This week’s question is from Izzy,
“What are some nutrient-dense, and at least kind of kid-friendly foods for picky eaters that I can try to incorporate into my child’s diet? My three kids range from somewhat picky to super picky and we are working on getting comfortable with new foods. I would like to try to incorporate some new foods that have better nutrient density, any recommendations?”
In this episode, I will address picky eaters and 7 of my top foods/food categories that I find are the most kid-friendly, nutrient-dense, readily available, and easy to prepare. Choosing food for picky eaters can be tough but these 7 foods help give you a place to start. First, I’m going to define “nutrient-dense foods” and why whole foods are essential in brain and body development. Then I will discuss each of the 7 foods/food categories, the nutrients they contain, and why they are good options.
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Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:01:12
What is Nutrient Density? … 00:02:12
Exposing Picky Eaters to Nutrient-Dense Foods … 6:02
7 Nutrient-Dense Foods, Starting with Blueberries … 00:08:35
Versatile and Nutrient-Packed Avocado … 00:12:50
Pumpkin Seeds as a Hero Food … 00:16:06
Getting in Animal Proteins with Kids … 00:18:32
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. We are going to talk about nutrient-dense foods to prioritize in your child’s diet. Why do we want to do that? Because nutrients are the building blocks for the brain and body. Our kids don’t just need calories from food to grow, they need the nutrients that come from real whole foods to build their brain function, to support their mood, to support their anxiety, their attention, all of those pieces, as well as their physical growth. So the specific question today comes from Izzy, and Izzy writes: “What are some nutrient-dense, and at least kind of kid friendly foods I can try to incorporate into my child’s diet? My three kids range from somewhat picky to super picky and we are working on getting comfortable with new foods. I would like to try to incorporate some new foods that have better nutrient density, any recommendations?” I love how Izzy included in the question that she wants them to be at least kind of kid friendly. I hear that. Even if you are raising kids who are not picky with their eating, there certainly are foods that tend to fall in the category of things that may be really nutrient-dense and good for us, but maybe not so palatable for kids and even for most adults for that matter. So I will try to focus on things that I think are easy for you to find in the grocery store, easy for you to work into recipes and into the things that you are feeding your family and things that your kids might be more open to exploring and enjoying.
So let’s start with the big idea here about nutrient density. We really want to focus on putting as many nutrient-dense foods into our child’s diet because that is where we get more bang for the buck with what we are feeding them. What does it mean for something to be nutrient-dense? It means that for the volume of food, it’s got a lot of macronutrients like proteins, healthy fats, carbohydrates, as well as micronutrients, things like vitamins and minerals and phytonutrients that we need to support good brain and body health. So let me give an example of a nutrient-dense food: Let’s take the example of an apple. An apple is a nutrient-dense food. It has a lot of fiber in it, it’s got a lot of vitamins, it’s got a lot of phytonutrients in it, and so when we eat an apple, calorie for calorie, we are getting a lot of nutrients in those calories that we are eating. So that is a nutrient-dense food. And it’s also something that we would call a whole food, meaning it’s food in its natural form. You would go out on an apple farm and pick an apple off the tree and eat it. Now let’s contrast that maybe with a less nutrient-dense food. Let’s think about an apple flavored fruit snack, for example. So we might have some vitamins and minerals probably added in, not even in their natural form, but really when we look at the amount of calories and the size of an apple flavored fruit snack, and we look at the amount of nutrients, macronutrients and micronutrients, we are not getting a lot there. Primarily what we are getting is a lot of sugar. Now, even if that is “natural” sugar, and not something like high fructose corn syrup, it’s still sugar without much fiber, without protein, without any healthy fat, and really is not going to have a lot of those vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. So that is an example of more of a processed food. And there are ultra-processed, which are fruit snacks with a ton of added sugars and chemicals and dyes and all that, but any fruit snack is processed, and even some of the “healthier” ones, they are not necessarily super nutrient-dense. So this is really what we want to be thinking about, is at least making sure that some of the things that we are putting in our kids’ diet, as many as possible, are nutrient-dense, meaning when they eat them, they are getting a lot of the building blocks that they need. Another example nutrient-density wise would be eating, let’s say chicken breast or homemade chicken nuggets, where you are cutting up pieces of chicken breast and breading them yourself and cooking them. So chicken breast is a nutrient-dense food. You’ve got a lot of protein in there, a lot of minerals that kids need and that adults need to support proper brain function and good health. Now, if you think about going to the freezer section of your grocery store and grabbing a bag of really heavily processed chicken nuggets, yeah, you are going to have some chicken in there, hopefully, but it’s not going to be nearly as much. And they are going to have a lot of other added things in there: breadings and starches, probably chemicals and preservatives, and so again, calorie for calorie, bite for bite, you are not getting as much nutrient density in those ultra-processed chicken nuggets as you would from a less processed chicken nugget, or from something that you may get home, or even just a piece of chicken breast. So hopefully, that gets you thinking about the difference there between something that is more nutrient-dense and something that is less nutrient-dense.
