Nutrition is critical for a developing brain. But what are you supposed to do if your child refuses to eat healthy foods? Any mama of a picky eater knows it can feel like a juggling act preparing a meal your kiddo will want to eat that also contains the nutrients they need.
The first few years of life are foundational for a baby's brain development as it grows in size and creates neural connections. The trick is to learn what foods make your child squirm. Is it the texture or a certain color? Or maybe you notice they are willing to eat all things crunchy but reject mushy foods. Using these tidbits of information, you can find ways to work with their preferences instead of against them.
The pressure to feed your child the right foods can feel overwhelming sometimes, but don't panic if your child has a less than adventurous palate (raises hand). There are plenty of healthy foods to support brain development that even the pickiest eater will love (it just may take some trial and error). Here are some of our favorites.
Blueberries are packed with antioxidants and polyphenols that support healthy brain development. Studies even suggest that the flavonoids in blueberries could help children improve memory and learning.
Most kiddos will enjoy blueberries, but if your little one has a hard time eating them whole because of the texture, you can try adding them to a smoothie. Or try microwaving frozen blueberries and serve them over Greek yogurt for a sweet treat.
Yogurt is a good source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D. It also contains probiotics to keep your gut healthy (important since the gut and brain are closely linked).
There are so many ways to enjoy yogurt. You can eat it plain, add fruit or granola, or use it as a base for a smoothie. If your child doesn't like plain yogurt, try serving it with their favorite fruit or cereal. You can also make frozen yogurt pops or use it as a creamy swap for mayo in sandwiches.
Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, essential for kiddos and babies' brain development and cognitive health. Eating more fish is even linked to better performance in school.
But fish can be a tough sell for picky kiddos, especially if they are texture- or smell-sensitive. If your child falls into this category, you can try canned salmon and mix it up with some mayo, diced celery, and a squeeze of lemon juice for a variation on tuna served with their favorite crackers. You can also make breaded salmon nuggets using whole wheat bread crumbs, eggs and seasonings.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of beta-carotene, a nutrient the body converts into vitamin A to support your little one's brain and vision.
Most kids love sweet potatoes, especially roasted and served with a bit of butter or cinnamon. But if your child is resistant to eating them, try pureeing them and adding them to soups, muffins or pancake batter. You can also make sweet potato fries as a fun and healthy alternative to regular French fries.
Eggs are a great source of protein and choline, a nutrient that's essential for brain development. Choline helps with memory and learning.
Eggs are so versatile that you can cook them in a million ways to please even the fussiest eater. Scrambled eggs, omelets, and hard-boiled eggs are all good options. You can also get creative and make fun egg dishes like mini quiches or breakfast egg muffins.
Spinach is loaded with brain-boosting nutrients, including iron, folate, and vitamin A. Still, most kids aren't exactly thrilled to see this green vegetable on their plate.
One way to add more spinach into your child's diet is to make a smoothie. Just blend it with almond milk (or liquid of choice), banana, peanut butter, and cocoa powder. Pro tip: freeze the bananas for a thicker, creamier consistency. You can also try adding it to pasta dishes or meatballs.
Avocados are delicious and contain healthy fats that are essential for brain development. They're also packed with fiber and vitamins C and E, making them a brain-building superfood.
Mashed or sliced avocado is the easiest way to serve them, but if your child doesn't like the taste or texture, you can try adding avocado to smoothies for a creamy texture. Just freeze them in cubes beforehand (this is also an excellent way to preserve avocados that all turn ripe at the same time).
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are a good source of healthy fats, protein, vitamins and minerals. Walnuts, flax and chia seeds are also plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Nuts and seeds can be a choking hazard for little ones, so nut butter or ground seeds added to smoothies or yogurt are your best bet until they get older. For kiddos older than 4, you can try making your own trail mix with your child's favorite nuts, seeds and dried fruit.
Feeding your kids healthy foods is oh-so important, but don’t stress if they won’t immediately eat all of the above. It takes time for picky eaters to feel safe trying new foods. Try working on finding one or two that work and expand from there.
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Laue HE, Coker MO, Madan JC. The Developing Microbiome From Birth to 3 Years: The Gut-Brain Axis and Neurodevelopmental Outcomes. Frontiers in Pediatrics. 2022;10. doi:10.3389/fped.2022.815885
Lehner A, Staub K, Aldakak L, Eppenberger P, Rühli F, Martin RD, Bender N. Fish consumption is associated with school performance in children in a non-linear way: Results from the German cohort study KiGGS. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health. 2020;2020(1):2-11. doi:10.1093%2Femph%2Feoz038