You know that your children need to eat healthy foods, but how do you get them to care? Just talking to children about the relationship between nutrition and health won't do the trick. But these strategies might.
by Linda Crisalli
I think that finicky eaters have probably been around since time began, and little cave children probably drove their cave parents just as crazy as children do now. The only difference is that now we understand the relationship between nutrition and the healthy growth and development of their brains and bodies.
There are several things to keep in mind about teaching a young child to eat. While vitamins and vitamin-rich beverages are available and helpful while you are working through eating problems, they are not a substitute for a healthy, well-balanced diet. And although it can be helpful to find creative ways to “hide” extra nutrition in foods that your child is willing to eat, ultimately the goal is to teach her to eat a balanced diet knowingly.
In my roles as a leader in the field of early learning, and as a mom and grandmother, I have observed that adults as well as children can be pretty stubborn when it comes to what they eat and how they eat it. In addition to food choices and various ways to prepare food, many people have issues that connect food to love, discipline, power and control. It is important to take a little time and evaluate ways that you could be sabotaging your child’s relationship with food because of your own background.
Food should never be used to manipulate a child’s behavior. I have never known it to be helpful, for example, to force a child to sit at the table long after everyone else has finished. Or to continue serving the food she refuses to eat at every subsequent meal until she eats it.
Likewise, using food as a reward or a punishment is not useful. Don’t promise a trip to the zoo if she eats her dinner, or threaten to cancel her birthday party if she doesn’t. A kinder, gentler approach is much more likely to be a successful parenting style in the long run.
Start by eating together
Eating together is a good thing to do for so many reasons. Try to plan ahead so that meal time can be as relaxed as possible. Turn off the TV and take the phone off the hook. Have pleasant conversations. Enjoy each other’s company. Use this time together to build your relationship with your child. Be sure to model good eating habits and table manners.
Serve meals that are well balanced and nutritious. Include a protein (meat, poultry, fish, beans, eggs), a starch (bread, rice, pasta), a fruit, a vegetable, and fluid milk or a substitute that is nutritionally equivalent to milk. Be sure to read labels because different brands of soy milk and rice milk vary in their protein and calcium contents. If you are serving take-out food, be sure to supplement as needed to include all the basic elements.
Make sure that the meal includes at least one item that your child is generally willing to eat, and no more than one item that is brand new to your child. Everyone at the table should be served a small portion of every component of the meal.
A specific strategy to try
For the picky eater, my suggestion for the beginning serving sizes are one tablespoon each of protein, fruit and vegetable, one-quarter slice of bread, and one-third cup of milk. Explain to your child that he is not required to eat anything. However, she is required to eat everything if she wants seconds of something. Encourage your child to eat, but don’t badger.
Chances are that he will eat the one item he likes, for example the bread, and want more. Don’t back down. Tell him sweetly that he can have all the bread she wants if he eats everything else on his plate first. If he refuses, tell him it is fine, excuse him from the table, and continue your own meal. Do not serve him a snack until it is the regular time to do so, and then serve him a single small portion only.
At the next meal, repeat the process. If you stick to the rules consistently, you’ll find that your child’s eating habits will start to improve within a week or two.
Remember to serve only small portions for mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks to help insure that your child will be hungry at lunch time and dinner time. Do not allow “grazing” between meals.
I recommend that you skip desserts, at least for the time being. Don’t even keep them in the house. Instead, use treats as part of an occasional outing, such as going out together for ice cream on the way home from the library. That way your child will associate the treat with a fun outing, not a reward for eating green beans.
Sneaking in more nutrition
While you're working on introducing your child to healthy new foods, you can still boost the nutritional content of several kid-favorite entrees. Pureed green and orange vegetables can be added to dark red sauces such as spaghetti sauce, pizza sauce, chili, and baked beans. Likewise, you can sneak in a little extra protein with some pureed cooked, lean ground chicken, turkey or beef.
Substitute pureed butternut squash for about one third of the cheese in your macaroni and cheese. Puree zucchini and/or carrots and make quick bread for breakfast. Substitute whole wheat pastry flour for half of the all-purpose flour in your baked recipes. As your child starts learning to eat a bigger variety of foods, gradually reduce the degree that you puree the added ingredients.
Healthy eating habits are important to your children’s growth and development. The most important thing to remember while you are teaching them to make good choices is to stay calm, to stay focused, and to be consistent.
Linda Crisalli has extensive education, training, and over 40 years experience working with and in behalf of young children and their families. Linda lives in the Seattle area, near her two grown children and four precious grandchildren.