If you have a picky toddler, it can feel impossible to come up with healthy dinner ideas that don’t require a ton of advance planning or prep work. Salmon sweet potato cakes or cauliflower chicken nuggets are wonderful healthy dinner recipe ideas for picky toddlers, but sometimes you need something super fast and super easy when 5 p.m rolls around and you’ve been out in the backyard playing all day.
My favorite healthy dinner ideas for picky toddlers are no-recipe recipes. Sometimes I think we make it harder on ourselves than it has to be— there’s no need to make a multi-step, Instagram-worthy meal every night. Many times we overcomplicate things. Maybe we want to make sure our children get a perfectly balanced meal, one that they will happily eat if we just spend all that time making elaborate faces and shapes and characters with it. But if you have a picky toddler, then you know that sometimes (frequently), despite all of our efforts, they still reject our dinner ideas! So what’s a parent to do?
First off, take a deep breath. Your child will eat. They might have some feelings about it, but most likely, they will not starve themselves. If you let them express their displeasure at what they’ve been served, but you acknowledge their feelings while still holding firm and not giving into their demands for crackers and ice cream for dinner, they will indeed eat. Eventually. (If your child has been diagnosed with sensory issues or other medical conditions, please follow advice from your pediatrician, occupational therapist, or licensed pediatric nutritionist! Bloggers and random internet moms are not authorities on your child’s specific and unique needs.) Just try to ensure there is at least one item that you are serving that is a “safe” food that you know they usually enjoy.
Second, have a list of healthy, no-recipe dinner ideas that you can keep in your back pocket for your picky toddler. I’m going to give you five of my family’s favorites so that you can see what works for us! Give them a try, swap out ingredients to better fit your child’s preferences, or come up with your own. But the key is to have a few trie-and-true no recipe-recipes already figured out before the hangry toddler starts freaking out in the early evening!
Here’s my list of five healthy no-recipe dinner ideas, perfect for picky toddlers.
Snack Box dinner
I am a huge fan of metal bento boxes— they are sustainable, reusable, and are full of just-enough variety to pique a picky toddler’s interest. We know they make great lunches, but there’s no reason why you can’t also deploy them at dinner time! Fill them with a protein, a fruit, a vegetable, and a healthy fat. These things don’t have to be complicated! You can drop a little of your dinner into there as well— no sense in making it harder than it has to be. I’ve listed some of our favorite options for each category in this chart:
Chickpeas, beans, lentils, turkey, salami,
whole milk greek yogurt,
|Healthy Fat |
Cashews, shredded cheese,
cubed cheese, avocado
Apples, pears, peaches, plums, berries, cherries, tomatoes, mandarins,
pineapple, mango, kiwi
shredded carrots, cucumber slices, green peas, broccoli, cauliflower, bell pepper, radish matchsticks, sugar snap peas
Breakfast for Dinner
Another favorite healthy no-recipe recipe is the tried-and-true breakfast for dinner! Now, I’m not super-keen on eggs and pancakes for dinner, but my entire family thinks this makes me a bit of a party pooper! So I’m seen as a true hero when I bust out my fancy waffle maker in the afternoon. To make sure things stay balanced, I like to make sure to offer fluffy scrambled eggs (cooked in a pan with olive oil for a truly heart-healthy fat!), whole wheat pancakes or waffles for a complex carbohydrate that also offers some protein, fresh fruit, and maybe a bit of cubed whole milk cheese. It can be tough to get away with a vegetable at our breakfast for dinner nights, but I usually try to offer something relatively mild, like bell pepper strips or sautéed spinach, and it usually at least gets tasted, at a bare minimum. Breakfast for dinner is always a delight.
Lentil Noodles with Olive Oil and Cheese
Almost all children eat noodles, right? A few outliers aside, it tends to be one of those go-to foods for parents looking to fill their kids up with something resembling real food. From an early age, I pretty much only gave my kids whole wheat noodles, so that at least there would be a bit more protein and some decent fiber. But then I discovered our new favorite: lentil noodles!
