These Foods Can Turn Kids Into Picky Eaters

Watch out for sneaky snacks that sound healthy but suppress your kid’s appetite.

A child licking his finger

Many snacks that sound healthy are putting on a front. Manufacturers know that parents try to find more nutritious options for their kids, so they present products as substantive when in reality, they’re filler. And chances are, those empty calories are torpedoing your kids’ appetite come mealtime and helping them turn into picky eaters.

What Foods Contribute to Picky Eating?

Some of the big picky eater influencers are foods that are made to sound nutritionally dense but are filled with simple starches. For example, pediatrician Dr. Leah Alexander explains that you’ll find veggie straws have very little nutritional value when you look at the label. “They tend to be made primarily from puffed starches, with vegetable coloring added, making them more similar to a potato chip than a vegetable,” she says.

Another clue as you sleuth labels are any number of terms that manufacturers use to disguise sugars they add to products marketed to kids while making them sound healthy. Ingredients such as “evaporated cane juice” and “agave syrup” are sweeteners in drinks and snacks that can suppress your child’s appetite when mealtime rolls around.

“There are studies that show even natural sugars trigger something in the brain that makes you crave more of a sweet taste which causes you to gravitate more towards sweet foods,” Dr. Alexander says. This creates issues at mealtime when you’re attempting to get your kid to eat proteins, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates. If their palette is skewed too far toward sugars, they are more likely to refuse substantive foods.

Seeing the word “fruit” on a label can also throw parents off when they don’t read the small print. “Fruit snacks aren’t necessarily as bad as gummy candy, but they’re similar,” says Alexander. “Even though they’re labeled as fruit, at best most contain fruit flavored extract. They rarely contain actual fruit.”

Jettison the Juices

Dr. Alexander also points to juice as something that can cause issues once mealtime rolls around. “Juices are mostly empty calories. They fill kids up and satisfy them because they’re sweet. But consuming too much juice makes them feel full, so then they’re less hungry for other foods,” she explains. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests a maximum daily intake of 100% juice products should be 4 ounces for children ages 1-3 years, 4-6 ounces for children ages 4-6 years, and 8 ounces for those 7 and older.

Foods that Broaden Your Kids Palate

Looking for healthy snacks less likely to contribute to picky eating? The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests the following options:

  • Whole grains, such as whole-grain cereals or bread and low-fat, low-salt whole-grain crackers or chips.
  • Fresh or packaged (with no added sugars) fruits and vegetables like carrots, celery, apples, bananas, cherries, raisins, dried apricots, and fruit cups packed in juice or water.
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products (including lactose-free milk and soy-based beverages).
  • Eight-ounce servings of low-fat or fat-free fruit-flavored yogurt with no more than 30 grams of sugar.

But some products that are presented as juices also have additives that exacerbate problems at mealtime. “You’ll see smoothies available with fruits and vegetables mixed in that are marketed as healthy juices. But a lot of them have added cane juice or some other type of sugars the second or the third ingredient,” says Alexander. Be on the lookout for juice products with the word “cocktail” on the label, and check to see if the product has includes added sugars.

You can’t stop your kid from going through a picky eater stage. But reading labels and understanding which snacks make mealtimes more of a chore can keep picky eating from being more painful than it has to be.