Are your children fussy eaters? If you have a young child, you might be worried that he or she isn’t eating enough nutritious food like vegetables. It’s common for toddlers and young kids to go through phases where they swear off just about everything – including veggies. Fortunately, tactics that help encourage choosy eaters to make better food choices are available. After all, a child can’t live on mac and cheese alone!
Set an example for how you’d like your children to eat. Kids become accustomed to eating the types of food that they see their parents or caregivers eating. If you eat fruit or vegetables as a key part of every meal or snack, your kids will learn that they’re a dietary staple. Try to avoid being a short-order cook and preparing different meals for each person in the household. Certainly, adults and children may have different nutritional requirements at times. For example, you might try to select low-fat dairy products for yourself, but most young children need more fat in their diets to aid their brain development. Regardless, fruit and vegetables are healthy for everyone and should be a regular part of your meal planning.
Encourage family meal preparation. Although involving kids in planning and making meals might take extra time (and patience), helping them feel invested in the preparation can go a long way in encouraging them to try new things. You can start from the beginning: Help them create a garden and teach them to plant and harvest their own produce. Or, if that’s not an option, simply take them to the store or your local farmers’ market and let them choose the fruits and vegetables that they enjoy most or would be interested in trying. Then, let them help wash the veggies and prepare a meal at home, including setting the table. Participating in the process will give your children a sense of purpose and pride with respect to contributing to the family’s meals, and they will be more likely to eat something that they prepared.
Use the one bite rule. Children should be encouraged to try new foods. The “one bite rule” means that parents require children to try at least one solid bite of any food that’s served. Research shows that it often can take children 10-15 experiences of trying a particular food before they learn to like it. We all have preferences and dislikes, and your children won’t always be fond of certain foods that come across their plates, but encourage them to at least give everything a fair try.
Instead of making the one bite a difficult, anxiety-provoking experience, aim to reward your child so that the try is associated with something positive. Even a small treat like a sticker per bite can make it easier for a child to try a new food. If he or she associates the one bite rule with a reward, your child is also more likely to positively rate the foods.
If your children resist vegetables, try adding some flavors that they like. For example, melted cheese or a small amount of salt or butter can add a boost of flavor that enhances their enjoyment until they’re comfortable eating them plain. While loading up on sodium or extra fat usually isn’t recommended, most children can use a few extra calories. Besides, the benefit of consuming more vegetables can outweigh the sodium or fat that comes with adding something that makes them more appealing.
Parents with choosy children can find lots of cookbooks with ideas for disguising or hiding vegetables in other foods. For example, ”The Sneaky Chef” and “Deceptively Delicious” are full of kid-friendly, appealing recipes designed to get your kids to eat vegetables without even knowing that they’re doing it.
Try arranging veggies on your child’s plate in the shape of a smiley face, a rocket ship, or a favorite character. If artistry isn’t your strong point, cut the veggies into cute shapes and arrange them in a pattern on the plate – then ask your child what he or she thinks it looks like!
Another method is to make vegetable eating a game. The tried-and-true “airplane” technique has worked for generations of parents. Or, try associating animal sounds with different vegetables and encourage your child to make the sounds as he or she eats. Be creative! And, don’t worry – you won’t have to make animal sounds at dinner forever. Eventually, your child will eat vegetables without prompting.
The key is to make mealtimes fun, positive, and interesting for kids. Let them see you eating vegetables and other healthy foods, and create a rewarding, positive experience so they do the same. For more tips on fun and healthy meal preparation, check out our post on packing healthy lunches.