So especially if you have a child who tends to be very selective or hesitant about eating new things, or you just even have a child who maybe doesn’t have a huge appetite, isn’t eating a ton during the day, you want to try to focus on getting them comfortable with and pushing new things into their diet that are more nutrient-dense. I think that this is easier for some kids than it is for others, so you just want to see what efforts you can make in this area, but keep it in the back of your mind. The things I’m going to talk about as far as foods that I think you could start with or focus on, you can eat these plain, you can mix them in things, I will talk to you about some options for that, but if you have a child who is anywhere on that pickiness spectrum, whether it’s sort of mildly picky, all the way into severely picky or even a child with a feeding disorder, I don’t want you to think, “Oh, well, I’m never going to get my kid to eat these things, so this episode isn’t for me.” Actually, you want to start with not focusing on the eating. If you have a child who is moderately to severely picky, or has a feeding disorder, you absolutely want to work on incorporating these foods into their life, but you are working on exposure and not starting out with trying to get them to eat it. So I’m going to talk about some specific nutrient-dense foods that I think are good to work with, with kids, and you are thinking about exposure. How can I get my kids helping me pick these out of the grocery store or the farmers market? How can I have my child come for a few minutes and help me in the kitchen when I’m cooking with these things? Can I give my child opportunities to play with some of these foods? To do projects or arts and crafts with them? Can we just get used to having them on the plate, even if they are not going to eat them? That is what I want you to start with thinking about this. So it’s absolutely possible to help kids have more nutrient density in their diet, even if they have severe feeding issues. It’s all about what we are exposing them to and how we are moving through that process. So those are some things to think about there. And then obviously, the other big idea around this is that you need to be modeling yourself. Now I’m going to give you lots of ideas here. Maybe you love some of these things, maybe you tolerate some of them, maybe you flat out don’t like some of them, that is okay, we all have our preferences. But if you want your child to be eating more nutrient-dense foods, you need to be modeling that yourself, they need to see you engaging with and eating these kinds of foods. So don’t forget about the importance of that.
Okay, so I’m going to share with you seven nutrient-dense foods or categories of foods that I think are really great to focus on with kids. I’m going to talk to you about what specific nutrients they contain, why they are good options, and then some ways that you can incorporate them into your child’s diet. Okay, so let’s start with blueberries. This is a really nice starting point because lots of kids like fruit, fruits tend to be sweeter, kids are more familiar with them. So blueberries, berries in general are great. So we could even think about this as the whole category of berries. I’m going to focus specifically on blueberries. Why are blueberries such a beneficial food to incorporate into your child’s diet? Well, they are very nutrient-dense, they have a lot of fiber in them, which helps to stabilize blood sugar, it also helps keep the digestive system functioning well, helps keep kids full longer. So full of fiber. Blueberries are also a surprisingly good source of iron, and I see lots of kids who if they are not iron deficient or anemic, don’t really get as much iron as they need in their diets because they are not eating enough animal protein or other things that contain iron. So blueberries can be a really nice way to get iron in your kids. They are also a great source of Vitamin C, which we know is good for immune function and so many other things in the body, vitamin K, which is also really beneficial, and phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are the things that make fruits and vegetables the colors that they are. So we have got sort of this rainbow of colors in produce, and that is because they contain different phytonutrients that actually make them those different colors. And so all the different colors of foods have different phytonutrient profiles, and phytonutrients are so important for helping our body to be able to detox, protecting ourselves from damage, and they just support so many functions in the brain and the body. So blueberries are a great source of those. Now, blueberries, obviously, are tasty on their own, most people think. So often, it’s not a tough thing to get kids to eat berries, blueberries, specifically, even just as a side dish, or on top of things, or just eating