When you meal prep for picky eaters, it ensures you meet their nutritional needs as well as their food preferences.
It will also save you time and money!
I bet all of us have stood looking into the open fridge thinking “what am I going to cook for dinner tonight?” And then, you decide to serve up one of your fussy eaters preferred options and have something you actually want to eat, later in the evening.
Last minute meals often mean that not all of your child’s nutritional bases are covered, but in this blog I’ll walk you through how a bit of prep and planning can give you that reassurance and make midweek meals much easier to manage.
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What is meal prepping?
Simply put, it’s planning, preparing and portioning meals ahead of time.
It’s a time-saving strategy that can make serving healthy, meals more manageable, and meal prep for picky eaters is a non negotiable in my book to ensure their nutritional needs are met.
What’s the difference between meal planning and meal prep for picky eaters?
Meal Planning: This is just the thinking stage and involves planning out your meals for the week, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. It’s about deciding what you’ll eat and when.
Meal Prepping: This is the actual preparation of those meals. It might include chopping vegetables, marinating meat, or fully cooking and refrigerating or freezing a meal to be reheated later.
What equipment do I need to get started?
- Containers: Invest in quality, reusable, plastic free storage containers
- Freezer bags: Resealable and compostable freezer bags
- Basic kitchen tools: Knives, cutting boards, pots, pans etc
- A Plan: Write down your weekly meal plan, including easy dinner ideas.
Nutrition and meal prep for picky eaters – the bases to cover
Ensuring that all food groups are represented in your child’s meals is vital for their overall health and development. Here’s how you can approach it:
- Proteins: Include lean meat like chicken, beef or lamb, eggs, fish, or plant-based proteins like tofu, beans and lentils.
- Starchy carbohydrates and grains: Offer whole grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, or wholegrain bread. For under 5’s you can offer a combination of white and wholegrain so that the extra fibre isn’t too filling.
- Fruits and Vegetables: Incorporate a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables. They can be served raw, steamed, or even hidden veg cooked into sauces.
- Dairy or Alternatives: Include milk, yoghurt, cheese, or calcium enriched dairy-free alternatives like oat or soya milk.
- Healthy Fats: Include sources like avocados, nut butters, oily fish and extra virgin olive oil.
“But they’re not going to eat these meals!”
I hear you! Introducing new foods to a fussy eater will most likely be met with flat out refusal.
Start with serving familiar foods family style with a new ingredient on offer each time. This gradually exposes children to new foods in a comfortable way.
There are 32 sensory steps to master when children are learning to like new foods.
What if they refuse everything you offer?
This is when persistence and patience is key.
Having a consistent meal and snack schedule can help tremendously. Here’s why:
- Structured Routine: A set schedule for meals and snacks helps children know what to expect and can reduce anxiety around food.
- Avoiding Hunger Games: If a child knows that snacks or other food won’t be available outside of the scheduled times, they may be more inclined to eat what’s offered during mealtime.
- Evening Snack Strategy: If your child regularly misses their evening meal, building in a bedtime snack can be helpful. This snack should be nutritious and part of the daily meal plan, not a treat, reward or favourite food (otherwise it’s just an incentive to carry on refusing dinner!)
It will likely take multiple exposures to a new food before a child accepts it. People often say it takes 10 times but this is actually 10 tastes.
There may be many, many more times you need to expose your child to a new food before it’s accepted, and it’s all because of those 32 sensory steps to eating.
Some children are fussy and some may have something a bit more worrying going on like a picky eating disorder. If you’re not sure whether your child’s picky eating is something to be concerned about, you can take my free picky eater test.
Daddy (or Mummy) is a fussy eater, should they eat these meals too?
Yes, when children are learning about food, they need to see the adults in their life eat that food too in order to be assured that nothing bad is going to happen.
If you don’t eat it, you can’t expect your child to eat it!
Tips for family meal planning and meal prep for fussy eaters
At the end of this blog I’m going to give you a list of meals you can prep ahead, categorised into breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks but before we get there I wanted to share with you my top tips:
Theme nights can be a really fun way to make meal prep for picky eaters more enjoyable for both parents and children.
By creating a theme for each night of the week, you can build excitement and anticipation around mealtime.
Here’s how you can implement theme nights:
Choose Themes That Excite Your Family:
Themes can be based on cuisines (e.g., Mexican Night, Italian Night), types of food (e.g., Pizza Night, Salad Night), or even fun concepts (e.g., Breakfast for Dinner, Picnic Night).
Involve Your Children in Planning:
Let your children have a say in the themes and the specific meals. This involvement can increase their interest in trying new foods.
Add some simple decorations or table settings that match the theme. For example, you could use chequered tablecloths for Picnic Night or colourful plates for Fiesta Night. Get the children involved in making decorations too.
