“My child won’t eat healthy foods!” Getting a child to eat foods that are good for them is a common challenge among parents. Do you feel you are continually fixating on what to feed your child? Are you disturbed when your child rejects the foods they’ve been served, yet again? Is your child just flat-out a “picky eater”? Meals should not be a battle of wills, but nurturing and enjoyable for your family. Luckily, there are a few techniques you can try to help decrease your food worries surrounding your child. The following seven tips will help ensure your child develops healthier habits around food, and alleviate some of your stress along with it.
- Offer three to four foods at each meal, plus healthy snacks when your child is hungry. Don't feed your child by hand or force him to eat. If your child is hungry, he will eat. If you have placed food in front of him, then he will choose to eat when he is hungry. During meals serve him one item you know he will eat, along with other foods he may not typically eat every day. And okay, this may be a hard one for some of you, but resist the urge to get up and fix more food if he doesn't eat what you have served. Three to four easy-to-prepare foods give him plenty of choices.
- Serve the food she is least likely to eat FIRST when she is most hungry. Yes, I am saying make it a two- or three-course meal! But, do not become a short-order cook. Feed her what you would feed the family. For example, if she doesn't eat fruit well, a fruit serving would be your family’s “first course.”
- Have a two-bite rule for children ages four and up. The taste buds develop according to the foods we put in our children’s mouths. Your child may not like the taste of many foods that you offer. Have him take two bites of something he would not ordinarily eat every day. He can choose to eat more, or stop at two bites. Focus on the food group where he is lacking. A food may be repeated many times until he develops an affinity for it. Don't “force” him to eat two bites, but tell him his reward when he does take the bites. In our house, five extra minutes of screen time does the trick.
- Model healthy eating habits for your child. Though we are not perfect role models (I am as guilty as the next person), just try to maintain the “habit” of nutritious eating. If you expect your child to eat healthy foods, then join her at the table to enjoy the dining experience together.
- Give occasional treats. Most treats can be given two to three times per week, depending on the child. If you tell your child WHEN to expect a treat, he will look forward to the occasion. You are teaching him moderation. A treat does not have to be something that has poor nutritional value. Treats can also include fruit, dairy products, and other natural foods.
- Ban junk food from your home. This one piece of advice is good for the whole family. The junk food list includes basically any snack food, dessert, or item with no nutritional value. Examples of junk foods include chips, crackers, sweets, and sugary cereal. It's nearly impossible to totally eliminate junk food, so if you miss it, pick it up two to three times per week when your family or child is having an occasional treat.
- Remove the label “picky eater.” I know, I put the words “picky eater” in the title of this article. However, if you discuss how “particular” your child is in front of her, you are sure to reinforce the behavior. Labels you attach to your child become self-fulfilling prophecies. She will think of herself as picky if she is called picky. Praise her for trying new things, especially when she finishes those two bites. Believe she will develop a more diverse palate, and she will!
By reinforcing healthy eating habits in your child using the above tips, you’ll help him or her to develop a broader palate and perhaps even shed the “picky eater” label altogether. Be aware, though, that just because an item says “low fat” or “sugar free,” it is not necessarily healthy for your child. Remember: If the food is from the earth, it’s usually healthy. In a nutshell (pun intended), natural foods and items that have no preservatives and additives tend to have more nutritional value than processed foods. Check the USDA Food Pyramid for nutritious food ideas.