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12 Steps to Combat Picky Eating and Create Healthy Mealtime Habits

We all want to be good moms. Which means feeding our kids nourishing food and helping them have healthy eating habits. Or at least, theoretically that’s how it’s supposed to go down.

The reality is that meal time can be a battle ground of wills. 

This was how meal time went down at our house:

  1. I’d have spent serious time preparing a bunch of delicious food.
  2. I call my family to the table.
  3. My kids devolve into tears and gagging noises, convinced I’m are trying to poison them.
  4. My pride dashed, I turn into Cranky Mommy 

And thus the mealtime battle begins.

Needless to say, I’ve struggled mightily to get my kids to eat healthy foods.

And it seemed like my efforts to get them to eat (e.g. “no dessert until you finish” or “5 more bites”) only seemed to keep the food battles raging.

So I started reading everything that I could and trying stuff out on my kids.

Turns out, all that conventional wisdom (“you have to clear your plate before you leave the table!”) is entirely unhelpful for creating kids with healthy eating habits.

After some great books (this one was my absolute favorite), I found a much better way to tackle the meal-time troubles. As I eliminated the struggle and conflict from our meals, my kids automatically started to be more exploratory with foods and developed healthier habits. 

But I’m not alone in my struggles. 

Picky Eaters Are Everywhere

As many as 50% or kids, at least for a period of time, fall into the category of “picky eater”. As a parent, this is incredibly frustrating. You’re going to great pains in trying to nourish your offspring and instill healthy eating habits while your child wants to just eat fishy crackers and Doritos.

But you can create a healthy home and instill healthy eating habits–even in your pickiest eaters.

Here are 12 tips to help you do just that.

12 Steps to combat picky eating & create healthy mealtime habits

12 Steps to combat picky eating & create healthy mealtime habits

1) Get your husband on the same page.

Nothing will sabotage any new parenting endeavor then being undermined by the other parent. However, I’ve found that this is usually because I didn’t fully inform him of the new strategy I was trying.

Sit down with your partner and determine what kinds of foods you want to be eating and your plan of action. Sending mixed messages to your kids will just communicate that you aren’t serious. 

2) Involve your child

Ask your child what you should make. At the grocery store, have them help you pick out foods. Kids love picking out produce. Have them help you in the kitchen preparing the meal.

This was really helpful in our house. Involving my pickiest eater in the cooking process has not only been fun and bonding, but she’s now much more likely to eat something she helped prepare.

3) Never force kids to eat

Forcing kids to eat just ensures that kids will have negative associates with mealtime and the food you are forcing them to eat.

But taking all the fight, forcing, and negotiating out of your meals will make your child more comfortable and secure. When they’re more comfortable and secure they are more likely to eat the foods you offer.

But I know it’s so hard. When your kid is refusing to eat anything but Skittles, your first inclination is to dig in and win the battle (at least for me). Problem is the more you battle, the more your child resists. Resisting and refusing is how your child exerts control.

Which is why they start refusing foods they used to like!

This was especially true with my second daughter. Even mentioning that I was making dinner, she would start pouting and exclaiming that she didn’t like what I was making.Never mind that she wouldn’t actually know what I was making!

But because we battled and negotiated our way through meals in order to get healthy foods in her body, the mention of dinner geared her up for a fight.

When we changed our strategy (thanks to this amazing book that I highly recommend, It’s Not About the Broccoli), we stopped all forcing and negotiating. Instead, we provided lots of healthy food options and let her pick. At first, she ate a lot of rice. But with the pressure gone, over time my ultra-picky daughter began trying new things.

Ironically, her diet has improved immensely by turning the power over to her.

Forcing kids to eat just ensures that kids will have negative associates with mealtime and the food you are forcing them to eat.

12 Steps to combat picky eating & create healthy mealtime habits

4) Set a good example

Children are much more likely to do what you do and not what you say. Our children are walking testaments to our actions, not our words. This applies to how we eat as well.

I’ve also found that if I am eating anything around my kids, they will want to try some. From salads to smoothies packed with kale, if I’m eating and enjoying something, my kids want a piece of the action. And I’ve been really surprised by what my children will not only try, but end up really liking.  

5) Keep only healthy options around your house

If there aren’t unhealthy options littering your kitchen and pantry, then your child will have little else to beg for in place of the meal they’ve been presented.

For example, I never have juice or soda around the house and I only buy dense whole grain bread. They think white bread is candy. So all sandwiches or toast is made with heavy fiber and nutrient-packed bread. I try to keep all snack foods they healthiest options available.

6) Make meals fun

Making mealtime fun is will go a long way in having your associate healthy eating with positive emotions. If mealtimes are a always a battle, everyone is trained to get frustrated at dinner time!

Get your kids to help out, experiment with fun dips and sauces, and switch it up (like breakfast for dinner).

7) Don’t make a seperate meal

Making a seperate meal for your child–while it may keep the peace at dinner time–only ensures that picky and limited eating will continue.  When one of my kids outright refuse everything (rare), they are always welcome to have any raw vegtables, nuts or seeds, and sometime fruit. But no seperate meal.

8) Don’t bribe with dessert

This just teaches kids that healthy food is bad, but must be suffered through to get to the true reward: dessert. If dessert is the reward, then dessert is always the goal–not healthy eating habits.

I’ll admit that I tried this…a lot. And the result was that my children would constantly try and negotiate “how many bites” until they earned dessert. It wasn’t about eating until fullness. It was all about the dessert.

If your goal is to help your children enjoy healthy eating, bribing with dessert will not get you there. 

We eliminated dessert entirely for a while just to avoid any temptation to have dessert as a reward.

9) Introduce 1 new food at a time with foods they already like

I have found time and again that of I have 2-3 things I know my kids like at a meal and a third or fourth thing that they will try for the 1st time, they are much more likely to try the new thing than if I just try and give then a plate of full of new and strange food.

10) Offer fruits and vegetables with every snack and meal.

First off, if you want to get kids to eat healthy foods you have to offer it to them. A lot. Kid have to be exposed more than 10 times to a food before they may like it. That means the more your expose them, the faster they can develop a taste for these foods.

Secondly, if you are constantly offering fruits and veggies to your children it will help eliminate that urge to force them to eat vegetables at dinner because they haven’t eaten a plat all day. Knowing that they’ve had bites of healthy foods during the day can put your mind at ease and keep the food battle far from your house.

11) Stick to a Routine

Keep meals and snack times at roughly the same time everyday. If a child isn’t hungry for a meal or snack, then they should be hungry enough once the next one comes around.

12) Be consistent

Children’s brains are pattern seeking. If the pattern is that you enforce something new for a day or two and then forget about it, they pick that up quickly. But if you maintain consistency with your expectations and practices, they will pick that up and develop healthy eating habits.

For most people, healthy eating habits aren’t just going to manifest overnight. But through consistently encouraging healthy eating through these steps you can help your children try new foods, enjoy healthy eating, and create habits that will serve them for life. You can create a home of healthy eaters.

If you’re looking for additional reading, I highly recommend It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids For a Lifetime of Healthy Eating. It completely changed how my children eat. No more food battles and a lot of healthy eating. 

You’ve got this, mama.