By the time we are grown-up, most adults have somewhat sophisticated palates when it comes to the foods we like or at least the foods we are willing to try. Sure, you might find the average grown-up who doesn’t care to eat lima beans or chicken livers; however, even if these were once thought-to-be disgusting foods in childhood, we might at least try them and at most acquire a taste for them in adulthood. Therefore, there is hope for those children who are finicky eaters.
Now, on the flip side (because I did say 'most' adults), if you’re a finicky adult eater — there is no reason to think that your offspring won’t be finicky eaters too. The first rule of thumb for raising a good eater is to set a good example. Whether you’re trying to get your child to develop an adventurous palate or just eat healthier — you can’t be finicky about what you eat or always be eating unhealthy foods and expect your children to be daring eaters, or among those who crave green veggies. That's just basic common sense.
I assume if you’re reading on, chances are you’re trying to convince a child in your life to eat a broader diversity of healthy foods. To change the behavior of a picky eater is usually about coaxing them into a willingness to at least try foods. If that doesn't work, you can always step it up a notch and find ways to disguise foods to make them more appealing — otherwise known as deceiving the kiddos! Although many times children will eat a variety of healthy foods, if you do — I'll admit that's not always the case. It's in these instances that the mealtime battles and food wars begin. Parents assume their offspring will automatically eat everything they do; just because 'they do.' And it's a hard slap with the reality stick for parents when they realize that just because they are healthy eaters always willing to try new foods, doesn’t mean their children will be. But fortunately, all it takes is a little bit of parental ingenuity, and you too can train your child's palate.
Now, before we go on to our ten tips to raise kids to be fearless of food, we want to make sure that you have checked with your pediatrician and that there are no underlying causes for your child’s aversion to eating. Many hidden medical conditions can manifest themselves in a child not wanting to eat, including viruses, idiopathic constipation, eosinophilic esophagitis, anorexia nervosa, celiac disease, sensory processing disorders, GERD or acid reflux, or swollen tonsils and/or adenoids — just to name a few. So please rule out all medical reasons first.
Once you have eliminated any potential underlying medical conditions — your next step should be to plan a strategy for raising adventurous eaters, who will — through eating a greater variety of foods — attain a balanced, healthy diet. And remember, although it takes a commitment and a little more work raising kids to be fearless of food, ensuring your children's good health is the most important thing. And we all know there is nothing healthy about a child who exists solely on chicken tenders, hot dogs, and buttered noodles. Furthermore, there is not a multi-vitamin in the world that can substitute the nutritional value found in whole, healthy foods — I don’t care what the manufacturer of Hello Kitty or Batman gummies tells you.
Fortunately, we never had a picky eater in my bunch, and I always assumed that we just got lucky. But that wasn’t the case at all! Luck had very little to do with it. It just so happened, that in hindsight, we, fortunately, stumbled upon a few productive parenting tricks. Rather than leaving it to chance — because that doesn't always have a positive outcome — check out these ten fabulous and fantastic tips, which I compiled, to help you raise a fearless eater.
1.) 'Monkey see monkey do!' Be a positive 'role monkey' for your children to exemplify. Remembering this adage is especially important in early childhood development because that's when children most model their behavior after their parents’. My hubby and I have always been adventurous eaters, and I always make a variety of healthy, nutritious foods. From my experience, it’s important to provide healthy and diverse food choices as well as set a good example. If you're trying to get your kiddo to eat lots of healthy green veggies, but you're not introducing them, or you're turning your nose up at sautéed spinach — well, you can't expect miracles.
2.) Try to breastfeed past six months of age. I breastfed all my children well past the age of one. My twins were 15 months old when I stopped, and my youngest son was 18 months old. Unbeknownst to me at the time my children were babies, breastfeeding for more than six months increases the chances you’ll raise an adventurous eater by more than 57%. As it turns out (assuming mommy has a diverse diet), mother’s milk will expose a baby to many more tastes than will baby formula.
3.) Make mealtime about family time. I owe this tidbit of wisdom to Mimi — my hubby’s grandmother. She made me promise when my twins were first born that I would always make sure we ate together as a family — for as many meals during the day as possible. On most weekdays, this meant breakfast and dinner. On weekends, we always enjoyed three meals a day together. I am sure that Mimi knew this practice makes you a closer-knit family, but I am left wondering if she knew that providing family meals on a rigid schedule helps to ensure healthier appetites and make kids less finicky eaters.
