I have one child who eats mostly anything and has a natural tendency toward healthy eating habits. The other, my second child, has always brought a pickier attitude to the table but through dedicated work (it’s not always pretty), his palate continues to broaden every day.
While I consider healthy eating to be a work in progress for both my children, I regularly and peacefully enjoy seeing my seven-year-old daughter eat salads and eccentric foods with gusto. My four-year-old also exclaims with excitement when I serve Indian food or any curry for that matter. It is not always easy but I know it pays off in the end. Perhaps some of my tips for instilling healthy eating habits in my children can help your family enjoy a healthier array of foods and less stress at mealtime.
1. Buy a Children’s Cookbook and Encourage Participation in Meal Prep
Kids enjoy feeling included and having their opinions valued, as we all do. We have a few children’s cookbooks at home and it is fun to see what my kids pick as meals they want to help cook. Try buying a cookbook that teaches about food around the world to take this lesson a bit further. This is a great trick to broaden their palates. Let your kids mark the pages for recipes they are interested in books. When children help with food prep and are proud of the meals they helped cook, they are more likely to try everything, even if they don’t like it. Learning to cook is a life skill I think everyone should have.
2. Family Meals
If at all possible, sit down and eat your dinner together as a family. Make it the one time of day when you all catch up, learn about what is going on in one another’s’ lives and enjoy solid quality time together.
Yes, sometimes meals are not relaxing with kids, but stick with it and try not to get discouraged. I realize this idea of a family meal is not possible for every family due to work hours, school events, etc. However, regardless of how many are sitting down to eat together, cook one meal only. It is exhausting, stressful, and expensive to cook different things for everyone in your family. Kids will not starve if they decide to skip a meal because they supposedly don’t like it. I have heard SO many moms say, “Well, my kids just won’t eat x, y, and z if I cook it.” I can tell you I have never ever cooked a separate meal for my children no matter what we are eating so they always eat, eventually. They can protest a bit when I make something unusual but they don’t ask for anything else. I am not unreasonable, however, so if I see a great effort made to eat at least a small serving of a meal they honestly truly dislike, then I provide an apple or a banana shortly after mealtime.
3. Give Kids Control and Serve Variety
Children are capable little people. It is fun, and sometimes very messy too, to let everyone serve themselves. Now, I do absolutely have to advise them on how much to take sometimes (no, please don’t take one of the two giant ribeyes I have set on the table for all 4 of us). Serve several things at mealtime to provide options. I encourage the kids to at least try one bite of everything I have served, but I never ever force them. I also usually serve two vegetable options hoping they will have one, but you know, there are days they surprise me and eat both, including the one I was not expecting them to like. Some nights, serving multiple dishes is not realistic (think lasagna and salad or soup and salad), but let’s just remember it can be a great goal for all of us. When kids have options, they are more likely to try this and that. Maybe they only pull the cucumbers and tomatoes out of the salad to munch on, GREAT! They are now enjoying fresh vegetable with salty dressing as a side dish. Bite your tongue when you see what they are choosing from the table and embrace their independence while honoring their immature taste buds.
4. Stay Open-minded and Neutral about Their Food Choices
Let children decide what they like and dislike or what they are ready to try or not try, as long as you see they are getting enough nutrition throughout the whole day. I say NOTHING to my children about anything on the table when we sit down to eat unless I have an, “It may be a bit spicy,” warning. You may be surprised by what they reach for and enjoy. No pressure, nothing is mentioned such as, “You have to have something green tonight!” Because you know what? They don’t. I have never mentioned green things or any color food being special being special or something, “Kids don’t like,” and honestly, I think we all just need to let our kids sit and eat without the stress of feeling forced to eat certain things. One of my responses to my children, when they are not sure about a specific food, goes something like,
Keep trying it, you just haven’t learned to enjoy it yet, but you may one day.
I have never ever made a big deal about a specific meal being different or weird, and I have never suggested they may not care for something I am serving. Stereotypical, “Kid food,” including chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, and cheeseburgers drives me bonkers because I think we owe our children the gift of a well-rounded palate.
5. Limit Snacks
I have a humungous rule in my house that snacking is not allowed the hour before mealtime. If we have 15-20 minutes before dinner and they are melting down, I offer a carrot, a few apple slices, or a glass of water. Amazingly, sometimes the glass of water along with giving them a task like setting the table or even decorating it nicely takes their mind off that hunger. I say, “I am SO so hungry too, I can’t wait until our dinner is ready!” Let’s face it, mama is hangry many times pre-dinner as well! We are all only human after all, so I try to make light of these things and joke with my children about rumbling tummy noises or being so hungry I want to nibble their toes off.
Enjoy and celebrate the ritual of food and healthy eating habits together.
Know that there will be hard nights and stubborn children who resist. Remind children with loving gentleness that when they are ready for it, their meal is there for them. I promise, they will eventually eat. If not that meal, the next meal. I offer an uneaten meal at snack time and guess what? It gets eaten because that little tummy is hungry! Try new foods as a family and talk about what you all think of them as a fun activity! Serve the vegetables your children DO like but not too much of them and not all them time. Variety is the spice of life right? Be adventurous and promote an open-mind at meal time and grow as a family.