them plain. But what are some other ways that we can incorporate blueberries or other kinds of berries? Well, they are easy to get into baked goods. So if your child is eating muffins, or different kinds of breads, or pancakes, or those kinds of things, you can incorporate blueberries in there pretty easily. It will add a little bit of sweetness and you up the nutrient density of those items. Blueberries are also great in smoothies. So if your child is into shakes or smoothies, blueberries are a great thing to add, and one of the nice things about berries in a smoothie is it adds sweetness and a lot of nutrient density, and you can cover up maybe some of the other things that you want to sneak in a smoothie or a shake that maybe they wouldn’t be real tolerant of if you served it separately. Here’s one of my little tricks and tips with a smoothie, especially if you have kids, maybe they don’t like smoothies or shakes but they are really into popsicles or ice cream. You can turn your smoothie or your shake into a popsicle. Just go get some popsicle molds from the store, or order them online and blend up your smoothie and pour it into the molds, put the sticks in and, voila, a couple hours later, you have got a really nutrient-dense popsicle, ice cream bar, whatever you want to call it. So that can work really well. Blueberries are also great on top of yogurt, or you can even increase the nutrient density of ice cream by putting some blueberries on it. That is a great way. If your child is eating ice cream, which there is nothing wrong with doing that sometimes, it tends to have a lot of sugar, so one of the ways that we can help balance that out is with some fiber from the blueberries. So even throwing blueberries and something like ice cream can be great. So thinking about how you can incorporate more blueberries specifically, or maybe berries just more generally into your child’s diet.
Okay, next is avocado. Why are avocados such a great nutrient-dense food? Well, they are a wonderful source of healthy fat, the kind of fat that we want and need our kids to be getting to support brain structure and function. So great source of healthy fat, also a great source of fiber. Avocados also have a bit of protein in them which is helpful, especially if you have a kid who is not a big fan of meat. Avocados are full of B vitamins, vitamin K, vitamin C, and also the mineral potassium, which is so important for many functions throughout the body. So avocado is a great food to think about how you can incorporate more of that to increase the nutrient density even in foods you are already serving. So where does our mind go with avocados? Well for me it goes to guacamole right out of the gate. So if you have a child who likes chips, corn chips, or other kinds of chips, serving guacamole with it can be great, or guacamole and veggies if they eat vegetables. Guacamole added to taco night or any of those kinds of things can be a great option. Thinking about sandwiches: If your child is eating sandwiches, maybe for lunch, for school or even at home, putting some avocado slices on there to increase the nutrient density or mashing some avocado and spreading it on the bread maybe instead of mayonnaise or in addition to that, that is a good way to do it. I mentioned tacos and other kinds of dishes that you can add avocado to, either on the side or on top of is a great option. Another thing that works really nicely with avocados is you can freeze them and you can cut them into slices, or I like to do it in chunks then you can freeze them, and they can be a nice snack that way. Some kids love just eating, especially if they liked the idea of a popsicle or a frozen treat, that can be a great option. And there are even stores now that sell bags of frozen avocado chunks and that can be a great way to do it. I know Trader Joe’s for sure has lots of frozen, bagged fruits, avocado included, so you can just get those chunks to keep it easy. And then again, smoothies or shakes, avocados add some great creaminess to them, it’s a great way to add the nutrient density without really changing the flavor a whole lot. Avocado blends up really nicely with chocolate, with banana, even with vegetables, with berries, so you can add that to pretty much anything you are doing with a smoothie or a shake just to up the nutrient density. You can use avocado for sure in baked goods that you are doing, you can mash it up and add it to that. So it’s a pretty versatile thing, and the nice thing is that it’s pretty mild in flavor, so you can get it into some foods maybe that your child is already eating without them really noticing that it’s there. Or again, if you have a super picky eater or a kid who notices and is hesitant about everything new with food, then you just start exposing them to avocado in some obvious ways. Like the chunks of it or using it on the side or whatever just so they get acclimated to it.