4.) Try it; you'll like it! This 1972 Alka-Seltzer tag phrase soon took on a life of its own and helped millions of mothers get their children to try green beans! I can't tell you how many times I said, "Try it; you'll like it." I would plead, “Just try it once, and if you don’t like it, you’ll never have to try it again.” I used this all the time with my children — and for the most part, it worked! Because truth be told, anything I wanted them to taste was something perfectly delish. It's not like I ever asked them to try Surströmming! Seriously, whatever it was, I wouldn’t be eating it myself if it wasn’t appetizing! And in most cases, if you can just get a child to 'try it' they’re (more likely than not) going to 'like it!' But do be patient with children — if they are adamant about not trying something, don’t force the issue. There could be some other reason, on a given day, they're not open to trying something new — like defiance! Just patiently wait for the next green bean go around — because, 'If at first, you don't succeed — try, try again!'
5.) Make foods appealing to look at and fun to eat. It’s no secret that the more colorful the food — the more vitamins it contains and the more colorful the food — the more appealing it will be to eat. Use this to your advantage and check out POPSUGAR.moms 61 Food Art Ideas for Kids That Are Almost Too Cute to Eat. I often used cookie cutters to cut bread and cheese into fun shapes. Or sculpted vegetables into people or animals. Rather than just serving French toast, I would often serve it laced with fresh fruits. When my three children were little, we used to pretend that a floret of broccoli needed a haircut. We would sing a little song and pretend the broccoli was walking to the ‘Hairy Bear' (a local salon for kids, where my children got their haircuts) and chomp, chomp, chomp — the piece of broccoli would get its haircut! And what parent hasn’t used the spoon as an airplane trick? There are also lots of creative ways to hide healthy foods and deceive your children into eating them. Deception is never out of the question! For this strategy, I love Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook entitled, ‘Deliciously Deceptive’ as well as some very kid-friendly recipes on her official website www.jessicaseinfeld.com.
6.) Don’t fall into the trap of being a short-order cook. Make one meal — and everyone eats it, or they go hungry. When my kiddos were little, we told them that they had one chance at dinner, and if they didn’t eat what mommy made, their tummies would be grumbling (we'd called it 'grumbellies') until the next meal. This tactic may seem stern and cruel, but children do much better with rules. It’s no different than teaching children to look both ways before crossing the street. You teach them that rule for their safety and well-being — just like eating a healthy meal at mealtime is for their well-being. And the nice thing about this tip is it only takes going to bed hungry one time. Your children might not like everything you prepare for a particular meal — and that’s okay — but I’m sure they can find at least one or two things with which they can fill their tummies. Stand your ground with this rule and don’t cave in to making multiple meals at one sitting.
7.) Make food a family affair. Allow children to participate in the menu planning, food shopping, and meal preparation. From a very early age, I always took my children to the grocery store with me. Make it understood beforehand though, that they are allowed to choose one food item as a special treat — per shopping excursion. Otherwise, you could fall victim to their every ‘Mommy-can-I-have’ whim! I also encouraged my kiddos to help in the kitchen — stirring the batter, peeling the carrots, cleaning the counter, washing the dishes, tossing the salad, etc. There are so many age-appropriate tasks for children to perform in the kitchen. Sal Severe, PhD, author of ‘How to Behave So Your Children Will Too,’ says, “If they participate in helping to make the meal, they are more likely to want to try it.”
8.) Don’t use food as a reward. When I say don’t use food as a reward, I don’t mean to say that it can’t be a special treat — it just can't be a 'reward.' In other words, don’t say things like, “You can have dessert if you eat all your dinner.” We allowed our children to eat a candy treat once a week — on family movie night. That made it a treat to look forward to and not a reward for good behavior.
9.) No food should ever be a 'forbidden fruit.' I gave up eating sugar 35 years ago, but I didn’t force that choice upon my children — rather I tried to teach them moderation. We always had a full candy jar in the house, but my children understood that candy was not a food group to incorporate into your daily diet. We had friends that forbade their children to eat any sugar — whatsoever. Even at my children’s birthday parties, these kiddos brought sugar-free granola bars and fruit — which they dutifully ate as they watched other kids devour cake and ice cream. These particular parents had an 'absolutely no TV rule' too. And what do you think the first thing these children did when they stayed at our house — without their parents? You got it! They sneaked candy from the candy jar and attempted to eat it mesmerized in front of our televisions. It’s never good to completely ban children from things — it’s always better to help them understand moderation.
10.) Snack time rules. Thumbs up, snack time rules and that's why you need snack time rules (in other words, rules for snack time)! Like regularly scheduled mealtimes — have regularly scheduled snack times. This practice will enable you to ensure that children are not eating too close to mealtimes, so they are more apt to eat the well-balanced meals you provide. Also, make sure that you have healthy snack options available like fresh fruits and vegetables that have been prewashed and preprepared. Parents.com offers a great list of 'The 20 Best Snacks for Kids.'
And just in case you’re wondering how much your child should consume daily from each of the five major food groups to be considered healthy, the American Academy of Pediatrics has some excellent portion and serving size guidelines.
Well, I sincerely hope our ten tips help you navigate through mealtime battles and food wars at your house. Happy eating!
Oh! And by the way, we'd be ever so grateful if you'd...