All three of my kids are great, healthy eaters. But I know for many parents, mealtimes are a struggle.
I don’t have to sneak vegetables into my children’s foods. I am not spending hours in the kitchen, cooking a different meal for each family member. I never cut foods into special shapes or make faces on their plates. And I don’t chase my kids around the house trying to get them to eat a meal.
I DO follow a routine, offer balanced meals with some options, and set limits. Here are some helpful tips for raising happy and healthy eaters.
Routine, Routine, Routine
In our house, we stick with set mealtimes and certain expectations around meals. For example, the kids wash their hands before eating and clear their plates and utensils after meals.
During meals, the expectation is that we sit and eat. If my kids get up (for a reason other than to go to the bathroom or get water), I ask them, “Are you finished?” I remind them that if they’re not sitting, that means they’re telling me that they’re finished.
I’ve seen many parents struggle to get their children to sit still during a meal. It’s important to sit at a table (or, for us, the kitchen counter) and not allow kids to come and go throughout the meal. I’ve been guilty of hopping up every time someone requests something. I recently started to remind them that I’m eating too, and when I’m finished, I can get them what they need. Now, I find my daughter saying things like, “Mommy, when you’re done with your food, may I please have some fruit?”
Show and Taste
I eat most of my meals with my children. Since they were young, I’ve shown them what I’m eating and encouraged them to taste my food. I’ve let them know that it’s ok if they decide they don’t like it, but I’m proud that they tried it. As a result, they enjoy spicy foods like their dad, vegetables like their mom, and many things in between.
We also talk a lot about how it’s better to say, “That’s not my taste,” instead of “Ewww, that’s disgusting.”
It’s important to introduce kids to lots of different flavors and textures to help them explore their likes and dislikes. Discuss their impressions when they try new things. Was that spicy? Was it difficult to chew? Did it taste like anything you’ve had before? What ingredients do you think are in it?
One “Kid Food” Per Meal
For the most part, my children eat what I make for my husband and me. It’s hard enough right now for parents who are balancing work from home, remote learning, and household duties. We don’t need to be cooking dozens of different things for every meal.
That being said, our typical kid’s dinner plate consists of a protein (usually chicken or fish), a vegetable of choice (often cucumber, peppers, or carrots) with hummus and pasta or grains. I put one kid-specific item on their plate, like macaroni and cheese or a hot dog.
If my kids had an eating motto, it would be: Everything tastes better with ketchup. Having their tried-and-true condiment at the ready offers a familiar flavor that can be added to new or different proteins. If there’s a particular condiment or dip that you know your child likes, be sure to include it on their plate to dip in or spread on a new protein or vegetable.
My youngest son has been known to dip cucumbers in ketchup, which makes my stomach turn. However, I remind myself that he is eating vegetables. How it gets in their belly matters less than the fact that it’s there!
Experiment with ketchup, salsa, tzatziki, hummus, honey mustard, tapenade, and guacamole. Shockingly, my children even like a touch of hot sauce (my husband’s influence).
Who doesn’t love snacks? They’re usually carb- and sugar-loaded deliciousness. If your kids, or anyone for that matter, are snacking all day, they simply won’t have an appetite at mealtime. Can you blame them?
My youngest was giving me a tough time about sitting and eating his lunch. I found by giving up his morning snack and moving lunch a half-hour earlier; he would have a complete, healthy lunch. It can be hard when we are with other kids who are snacking, but I try to distract him or remind him that it’s not the time for our snack, and we will eat lunch soon.
I keep a basket of snacks in our pantry and let my kids choose one or two items for their afternoon snacks. They also have easy access in the lower part of the fridge to yogurt and yogurt smoothies. This allows them to be independent and make their own healthy choices each day.
If you’ve been struggling with your child’s eating habits, you won’t transform them overnight. Make one small change now. This may mean adding a vegetable to every meal or skipping dessert in favor of a piece of fruit.
For parents with multiple children, focus on making changes with your best eater or your oldest. Let them model the behavior for the other children. Make them part of the process by having them help with the grocery shopping and cooking together.