Alright, nutrient-dense food number three: Pumpkin seeds. Pumpkin seeds to me are real hero food because they are little, you can mix them in lots of things or eat them plain, kids generally like the crunch, and they are super nutrient-dense. People often don’t realize how nutrient-dense they are. Excellent source of fiber, excellent source of protein, excellent source of healthy fat. They also contain a lot of minerals, and so many kids have suboptimal mineral levels in the food that they eat on a daily basis, and so pumpkin seeds are a great way to increase their intake of magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, all of those things that are super important. Pumpkin seeds also have a lot of antioxidants which protect our cells, so pumpkin seeds are just an awesome food to think about putting into the diet on a regular basis. They go well in baked goods—you can top things that you are baking with pumpkin seeds for some extra crunch or flavor. You can put them in muffins, breads, things like that. Certainly, you can grind them up and put them in things that you are baking, you can also grind them up and put them in sauces, you can put them in dressings, you can add them to nut butter if your child is a fan of peanut butter, almond butter, whatever. Grind those pumpkin seeds up and add it in there. It will not change the texture too much, but it’ll really up the nutrient density. You can also roast pumpkin seeds. You can buy them, there are so many companies now that make them already with different flavors and things like that, but you can make them yourself. Roast them up with some olive oil and whatever seasonings—It could be garlic, it could just be sea salt, you could make them with cinnamon and a little bit of sugar on there. Lots of different options for that, and that is often a great process that they can help with. And then you can sprinkle them on things for extra crunch. Use them instead of croutons on salads, let kids experiment with what they want, to sprinkle some pumpkin seeds on just to add some extra interest and some crunch. And then trail mix is another great way to get pumpkin seeds in. If your child’s already eating a trail mix, just throw some pumpkin seeds in there, if you are making it at home, incorporate that into the mix that you are making. Great options for easily getting pumpkin seeds and all that nutrient density into the diet.
Alright, option number four: Animal proteins. Now I whenever I talk about animal proteins, I get a bit of pushback from people who are vegetarian or vegan, and that is a subject for a different episode to talk about the specific needs and concerns around families and kids that are on vegetarian or vegan diets, but what I will say for now from the standpoint of this conversation about nutrient density is animal proteins are incredibly nutrient-dense. They are far and away the most dense way to get protein and easily absorbed minerals and vitamins that come along with that protein source. They are a great source of healthy fat, depending on how the animals were raised. Obviously, we want to aim for animals that are grass fed and finished, that are raised humanely, all of those kinds of things, wild-caught seafood. But even if you are not able to afford animal proteins with those kinds of specific designations, or ways that they were raised, animal protein is still calorie for calorie, a great dense source of lots of things that your kids need to grow and develop. So we have got the protein, the healthy fat. B vitamins are critical. Kids who are on vegetarian or vegan diets or who just don’t include meat in their diet tend to struggle with getting B vitamins where they need to be, a source of vitamin D and lots of minerals. So people think about iron, but we are also talking about important things like zinc, so lots of reasons why animal proteins are a great thing to have in your child’s diet. And we are talking about beef, chicken, pork, fish, seafood, all of those options, however you want to cook those, lots of possibilities there. Also deli meat. Now I know deli meat gets a really bad rap, especially in the health and wellness community, because some deli meats really are not very good for you. They have a lot of things added, chemicals, different types of things. But you also can find more and more companies now, Applegate being one of them, and several others that make really clean good deli meat. As a mom, I really appreciate that because I have kids who are in school, we need things that are quick for lunchboxes, and so good quality deli meat is super easy, and so that should absolutely be an option. You also can shred these different meats and include them in things, and I will say as a tip for kids who are really picky or have feeding disorders, shredding the meat can often make it easier for them to tolerate, and even just from a sensory standpoint with chewing and managing in their mouth, shredding it whether it’s like let’s say you might cook beef or pork or chicken in the crock pot, for example, you can shred it and pull it apart really easily, and now suddenly, it’s not as scary for some kids. The size feels more manageable, it’s not so thick, they can manage it in their mouth better. So that is a tip there. Shredding them can make it easier. You can also include animal proteins in sauces, obviously like spaghetti sauce, adding ground beef, or pork, or sausage or whatever you are going to do in that, but lots of sauces you can do that with. So think about what are some sauces my child likes? Can I incorporate a little bit of animal protein in there? There are great meat sticks available, there are some really poor quality ones like Slim Jim’s and stuff like that that add a lot of sugar and chemicals and things, but there are many companies now that offer really good quality meat sticks, easy for snacks, easy to have on the go. And again, their size isn’t as intimidating sometimes to kids as something like a whole piece of meat on their plate. Another way to think about this is to incorporate collagen protein or bone broth or things like that into your child’s diet. So collagen protein, the one that I use and recommend at the clinic comes from beef, hydrolyzed beef protein. It’s a beef collagen protein that adds a good amount of protein and these other benefits to things like shakes and smoothies or even baked goods. You can do bone broth, which has a lot of these good nutrients in it. You can incorporate that into sauces, when you are boiling noodles, lots of ways that you can use that in soups, different kinds of things. So those can sometimes be easy ways, especially if your child is really averse to the actual pieces of meat themselves. You can look at some collagen protein, you can look at some bone broth and getting those into foods that they are already eating.
