I recently had a booth at the YMCA Healthy Kids Day. What I saw made me wonder how I might be contributing to my own kids being picky eaters. My booth consisted of two areas, one where kids could practice peeling and chopping cucumbers and another area where kids could build a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. They would start by putting a spoonful of red strawberries on their plate, then orange cantaloupe, yellow peppers, green celery, blue blueberries and finally purple grapes. By the end, they would have a rainbow on their plate.
I offer a similar lesson in my elementary school classes, where kids actually prepare all the fruits and vegetables themselves. It’s a great lesson and even if the kids don’t eat all the food, they learn how to prepare food and have fun doing it.
What struck me at the YMCA event was the difference I saw in kids when their parents were around. Of course many kids can be picky eaters and in all the classes I teach, there are definitely those that refuse to eat certain things all on their own. But, what I found interesting at the event, was how the parents were the first to speak up about what their kids would and would not eat. I do this too: “My kid doesn’t eat that” without giving the child the opportunity to express themselves first.
I also reflected on my own habits as I watched parent after parent fill the plate for their child. The idea was to have the kids do it themselves, giving the kids the opportunity to participate and make their own choices. But, I noticed that many parents were deciding for their child what they would and would not eat and filling their plates with only the foods they knew their kids would eat.
I realized that many of us do this without even realizing it. Even if it’s too much to get kids involved in cooking, we can change how we present food to them. To help myself and anyone else who wants to work on this with their kids, I have come up with a few tips:
- Offer lots of different things all the time – This is tough because it’s so easy to offer them foods you know they will eat. And most of the time, they won’t eat the new food. So, why do it? Because it takes 10-15 times of you offering something before they are even willing to try it. And the more you expose children to new foods, the more willing they will be to try new foods. Eventually they will try it and maybe even like it.
- Be patient – Offering new foods takes time. Make sure you offer foods they like in addition to the new food. Talk to them about texture, shape and color. Let them touch it and make a mess if need be. Kids need to explore new things around them, let them explore new foods in the same way. As they get older teach them about nutritional value and talk about what’s inside the food you give them. Explain why it’s important to eat healthy foods and what it does to our bodies.
- Let your child decide – Don’t force your kids to eat when they’re not hungry and don’t force them to eat things they don’t like. This could create a power struggle over food. Serve your meal family style and let them choose what they want on their plate. Don’t decide for them what you think they will eat, let them pick. But encourage them to at least try what you make for them.
- Choose snacks carefully or don’t snack at all – If you want your child to eat at mealtimes, skip snacking or choose different kinds of snacks. Don’t let them snack on junk food, juices, milk and soda in between meals. If they’re hungry between meals, let that be a time to choose a healthy snack. Choose fruits and vegetables which will fill them up but not enough that they won’t be hungry for dinner.
- Get kids involved – Take them to the grocery store and have them pick out a new fruit or vegetable to try. Get them washing, peeling, chopping, mixing and cooking. Letting them take some ownership in what they’re eating and they will be more likely to eat it.
- Eat as a family – Kids might be more relaxed if everyone is eating together, rather than having mom or dad hover over them to finish their food. Serve food “family style” where the kids get to pick what they want to eat, rather than piling up their plate with food they don’t like. Be a good role model. If they see you eating a new food, they might want to try it too.
- Make it fun – Offer lots of different colors of food. Cut food into different shapes, offer a favorite dip or sauce or arrange the food in a funny way. Just changing the way you might cut a vegetable could change whether your child will eat it. Try to have fun and don’t worry if your kids don’t eat what you’ve made. Relax, have fun and enjoy mealtime together!
If you have tried other strategies, let me know! I’d love to hear what works for you and your kids.
- Parenting.com – Get Your Kids to Eat Everything, the French Way
- French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon
- Mayo Clinic – Children’s nutrition: 10 tips for picky eaters
- WebMD – What You Didn’t Know About Picky Eaters
- KevinMd.com – 10 reasons why your kids are picky eaters