’s 5-year check up, the doctor asked if he ate a variety of foods, and I kind of tilted my head and admitted, no, he’s pretty picky.

The doctor asked me to tell him some foods David will eat and I started, “Grilled chicken, eggs, cheese, carrots, cucumber –”

He interrupted, “What about fruit?”

“Oh yeah, he eats almost all fruits.”

“Well, if you think about it, that’s actually a pretty good diet. I wouldn’t worry too much.”

Since that appointment, I’ve tried to take the doctor’s advice. Because he’s right, even though my kids aren’t as adventurous as I’d like, they do eat several healthy foods. So I’ll give them those foods, introduce and re-introduce other foods, and silently grit my teeth when Thomas refuses to eat strawberries. And instead of getting frustrated, I fill in the gaps with a little mom-genuity. (Sorry about that pun, it was too good to pass up.)

I wanted to share some of my favorite picky-eater hacks — ways I sneak extra nutrition into my kids’ otherwise bland, repetitive, and green-free diets. These are foods my kids already eat — pizza, macaroni and cheese — with tweaks to make them healthier. (And, to be honest, since most of these changes aren’t noticeable, I’m not sure I’ll ever go back.)

Before I start — I think a lot about food and my kids’ relationship with food, and in addition to eating healthy food, it’s important to me that my kids have a healthy relationship with food. Most of my “rules” about food and eating come from here — The “popular posts” tab is really helpful.

And share your tips, too! What are your favorite, go-to, snacks and meals for your kids?

Here goes.

1. Pizza sauce

My kids love pizza, and we eat it at least once a week. I always make my own (simple!) pizza sauce, and I recently realized I could add a few handfuls of (frozen) spinach and no one realizes. Frozen spinach is one of my secret weapons because it doesn’t change the taste or texture in SO MANY dishes. I add it to chili, stir fry, beans and rice, spaghetti sauce, and whatever else I can think I can get away with.

homemade pizza sauce with spinach

I’ll admit, it looks a little gross all frothed up in the blender…

homemade pizza sauce with spinach

…And a little green on the pizza.

easy homemade pizza sauce with spinach

But the finished product? Looks and tastes the same.

(Ok, full disclosure. The first time I did this David noticed the teeny green flecks and asked what they were. Whenever they ask I’m always honest — it’s spinach — he ate it and hasn’t said a word since.)

easy homemade pizza sauce with spinach


1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp each garlic powder, basil, oregano, thyme, salt, black pepper
1 cup frozen spinach

Add all ingredients in a blender and blend until combined.
Makes about 4 cups; use one cup for one large pizza (more or less to taste). Freeze remainder.

2. Pancakes

I make a giant batch of pancakes every month or so and freeze them for quick breakfasts. Since most mornings my kids eat breakfast and head to school, I want to make sure the pancakes will stick with them so they can make it to snack time, so I swapped a few ingredients.

The first line of defense? Oat flour. My sister showed me how to do this and I’ve never turned back. Just throw a bunch of oats into a coffee grinder.

How to make oat flour with a coffee grinder

BAM! Oat flour. This took 30 seconds, probably less.

How to make oat flour with a coffee grinder

Oat flour is the foundation, and on that foundation I add pureed veggies. That’s right.

(I’d add spinach if I could…)

I started doing this with pureed pumpkin — which we can all agree is a socially acceptable addition. Then I had a jar of pureed green beans I wasn’t using, so I added it. Guess what? No one noticed. Now I add at LEAST a half-cup of fruit or veggie purees (usually whatever I have on hand).

healthy pancakes -- with oat flour and veggies!


2 egg
2 C milk
4 T coconut oil
1/2 C fruit or veggie puree
1.5 C all-purpose or whole wheat flour
1 C oat flour
2 t baking powder
1 t baking soda

Beat eggs, then add remaining ingredients in order and beat until smooth. Grease heated griddle and pour batter by spoonfuls onto griddle. Flip when bubbles form.


3. Protein-packed Macaroni and Cheese

The quintessential kid meal — instant mac ‘n cheese. Add a little extra protein, calcium, and creamy texture by mixing in a good ole glob of plain yogurt. I think it actually tastes better. 

