We’ve all been there. We slave over a hot stove, making the perfect healthy meal for our kids: balanced, full of vegetables, and flavorful. They take one look at it and say, “YUCK! I don’t like that.”
It can be so disheartening when your child rejects the food you make, especially when you know that it’s delicious and is much healthier than the standard “kids meal” of pizza or grilled cheese. I’ve heard so many parents plead with their children to “eat their veggies”. But that never works, and here’s why: kids don’t care.
“It’s healthy” means nothing to kids. Kids’ reasons for rejecting foods can vary daily. So what can you do to improve your child’s diet? How can you turn a picky eater into a healthy foodie? I have worked with families for years on this issue and have found that these five strategies (when used consistently) will work for combating picky eating in kids of all ages.
1. Don’t Give In, Be Consistent. Many kids – starting as early as 12 months – will exhibit signs of picky eating. This is normal developmentally; it’s their way of asserting control over one of the few things they have control over. That said, giving in to your child’s picky eating can set the stage for a very picky eater later on. Even if your child wants to eat a few things, continue to offer a variety of foods. Don’t make special meals for your child and be consistent about only offering healthy options at meal time. If you end up letting them eat a less-healthy option sometimes, they’ll learn that if they wait you out, they’ll eventually get the food they want.
2. Be Patient. It can sometimes take 6 months (or over 40 tries) for a child to accept food they’ve been rejecting. Continue to offer healthy options and your child will come around. While that might sound daunting at first, it does get easier over time!
3. Restrict Treats, Snacks, and Drinks. Kids naturally love pizza, white/refined grains, and sweets. But if you raise your child on sprouted wheat bread, whole grains, vegetables, beans, and spices/herbs early on, that’s what they will be used to. They won’t crave typical “kid foods” because they won’t even know to crave them. There’s plenty of time for children to enjoy treats after they turn two. The first two years are critical for developing a child’s palate, so too many starchy or sugary foods early on will make it more difficult for them to accept bitter, pungent or savory tastes (e.g. green vegetables). Additionally, many kids who resist new foods snack or drink all day, which limits their hunger for healthy options at mealtime. Offer water with meals and aim for 3 solid meals a day. Healthy snacks or drinks (fresh fruits, veggies, milk) can be added in once picky eating has been reduced.
4. Start Small, and Alternate. When introducing new foods to picky eaters, provide a small bite of the new food you want your child to try, followed up by a piece of food they love. For example, if you want your child to eat broccoli, and their favorite food is crackers, start their meal with a small piece of broccoli on their plate. Show them the cracker, and tell them that they’ll get the cracker once they eat the broccoli. Continue to alternate bites between the broccoli and the cracker until your child indicates that they are done. In future meals, slowly increase the portion of the new food in each bite and decrease the portion of the “reward” food. So eventually your child would be alternating between 1 broccoli floret and a piece of a cracker instead of the other way around.
5. Role-Model For Your Child. Make cooking and eating a family affair. Eat the foods you want your child to eat. Take trips to the grocery store together, and have your child help you pick out the products you’ll be cooking with that week. Older children can get involved in the kitchen to help them become more excited about the meal they’re preparing. Lastly, have family dinners where everyone is eating the same foods.