We all want our youngsters to eat nutrient-rich foods and hope they naturally gravitate towards choosing healthy options – especially when we’re not around to feed them. But you may find yourself with a picky eater and you’re at a loss of how to get them to eat anything other than chicken nuggets or mac & cheese.
Being a picky eater typically starts around the age of one or two. This is the age when kids begin to form specific opinions, but also act very fickle. They love a certain food one day, but if you suggest it to them the next day, they have a temper tantrum.
Some parents feel like bribing their kids is the only way to get them to eat healthy options. Forcing and bribing kids to eat specific foods seldom instills a desired result or behavior. Instead, try different strategies on your meticulous eaters to encourage healthy eating habits.
1. Respect Your Child’s Request Without Giving In
Don’t force your kids to eat a meal or snack or to clean their plate. This may cause a power struggle between you and your child which could cause them to associate mealtime with a negative experience. It may also lead to negative behavior like anxiety with meals or sensitivities with feelings of hunger. Instead, encourage your kid to remain at the table for the entire mealtime, even if they say they aren’t hungry, otherwise, you’re helping to enforce the picky eating behaviors.
2. Involve Kids in the Process by Recruiting Their Help
Kids love to feel included and making them part of the process may help them be more willing to try something they've contributed to. Some easy ways to involve them is by: helping you build a healthy eating plan for the week, selecting produce when grocery shopping, prepping meals, setting the table, loading the dishwasher or drying the dishes, and passing and serving the food at the table. For older kids, skills like cooking have been highlighted within the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior for their role in developing teens into adults who eat healthier and choose to eat more fruits and vegetables.
3. Encourage Kids to Explore Their Food
At-home taste tests are a fun way to introduce foods to kids and make it a game. Talking together about a food’s color, shape, aroma, taste, and texture can help them become familiar with foods and make them more appealing. Another fun element is to taste them blindfolded!
4. Offer Healthy Snacks Throughout the Day
Some kids, especially at younger ages, may just naturally be grazers and prefer to eat small meals throughout the day. Try providing a range of nourishing, creative snacks at regular times throughout the day. This will provide your child the opportunity to eat, even if they choose not to eat much at meal times.
5. Create a Specific Setting for Mealtime
Kids may be more receptive to foods if the environment sets the expectation of focus and family time. Encourage everyone involved to stay calm and comfortable about eating. Make sure the TV and electronic devices are turned off during meals. Gather around a table, instead of allowing people to get up multiple times or eat on the sofa in the living room, and have fun prompts ready to talk about the day together.
6. Make it Fun
Create food art, cut foods into shapes, or add bright colored foods to dishes. For older children, serve breakfast or a non-traditional item for dinner or add a fun dip or sauce with veggies. Children also love to create smoothies using bright-colored fruits and vegetables.
7. Don’t Offer Dessert as a Reward
Using dessert as a bribe gives the message that dessert is the best food offered and will increase your child’s desire for it. Instead of their goal being to eat a healthy meal, they'll focus on the reward of dessert. Of course, having dessert a couple nights a week is not a bad thing, and there are ways to make your dessert a healthy option too. Put whipped cream on just about any kind of fruit, and odds are a kid will eat it!
A child’s eating habits won’t change overnight but utilizing these strategies can help them develop positive habits over time. Offering healthy options and staying consistent are the keys to encouraging them to make their own healthy choices as they grow.