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I am not going to eat that!” “What ISthat? It looks disgusting.” “I thought you said we were having something good for dinner.” These are the most common comments I hear before dinner. The dinner table with kids can be maddening and frustrating whether you have a picky eater or a good eater. So here are some strategies that we have been using to avoid power struggles and help my kids eat a more balanced diet.
One of the first things to recognize is that most kids get plenty of variety and nutrition in their diets over the course of a week. Learning this was a relief to me, because some days it seemed like my kids were eating “crap” all day. Until your child’s food preferences mature, consider these tips for preventing mealtime battles.
1. Respect your child’s appetite — or lack of one Young children tend to eat only when they’re hungry. If your child isn’t hungry, don’t force a meal or snack. Likewise, don’t bribe or force your child to clean his or her plate. This may only ignite — or reinforce — a power struggle over food. Sometimes, I think that James actually likes a particular food, but says he doesn’t just out of “spite” (for lack of a better word).
2. Stick to the routine Serve meals and snacks at about the same times every day. Nix juice, milk and snacks for at least one hour before meals. I know, this is sometimes easier said than done, but if your child comes to the table hungry, he or she may be more motivated to eat. This has worked well for us, but sometimes the battle over not getting a snack can be difficult.
3. Be patient with new foods Young children often touch or smell new foods, and may even put tiny bits in their mouths and then take them back out again. Your child may need repeated exposure to a new food before he or she takes the first bite. Encourage your child by talking about a food’s color, shape, aroma and texture — not whether it tastes good. It took my daughter about six months to finally eat broccoli. Now she loves it with ketchup, of all things.
4. Make it fun Cut foods into various shapes with cookie cutters. My daughter loves cut up bananas in the shape of a smiley face. Offer breakfast foods for dinner.
5. Recruit your child’s help At the grocery store, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. My kids get a kick out of weighing all the fruits and veggies. Don’t buy anything that you don’t want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table.
6. Set a good example If you eat a variety of healthy foods, your child is more likely to follow your lead.
7. Be sneaky Add chopped broccoli or green peppers to spaghetti sauce, top cereal with fruit slices, or mix grated zucchini and carrots into casseroles and soups. Pureeing is also a great way to add veggies. Pureed sweet potatoes go un-noticed in Mac-n-Cheese! 8. Minimize distractions Turn off the television during meals, and don’t allow books or toys at the table.
9. Don’t offer dessert as a reward Withholding dessert sends the message that dessert is the best food, which may only increase your child’s desire for sweets. You might select one or two nights a week as dessert nights, and skip dessert the rest of the week — or redefine dessert. When my kids want dessert they can choose fruit, yogurt , apple sauce, or cottage cheese.
10. Don’t be a short order cook Preparing a separate meal for your child after he or she rejects the original meal may encourage your child’s picky eating. Keep serving your child healthy choices until they become familiar and preferred. I have started a rule where each child can choose one item to be put on his or her plate for dinner. I give them choices of only healthy foods, but at least they feel somewhat in control of their choices, and I know they will at least eat one thing on their plate.
Remember that your child’s eating habits won’t likely change overnight — but the small steps you take each day can help promote a lifetime of healthy eating.