Mealtime in our house used to mean nobody was happy. There were a lot of tears, bribes, whining, begging…and ultimately, threats.
“You won’t get [something the kid wants] if you don’t eat 2 bites!”
It was an intense battle of wills where my husband and I fought (and usually lost) the battle to get our children to eat the healthy and delicious food that I’d prepared.
Simply trying to get those kids to eat anything other than breads and crackers was like trying to convince them to skip Halloween and Christmas. They’d look at chicken and sautéd vegetables as though I’d presented them with a plate of slimy slithering eels.
But that was then.
Now, I’ve got 4 kids who get excited when tofu tacos are on the menu (I’m 100% not kidding). I’ve got kids who eat salad and will at least try most any food.
After tons of research (my hands-down-favorite book being It’s not About the Broccoli), we changed a lot about how we handle meal times. Here’s what we did to get our 4 kids to stop being picky eaters and create a happy mealtime environment.
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HOW TO END PICKY EATING & CREATE HEALTHY MEALTIME HABITS
1) Involve Your Child
When children are involved in the process of picking out foods and preparing them, they’re going to be more excited about eating.
When planning your menu, ask your child what you should make. At the grocery store, have them help you pick out foods. Kids love picking out produce and putting it in bags.
Then, have them help you in the kitchen preparing the meal.
Research shows that children who help prepare a meal are much more likely to eat it. Importantly, kids who help make food are MUCH more likely to eat the vegetables served.
Kids can help out by:
- helping mix
- measuring ingredients
- counting scoops
Even watching and learning how to make the food makes them more likely to eat it.
This was a game-changer in our house. Involving my pickiest eater in the cooking process has not only been fun and a sweet bonding experience, but she’s now much more likely to eat something she helped prepare it.
2) Never force kids to eat
Chances are, you were forced to eat something as a kid. How’d that work out? Did you end up loving it and thanking your parents for helping you see the light?
Forcing kids to eat just ensures that kids will have negative associates with mealtime and the food you are forcing them to eat. Instead of trying to end picky eating, you’re just making it worse.
But taking all the fight, forcing, and negotiating out of your meals will make your child more comfortable and secure. They won’t put up their guard as they approach the dinner table, waiting for a fight. And they’ll feel in control since they have a choice in what they eat.
When they’re more comfortable and feel in control 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 had NO IDEA 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. And miracle of miracles, now she tries most everything we give her!
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3) Set Meal Time Rules that Help Kids Try New Foods
If meal times have previously included forcing kids to eat or bribes, it’s time to set some new rules. Setting new mealtime rules will go a long way to getting your kids comfortable and trying new foods on their own.
Here are some rules I suggest:
- You don’t have to eat anything you don’t want to.
- If you try something and don’t like it, you can spit it out.
- Never label any food “gross” (or similar)
- I will never force you to eat anything.
- I will provide several food options at eat meal.
- If you do not like anything being served, you can always eat ______ (have a list of foods that are always okay to eat–in our house, it’s veggies, fruit, and greek yogurt).
As kids get used to the rules and feel safe at the table, they will start exploring more with foods!
4) Talk About How Food Tastes & Feels
Not knowing how something is going to taste is a big obstacle for kids to try new things. Which is why talking about how things taste can help prepare kids for new flavors.
Describe tastes like sweet, salty, savory, or bitter. Talk about textures like creamy, crispy, fluffy, crunchy, tender. Ask kids to describe the food that they’re eating.
This makes eating a fun experiment! Plus, you can explain how a new food tastes before the kids tries it. We’ve found that this helps kids feel safer about trying new things.
5) Make ONE Meal
Making a separate 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 vegetables, nuts or seeds, and sometime fruit. But no separate meal.
This is not only a HUGE timesaver for me, but it encourages kids to develop proper eating habits.
If you want to end picky eating, be sure to provide a few choices in the meal you prepare and make sure at least one item is something your child will eat.
6) Get Your Spouse 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 my husband 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. What are the meal time rules going to be? Sending mixed messages to your kids will just communicate that you aren’t serious.
7) Keep Plenty of Healthy Snacks and Foods Around
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.
8) 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).
9) 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.
10) Introduce a New Food with Foods They 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.
11) Offer Fruits & Veggies with Every Snack & 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.
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 END PICKY EATING AT YOUR HOUSE
You can create a home of healthy eaters. No matter how picky they are right now.
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!
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These are great tips. I read “It’s Not About The Broccoli” about a year ago (on your recommendation) and it has been so helpful. I’ve been dealing with picky eating that isn’t your normal kid variety, but exacerbated by a history of allergies at a very early age that made my daughter very afraid of food. We say things like, “it won’t hurt you,” but she had experienced how food can hurt you. And those foods had been given to her by the people who were supposed to keep her safe. So turning that around has been a slow process, but we have made a lot of progress. And meal times are so much less stressful.
These are excellent tips. We’re smack dab in the middle of the picky eating phase with my 4-year-old and it’s always a battle. I especially love tip #5, make one meal. It’s hard not giving in, but I don’t want to make multiple meals! Thanks for this article!
Thanks, Jen! It is hard not giving in, but it’s way harder to spend the next few years as a short order cook! My philosophy: deal with the hard now so it’s easier later. Good luck!