Incorporate Educational Elements:
Theme nights can also be educational. For example, you can teach your children about different cultures on nights dedicated to various international cuisines.
Keep It Simple:
Theme nights don’t have to be elaborate. The goal is to make mealtime fun and engaging, not to create extra work for yourself. Remember under 7’s have a brilliant imagination so tell a story around your theme and let their imaginations do the rest.
Introduce New Foods:
Picky eaters are likely to be more willing to explore new foods if they are presented in a fun way and story is involved. For example, you could introduce corn-on-the-cob during Mexican Night.
Create a Plan:
Having a set plan for theme nights can help you with meal planning and create an expectation that children look forward to. Young children especially thrive on routine!
Mix and Match:
You don’t need to have the same theme every week, feel free to mix it up a bit to keep things fresh and exciting. You can also have special theme nights for holidays like Halloween, Valentines or Christmas or special occasions like Birthdays, end of term or anniversaries.
Include Healthy Options:
Even on fun theme nights like Pizza Night, you can include healthy options by using whole grain crust and loading up on veggies. Have you tried our Pitta Pizza’s?
Make It a Family Affair:
Encourage everyone in the family to participate, whether it’s helping with cooking, setting the table, or choosing the theme.
Keep your food stores topped up
Always have store cupboard staples like flour, pasta, rice, noodles, tinned fish and dried pulses in your cupboards and eggs in the fridge. Frozen fruit, veggies and meat such as chicken breasts or minced beef are always handy to have in your freezer.
Rotate preferred foods
Don’t serve the same meals every day. Picky eaters can reduce their accepted food range relatively quickly by food jagging. This is when they eat the same foods on repeat and eventually burn out and stop eating them all together.
If you are finding that you are offering the same few foods on repeat this is a sign your child needs professional help with their picky eating.
Let your children build their own meals
Let children serve themselves from the food that’s on offer and build their own meals. This is called ‘family style’ serving and it allows your child the autonomy they desire at mealtimes. It’s also one aspect of being a positive food parent.
Find out how to cook, cool, store and reheat food properly. The guidelines are different for young children as their immune systems are not as robust as adults and so they’re more vulnerable to food poisoning.
Which foods can you prepare ahead?
We are all time poor these days but putting aside just 1 hour at the weekend can make midweek meals so much easier for you. Here is what you can prep ahead in that hour:
Chop carrots, onions, celery, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower… pretty much any vegetable can be prepped ahead. Just cut it into the shape you’ll need for later in the week. For example dice for soups and casseroles, slice for stir fry’s. Store in an airtight container in the fridge.
Buy a block of cheese and grate it yourself at home. It’s a 20 second job in a food processor, takes a bit longer by hand. Again store in an airtight container in the fridge.
If you are planning on having hard boiled eggs later in the week, you can cook and cool these ahead of time. They can be kept for up to 1 week in the fridge.
Casseroles, soups, lasagne, mac & cheese and other similar dinners
If you want to make a whole meal ahead of time, then you can do this too. These can be stored for 3-4 days in the fridge and up to 3 months in the freezer.
You can cook a whole chicken, carve and keep the cold meat in the fridge for up to 3-4 days.
With raw chicken, slice into the appropriate shape and prepare up to the point of cooking e.g coating in breadcrumbs for homemade nuggets and refrigerate for 1-2 days or up to 3 months in the freezer.
Other raw meat
Such as beef diced into casserole cubes or sliced as steaks can be stored in the fridge for 3-5 days, if you mince this to turn into burgers or plan to use as minced beef, this reduces down to 1-2 days.
If made without ingredients that spoil quickly e.g. egg or milk, you can keep these in the fridge for a week.
Cook, cool and store in the fridge for up to 5 days, you may want to add a little oil to the cooking water to prevent it from clumping together.
And don’t forget the classic prep ahead meal overnight oats! And check out my 20 suggestions for overnight oat toppers.
Foods you should not prep ahead of time
Rice is a big no for preparing in advance. It contains a type of food poisoning bacteria that can make children (and adults) very unwell if it isn’t cooled quickly after cooking. It’s best therefore to cook rice as and when you need it.
Food that has previously been frozen
It’s also worth mentioning that food that has previously been frozen (either at home or in the supermarket) should not be frozen again after it has thawed. This is also a food poisoning risk.
85 healthy family meals to meal prep for picky eaters
So now you know how to do it, here’s a list of 85 meal ideas that are sure to please even the pickiest of eaters.
16. Pesto Pasta
44. Salmon Parcels
45. Fish Pie
47. Meatball Wrap
61. Veggie Risotto
66. Vegan Risotto
68. Pasta Soup
69. Chicken Kebabs
70. Overnight Oats
76. Fruit Muffins
84. Cheese Muffins
85. PB&J Pancakes