All right, next up: Dark leafy greens. You knew this was going to be on the list, right? So we have got fiber, vitamins A, and C and more. We have got folate, super important, vitamin K, iron, potassium, antioxidants, phytonutrients, all those good things. You can put dark leafy greens obviously in a salad or something like that, but many kids are not too fond of that. So what can we do? Blend them into smoothies and shakes. We can puree them and use them in baked goods, use them in sauces. Get creative with cooking them down and adding them to things your child is already eating, adding them to shakes and smoothies then turning it into a popsicle, things like that. There are also some great greens powders out there now that if your child likes drinking stuff like that, you could certainly go with that.
Then we have got the category of nuts. Why are nuts so nutrient-dense? They have fiber, healthy fats, protein, some carbs, lots of vitamins and minerals, depending on the type, whether we are talking about almonds versus peanuts versus macadamias, whatever, they all have different profiles, but lots of them are very mineral dense and that is super helpful. So how can we incorporate more nuts? Well, nut butter. We tend to think of peanut butter, but let’s think about almond butter, cashew butter, all different types of butters. They are great to blend in smoothies and shakes. You can grind them up and add them to baked goods and things that you are cooking that way. Nuts can be a great topping for things like yoghurt or oatmeal. Add some nutrient density, some crunch, some interest. Put them in a trail mix, eat them plain. Lots of options here for nuts, super nutrient-dense benefits for kids.
And then the last one on my list for today is sweet potatoes. Many kids enjoy sweet potatoes. It’s often a food that kids are exposed to early on if they were given baby foods even when they were really little, and sweet potatoes tend to be a little more palatable because they do have a bit of sweetness to them, and they are very nutrient-dense. They provide a great source of fiber. They even have some protein in them. Some nice nutrient-dense carbs, vitamins A, C, B6, lots of minerals and antioxidants. They are an orange food, that orange color, again those phytonutrients and antioxidants. So obviously you can use sweet potato plain. Maybe your child is a big fan of french fries, well can we switch to sometimes doing a sweet potato fry? That can be a great bridge into incorporating sweet potatoes. You can puree it and put it again in baked goods, in sauces, you can add them to things like smoothies. Serve them sliced or just like a full baked sweet potato with some butter and maybe even a little bit of brown sugar if you want to do that to help maybe pique their interest and get them trying it. You can also roast sweet potatoes and season them however you like, and that texture, if you have a kid who really is not a fan of purees or mushy things, roasting them to still keep them a little bit firm, but give them some good flavor and some caramelization on the outside, that can be a great option. And then you can also make sweet potato pancakes. So if your child is a pancake lover, add a little bit of sweet potato into that batter to add some nutrient density to it. So those are lots of ideas for incorporating sweet potatoes.
So those are seven to get you started and really thinking about how you can use these foods to increase nutrient density. These are ones that I not only have done with my own kids over the years, but also find are great starting points for kids at my clinic, so I hope that gets your wheels turning, and I hope that it’s helpful for Izzy and all the rest of you looking for ways to incorporate more nutrient-dense foods into your child’s diet. I will also let you know that I have a workshop all about nutrient-dense foods, how to feed kids to support their brain development and to support their behavior, that is called The Better Brain and Behavior Diet Workshop. You can go to drnicoleworkshops.com and get all the info on that if you liked the info in today’s episode and want to know even more tips for how to apply this and lots more foods and lots more ways to be thinking about all of this, then definitely check that out at drnicoleworkshops.com, and as always, thank you for being here and for listening, and I will catch you back here next time.