Try these eight ways to keep mealtime positive for the whole family.
Sometimes it just happens. You’ve tried everything to get your child to eat healthy foods and all your efforts are failing. Mealtime is a continual battle of wills.
There’s no single definition of “picky eating,” but parents know it when they see it. The hard part is figuring out why your child is resisting certain foods. Maybe the food smells stinky, is a gross color or (gasp!) is too mushy/hard/stringy/chewy or any of a hundred other things that only your kid understands.
So what can you do when your child won't eat certain foods?
The first step: Stay calm. Many food preferences change with age. Picky eating is common, and your child very likely will grow out of it. Let’s face it. How many adults do you know who still only eat mac and cheese or pasta with butter?
Here are a few things you can start doing today to help your kids (and yourself!) enjoy mealtime:
- Set realistic expectations and don’t be afraid to try again. Everyone prefers some foods and dislikes others. Kids are allowed to, too. Repeated exposure is one of the best ways to familiarize kids with new foods. The more they see it or are offered it, the more they may try it. It’s not uncommon for kids to try a food multiple times before they like it.
- Make the healthy choice the easy choice. Try putting ready-to-eat snacks where it’s easy for kids to grab them, such as on the counter or on an easy-to-reach refrigerator or freezer shelf. Try these:
- Frozen grapes (cut in half for younger kids*)
- baby carrots (served cooked for younger kids*)
- orange segments
- air-popped popcorn
- celery sticks with peanut butter* and raisins
- cucumber spears
- smoothies served in frozen pop molds or 2-ounce paper cups with wooden pop sticks
- homemade trail mix, such as nuts*, whole-grain cereal and dried unsweetened fruit
- Pair up foods they like with new ones or ones they don’t like — yet.
- Do your kids love peanut butter? Offer apple or banana slices with a light schmear of peanut butter for a snack.
- Do your kids like nuts? If so, sprinkle chopped almonds or pecans over something new you’d like them to try, such as fish, green beans or asparagus.
- Kids won’t eat whole-wheat pasta? Next time you make a pot of pasta, try combining half “regular” pasta with half whole wheat to help their palate adjust. Once you’ve done that a few times, try serving all whole-wheat pasta.
- Model good food choices. How many times have you been enjoying a delicious meal and suddenly your child is staring at you and asking for a bite? Kids often want what parents have, so make a point of telling them how much you enjoy healthy foods. Sincerity is best. Kids will know when you’re telling the truth. Also tell them the specific benefits of eating those specific healthy foods. (“Fruits and veggies help your heart be strong!”) They’re listening to everything you say — even when it doesn’t seem like it.
- Make it a family event. Involve them in grocery shopping, menu planning and meal prep. One way to expose them to new foods is to let them pick out a different fruit or vegetable every grocery trip. Maybe they’ll be drawn to the scaly skin of dragon fruit or the bright colors of bell peppers. Buy one, then let them see, smell, touch and taste what’s on the inside.
Another way is to ask kids for their input with meal planning and give them some reasonable decision-making power. Give them some healthy snack choices or vegetable side dish options and ask them which ones they would prefer. Work together to create a weekly meal planner and post it on the refrigerator.
And, finally, engage the kids in meal prep by making it fun, silly or challenging.
- Put on music to sing and dance along to. Sing into a wooden spoon or whisk. Role model for kids that being in the kitchen doesn’t have feel like a chore.
- Make or buy aprons that reflect your kids’ preferences, such as their favorite color or ones with ballerinas or dinosaurs on them.
- Ask kids to guess how many minutes they think it will take to prep food before it goes into the oven.
- Ask for volunteers for specific tasks, such as recipe reader, timekeeper, measurer and taste-tester.
- Change the cooking or serving method. Maybe it’s not the food itself that your child dislikes but rather how it was prepared or served. Perhaps it’s the texture, smell or taste. Take broccoli, for example. It has a completely different taste and texture raw than cooked. If your kids don’t like the raw broccoli you served in the salad last night, steam it the next time you serve it. If they still don’t like it, try roasting it. Or serve it with one of their favorite dips, like hummus. Try out different cooking and serving methods to see what’s more appetizing to their eyes and tummies.
- Have an all-day approach. Children’s portion sizes are a lot smaller than adults’. If they’re filling up on snacks and high-calorie drinks between meals, they may not be as hungry (or as willing to try new foods) at mealtime. Consider their activity and nutrition over the course of the whole day to ensure they’re ready to eat at mealtime.
- Be consistent and don’t give up. Everyone has bad days. Keep in mind there are a lot of factors involved when trying to improve kids’ nutrition. Maybe they’re fussy. Maybe they need more food because they’re going through a growth spurt. Avoid negativity and pressure to eat. Focus on long-term goals and be consistent.
Bonus tip. Most importantly, give yourself some grace. You’re doing your best. Having a patient, loving approach at mealtime will benefit your child for a lifetime. Now, what’s for dinner?