I don’t like that!”
“But you didn’t even taste it! You need to eat that or you won’t get dessert.”
Is this the conversation that plays out at every meal at your house? The situation is frustrating for children and their parents alike, all across the nation. While some feeding difficulties can be prevented by introducing a variety of healthy foods early in life, other troubles can be related to things like tactile issues, developmental delays, or just being a kid. And, no matter the lengths we go to trying to prevent a picky eater, sometimes it happens anyway. And since reasoning with small children is sometimes like nailing Jell-O to a tree, here are my top twelve tips to help improve acceptance of more foods:
- Be a good example. Kids are smart, and they watch everything you do. If you want them to eat their vegetables, make sure you eat yours, too! Try to show a good attitude about it, as well, since kids can pick right up on your non-verbal cues.
- Leverage their interests. Does their favorite character eat carrots? Try having Bugs Bunny’s Carrot Coins for dinner. Get creative with this! You might be surprised at the persuasive power of fictional characters. Have you ever noticed how many of them adorn the boxes in the cereal aisle?
- Eat at the table with the TV/computer/cell phone off. Too much stimulation can overwhelm children, making it harder for them to accept new foods. Eating together as a family can help take some of the pressure off as well.
- Use dips, spreads, and toppings strategically. It’s okay to use a little ranch dressing, ketchup, or butter to help peak your kid’s interest in healthy foods. Does he want to put ketchup on green beans? Great! He’s eating green beans!
- Let them get hungry. Kids are much more likely to accept new foods if they are hungry. That’s not to say they should never have snacks. Kids have small tummies and high nutritional needs. A healthy snack in between meals, like carrots and hummus or whole grain toast and peanut butter, is adequate for most.
- Make it pretty. This is true for kids and adults alike. We eat with our eyes first. If it looks good, we are more likely to think it tastes Make it fun! Use cookie cutters to cut fruit in the shape of stars or flowers, use grapes and a wooden skewer to make caterpillars, or make a veggie platter look like Elmo using grape tomatoes, carrots (for the nose), and 2 small cups of ranch (for the eyes).
- Offer it again. And again. Studies show some children need to be exposed to the same food a dozen or more times before they’ll try it. Don’t lose hope. Keep offering, and one day they just might surprise you!
- Let them help. Find age-appropriate tasks so the kids can help you prepare the food. Small children can dump ingredients in and mix them; older kids can measure ingredients and chop veggies. Kids can even practice their reading skills by reading the recipe to you.
- Give them choices. Kids want to assert their independence, so try letting them! Ask them if they would prefer green beans or broccoli with dinner. That way, you know there will be a veggie with dinner, but the kids get to choose it, and thereby are more likely to try it. Win-win!
- You are not a short-order chef. It’s easy to fall into the trap of cooking four different meals to try to please everyone. Try getting input from all family members on what meals they like, and include everyone’s favorites sometime during the week. Agree on the rules for the family. Are you going to have a “two bite” rule? A “no thank you” bite? A rule that everyone at least puts a small amount of the food on their plate, even if they don’t eat it? Decide what’s best for your family and follow through.
- Dessert is not a reward. It’s tempting to tell the kids they won’t get dessert if they don’t eat their vegetables. But what that really teaches them is that vegetables are yucky, and that desserts are rewards that they deserve when they do something they don’t want to do. It’s really hard to unlearn that later in life.
- The no comment zone. Conversation should be pleasant during meals. Try to avoid comments about your kids’ eating habits. Even positive comments can be counter-productive. Eating can end up being a power struggle this way as kids assert their independence. It’s tough, but avoiding phrases like, “Just take three more bites,” “You haven’t even touched your peas,” and “You’re really eating well tonight,” can really help take the pressure off both child and parent, and make meal times more enjoyable for everyone.
Remember, the goal is not to get the kids to eat Brussels sprouts tonight. The goal is to help them develop healthful habits that they will carry with them to adulthood.
What is your strategy to get your kids to eat healthy?