Struggling with food fussbudgets? Here are a few ideas and strategies for helping children and other picky eaters transition to a healthier diet.
Prepare your child. Talk with your child about nutrition and the importance of developing a healthy body. Together, come up with a family plan, including a list of steps the family wants to take to transition to a more healthful diet. Post the list in a place where everyone can see it.
Role model. If your child sees you enjoying these changes, he will be more likely to join in.
Involve your child. Children of all ages can help with menu planning, shopping, and preparing meals. Kids love going to farm markets! Children who feel they have had a part preparing the meal will be more likely to eat it.
Introduce a wide variety of foods. Offer a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Offer a few teaspoons of each at every dinner. Even if your child eats only two bites, he will understand that these are the foods that make up a healthy diet. When he/she starts wanting more than two bites, expand your offerings to include more foods. As your child grows, increase serving sizes.
Experiment with old favorites. Offer a new food with a familiar one. Applaud adventurous eating.
Offer the same food prepared in different ways. Offer foods alone and prepared in combination with other ingredients. Cut foods in different ways. Try carrot sticks one day and carrot coins another.
Don’t Give Up. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, many children will not accept a new food until it has been offered at least ten times. Continue to offer new foods until your child considers them familiar.
Introduce foods one bite or several bites at a time. Some children become overwhelmed by large quantities of food on their plate. Others will feel more successful if they can finish a small quantity of food you have provided, so keep portions small.
Serve vegetables and new foods as an appetizer. If vegetables and new foods are served last or with other foods, children can easily fill themselves up and leave vegetables behind. Start dinner, for example, with a few green beans and carrots or a green salad as a starter. When everyone has finished theirs, serve the rest of the meal. Consider serving fruits with the meal or saving them for dessert.
Institute the “two-bite” rule by eating two bites of each item on their plate. Explain that our tastes change as we grow up and what we didn’t like last week we may like this week. Explain, too, that eating a variety of food builds stronger, happier bodies. Remember that children’s food preferences change frequently. What they don’t like on Wednesday might be a great hit on Friday or vice versa.
Consider the possible unspoken meanings of “I don’t like it.” “I don’t like it” might really mean “I’d rather have a piece of chocolate cake” or “I’m not in the mood for that right now.” Insist on the two-bite rule.
Don’t become a short-order cook. Prepare only one meal for the entire family. At first your child may refuse to eat dinner. Remain calm, stand firm, and ignore tantrums. Your child will not die of hunger from skipping a meal, but will likely come to the next meal with a healthy appetite and a willingness to eat what is served. Allow each family member to plan one dinner a week. Doing so will ensure that everyone has at least one dinner to look forward to.
Don’t make a big deal when your child rejects a food. Stay cool and reaffirm the boundaries you have established by insisting that your child eat two bites before leaving the table. Don’t let your child engage you in a power struggle.
Give your child a choice. Give your child some choices within the boundaries you establish. For example, instead of asking, “What do you want for lunch?” ask “Would you like a sandwich, or a quesadilla?”
Do not completely forbid certain foods. Forbidden foods can quickly become the foods of greatest desire. At school, for example, children are more likely to trade for foods that are not allowed at home. Allow your children to choose a special food from time to time and let them eat it guilt free. Teach your children the difference between everyday foods and occasional foods. In time, they will start making healthy choices on their own.
Encourage children to bring home their lunch leftovers. Looking at leftover lunches is a great way to get information about your children’s lunch preferences. Find out why certain foods have come back uneaten. Did your child not like it? Was he/she not hungry enough to eat everything in the lunchbox? Was there a birthday celebration at school that day? Did he/she share someone else’s lunch instead? Maintain a dialogue without criticizing.
Consider making a list of foods that your child likes to eat for lunch and update it regularly with input from your child. You may find that he/she prefers romaine lettuce to red leaf lettuce. By making this simple change, he/she might start eating salads more regularly. Providing a dip for carrot and celery sticks might make eating them more fun.
Avoid food rewards. Neither dessert nor candy should be used as a punishment or enticement. Rather, you must establish and enforce rules for when and how many treats will be consumed.
- Explore lots more healthy eating tips on VegKitchen's Veg Kids and Teens page as well as in the Nutrition area.
Amy Hemmert and Tammy Pelstring are the founders of Laptop Lunches, an ingenious system for storing and transporting food. This helps parents provide their children with healthy lunches from home while cutting down on the enormous waste of packaged foods.