Healthier mac n cheese -- with a dollop of plain yogurt

4. Smoothies

Ah, the smoothie, the very best weapon in my arsenal. I’m so very thankful for the smoothie. We have smoothies probably three times a week and every time they’re packed with fruit, greens, and Chia seeds.

pickyeaters 9

Last week, Tom and I had grilled chicken over salads and the kids had grilled chicken and smoothies. Even Thomas loves them.

pickyeaters 10

And when we have leftover smoothie, I freeze them into Popsicles. Thomas loves those, too.

spinach smoothie popsicles

5. Chia seeds

I briefly mentioned Chia seeds above. I use Chia seeds sort of like spinach — everywhere. If I think I can add it without changing the texture, I do. I sprinkle a few seeds on my kids’ peanut butter and jelly (which is kind of like the lazy-mom’s Chia seed jam) and on Mary Virginia’s morning yogurt.


6. Rice cereal

I think this is actually a bit hilarious because, since we do baby-led weaning, my kids really never eat rice cereal when they’re actual infants. But when they’re older? They totally eat rice cereal. Because rice cereal is fortified with iron! and calcium! and lots of other things that is not in my kids’ daily bowl of stubbornness! So I add it to things like apple sauce and smoothies.


7. Easter milk

And finally, because you read this far I’m going to trust you with a secret, and that secret’s name is “Easter milk.”

At some point, David went from loving milk to refusing milk. I kept offering, he kept refusing, and it happened to be Christmas and I got the bright idea to mix egg nog with milk and called it “Christmas milk.” He loved it. So we continued, and I added flavor to his milk to get him to drink it. We’ve had Christmas, Halloween (pumpkin), Thanksgiving (ahem, pumpkin again), Valentine’s Day (strawberry), and we landed on Easter milk (vanilla caramel). Basically all it is is a splash of creamer in a cup of milk, and my kids love it.

pickyeaters 11

It’s embarrassing to admit. But it’s important to me that my kids drink milk, so Easter milk it is.


8. Veggie muffins

Remember these muffins? I still make them all the time.

Healthy zucchini - carrot - apple muffins

My kids love them, except for a brief hiatus when David would pick out the shredded zucchini and say, “MOMMY! Mary Virginia’s hair is in my muffin!” Sure, it’s not as good as eating raw veggies, but there’s still zucchini, carrots, and apples in this recipe. We eat them for breakfast and snacks, especially in the fall and winter.

Also, look at bald baby David eating one three years ago.

Healthy zucchini - carrot - apple muffins


3 cups all-purpose flour or whole wheat flour (or 2 cups flour, 1.5 cups oat flour!)
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp nutmeg (optional — I usually only add this if I’m making zucchini muffins)
2 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup applesauce
3 cups shredded apple, carrot or zucchini (or a combination)
1 cup chocolate morsels or chopped nuts (optional)


Combine first five ingredients (and nutmeg if you’re using it). Make a well in the center of the center of the flour. In another bowl, combine remaining ingredients. Stir until moistened. Fold in chocolate morsels/nuts.
Spoon batter into prepared muffin tins.

Bake at 350 degree for 15 minutes, until a wooden toothpick comes out clean.

You can also make this as a loaf; increase baking time to 50-55 minutes.


I know there are a thousand more tips, so tell me what I’m missing! How do you get vitamins into your picky child?

And since I’m asking questions, have you ever met a child who won’t eat a strawberry? Should I mention that to the doctor? Because strawberries are delicious. 


A few more posts about eating with my kids:



  1. chelsea jacobs September 27, 2016

    I laughed so hard at your alternate title haha!

  2. Melissa Walp October 3, 2016

    Stopping by from Mommy Moments. I love these ideas. No one in my house is too picky (yet) but I still like to find creative ways to add nutrients into our diet. I use pureed pumpkin and greek yogurt in just about everything.

  3. YESSSS to all of this. My son is 2 and definitely falling into a trap of what is comfortable for him. We have a smoothie every day as a snack since I make one for my hubs to take to work (also a picky eater… -.-) and I love adding in frozen veggies. Although it’s not necessarily ideal, on days that I just do not have the energy I love those Similac nutrition packs you add to kids food – since my son will ALWAYS eat greek yogurt, I just mix a pack into some plain yogurt with a spoon full of PB and jelly.


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