Categories: Kids, Nutrition, Picky Eaters, Toddlers

Picky Eaters and Fast Food: What’s the Connection?

As parents, we’ve all been there. Your picky eater has refused to touch breakfast or lunch, and you have a precious few minutes before heading out to the evening’s dance recital, sports practice or playgroup. Your kid needs to eat something, and the only obvious way to make it happen is fast food.

Don’t feel guilty! We all resort to the drive-thru from time to time, as sometimes fast food is simply the most realistic option. When we do have the time and energy, though, nutrition experts recommend limiting the frequency of fast food meals for kids. Though helpful in a pinch, too much fast food can make picky eaters even pickier.

How Fast Food Encourages Picky Eaters

Fast food capitalizes on our innate taste preferences. As humans, we have a biological preference for sweet foods from a very young age, and research shows a similar preference for salty foods, even in infancy. In other words, fast food gives us exactly what our bodies want…but not necessarily what they need! 

Especially during the critical early years of growth, development and palate formation, too much fast food in a child’s diet could:

  • Increase tolerance to sweetness and saltiness, making children want more in order to experience the same taste sensations
  • Set expectations for excessive sweetness or saltiness at every meal, causing rejection of foods that are too “bland”
  • Interfere with our children’s ability to appreciate what real food looks, smells and tastes like
  • Encourage kids to view food as a reward or a source of pure sensory pleasure rather than fuel for our bodies and minds
  • Lead to mindless eating or “mealtime multitasking,” making it difficult for kids to listen to their bodies and stop eating when they’re full

Don’t get us wrong. Food can absolutely be a pleasurable experience, and occasional fast food can be a special treat that encourages healthy moderation for our kids. As a weekly or even daily source of meals for picky eaters, however, fast food usually ends up making the problem worse—increasing our kids’ resistance to new foods while filling their tummies with empty calories.

meals for picky eaters

How to Guide Your Picky Eater Toward Healthy Alternatives

Here are five simple tips to help limit fast food and expand your picky eater’s palate.

Tip #1: Plan Meals in Advance

Fast food often presents itself as the best solution when we’re in a rush or an unfamiliar environment, with hangry kids in tow. Take a look ahead at your weekly schedule and note which days are likely to be full; then plan to take along some healthy meals for kids! You can cook your own meals and store them in a thermos, or you could order Nurture Life’s Cold Lunches for a ready-to-serve option with no prep involved.

Tip #2: Be an Example

Our children take in every little thing we do, including our eating habits! Serve as a positive example for your picky eaters by prioritizing veggies and highlighting their delicious goodness. If your kids see you packing your own healthy meal, they’ll be more interested in joining. Why not make it a family meal prep party?

Tip #3: Serve Healthy Alternatives

Completely revamping your family’s diet could be too big of a change for your picky eater, leading to even more resistance. Instead of cutting certain foods out altogether, try to find an alternative with similar flavors and ingredients but more balanced nutrition.

Nurture Life’s Kid Meals have minimal salt and added sugar while still feeling familiar to young taste buds. To see how our healthy alternatives stack up to brands you know, check out these point-by-point comparisons:

Tip #4: Communicate with Your Kids

Including your kids in any family eating decision is always helpful to get them on board. Instead of centering the conversation around why fast food or a certain type of fat is bad, focus on why healthier options are so good!

  • For younger kids, connect healthy foods with specific activities they enjoy, making it clear that the food we eat every day impacts our energy levels to have fun, play and learn.
  • For older kids, you can go more in depth about how overly processed food affects our bodies, maybe even discussing the trade-off of fast food: it may taste great now, but it ultimately leaves us hungrier, less energized and less fulfilled.

At every age, try to approach the conversation with positivity and curiosity rather than pressure, judgment or restriction. Check out our guide to positive weight talk for more tips on this sometimes tricky balance.

Tip #5: Keep Healthy Foods at Hand

It’s easier to make healthy choices when they’re right there at your fingertips. Stock your kitchen with healthy snacks and use our guide to making your kitchen more kid friendly. Then everyone in the family can grab a wholesome snack before heading out the door instead of counting on the drive-thru.

If your family has a regular fast food habit, it’s okay! You don’t need to feel bad about serving these quick meals here and there, and you don’t need to stress over completely eliminating fast food. Making just a few small, manageable shifts to your regular eating habits will help move picky eaters in the right direction.

To learn more about substituting fast food with Nurture Life’s healthy meals for picky eaters, check out our balanced menu for all ages (and look for the Picky Eater Fav tag!). If you have any questions about ordering our meals or introducing Nurture Life to your kids, send us a message at support@nurturelife.com

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Lara Field

Lara has been working with Nurture Life since its inception, collaborating with the culinary team on the creation of all menus and recipes to ensure they are nutritionally appropriate and correctly proportioned for every age and stage of a child’s development and providing pediatric nutrition expertise to Nurture Life customers. Lara is the owner/founder of FEED—Forming Early Eating Decisions, a nutrition consulting practice specializing in pediatric nutrition and digestive diseases. Lara has over a decade of experience in clinical practice at two of the top ranked pediatric hospitals in the country, Lurie Children’s Hospital and University of Chicago Medical Center. Lara received her B.S. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and M.S. and dietetic internship from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. Lara truly enjoys the process of eating (and feeding!), from procuring the ingredients at various grocery stores and farmers markets, to organizing her pantry/refrigerator at home to make it easy to select healthy options, to preparing balanced meals with her children. Whether it be a decadent treat to a hearty, home-cooked meal, there is no greater satisfaction for Lara than enjoying food with her family.

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