You can find these at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, even regular old grocery stores these days. They are made of 100% lentils, and they are chock full of protein and fiber. Our favorites are the Red Lentil Sedini from our trusty TJ’s, but there’s all sorts to experiment with. After cooking, I rinse them immediately to get off the excess starch, then toss in a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. I also grate some parmeggiano reggiano on the finest holes on our box grates, and put it in a little bowl alongside and call it “snowy cheese.” Sometimes they adore it, sometimes they think it’s some form of poison (this is why I serve alongside instead of mixing it directly into the pasta)!
If you can, I encourage you to swap out your plain basic noodles for either whole wheat, or even better, noodles make with lentil or chickpea flour. These choices are far more nutritionally sound, and the extra fiber and protein will keep your kids fuller for longer— just what we need right before bedtime! With the healthy fat (the olive oil, grass-fed butter, and/or grated cheese) you’ve got a relatively healthy and balanced meal that even the pickiest of eaters can get behind! Toss in some frozen peas to round it all out, and now you can feel satisfied too.
Yogurt with Whole Wheat Pita and Crudite
This no-recipe recipe for picky eaters might seem super basic, but I promise, it can be a real winner! The important piece I have to disclose right away is that since we began introducing solid foods to our kids, we’ve never given them flavored yogurts with added sugar. I only serve whole milk Greek yogurt, pretty much exclusively organic— and my kids have never blinked at it being ‘too sour.” If your little one is only familiar with yogurt that comes in tubes, or thin flavored yogurt cups, I definitely recommend you begin to try swapping them out. If you need some transition time, you can begin mixing in full fat greek yogurt into what they normally eat, so they can get used to it gradually.
Greek yogurt made with whole milk has TONS of protein and the perfect amount of healthy fat, with none of the added sugars that can mess with a child’s system. There are nights when I am truly wiped and can barely remember my name— these are the nights I go for this dinner.
Serve this thick, creamy yogurt with whole wheat pita or tortilla for some complex carbs, plus whatever raw veggies your child likes to eat. My eldest is a sucker for snap peas, carrots, and bell peppers, and the littlest is oddly passionate about cucumbers! So I chop up a variety, put it all out on a big snack board with bowls of yogurt and pita, and call it dinner! It’s healthy, filling, quick, and requires zero mental energy.
Pizza Made With Whole Wheat Naan and Veggies
Even the pickiest of picky toddlers adores pizza. Make pizza you feel good about by creating your own simple version at home— by making sure you start off with wholesome ingredients, you can feel confident that dinner will be delicious and healthy. We love pizza so much that every Sunday is our designated Pizza Night. One less thing to think about for me!
At the market, I usually pick up a package of whole wheat naan or flatbread. These are sometimes in the frozen section, sometimes in the bread section, or sometimes in the “ethnic” section (ugh, when will stores stop calling it that and just integrate food from all cultures and cuisines in with the rest of the groceries! Sorry, rant over). They make a great base for pizza. Or you can make a simple flatbread from your sourdough discard (if you are into that sort of thing).
At home, I spread a little marinara or basic tomato sauce over a flatbread. Then I enlist the toddlers to help sprinkle the shredded cheese (whole milk mozzarella is ideal!) and place any toppings around on top. Favorite veggie toppings in our house include zucchini, broccoli, bell peppers, olives, and halved cherry tomatoes. Then slide the whole thing in to a hot oven (literally any temperature between 300-500) for a few minutes until the cheese melts, and you have the most fun, the most delicious, and honestly, most healthy dinner you can imagine.
One Last Word on Picky Toddlers
So there you have it! I hope you’ve enjoyed these healthy no-recipe dinner ideas. Let me know if you try any or what your favorite no-recipe ideas are!
Oh, and I do have one tiny addition, that might seem odd after I’ve said it a hundred times in this post— I HATE using the phrase picky toddlers and never use it around children, ever. This is the stuff of another blog post, but for now, let me just say that if we call our children “picky” they begin to believe it is true, and become even more entrenched in picky eating habits. If one of my kids is going through a bit of a finicky phase, I say things like “Maybe you’ll like it when you are older,” or “I’m happy you at least gave it a taste! Maybe one day it will taste yummy to you,” or some variation on that. I cannot stress enough how much that simple switch in your language can potentially turn the picky eating behavior around for you.
Good luck, parents! Let me know what your biggest challenges at dinner time are and we can brainstorm solutions together!