No matter how sophisticated your palate or how much you appreciate good food and proper nutrition, you may be or may become the parent of a picky eater.
Feeding a child with strong feelings about what he will or will not eat is a tiring, frustrating battle, but the experts tell us the behavior is pretty darn common and is often a normal part of your child growing up and gaining his independence.
Here are 10 tested tips for getting your child (or the one you’re babysitting) to eat a more balanced, nutritional diet without losing your cool.
1. Realize that kids need less than you may think.
Children’s appetites go up and down. They naturally eat relatively little some days and some days feel much more ravenous. Serve smaller portions so you don’t overwhelm them, and understand that a few bites of the veggie they may refuse is often enough to provide benefit.
2. Limit snacks and sugary beverages.
Kids will readily fill up on snacks and have no room in their bellies come mealtime. Provide small, healthy snacks at a routine time, likely mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and have them hold off on eating any more until the next meal. Food is much more appealing when they are hungry.
3. Teach them to eat a rainbow, everyday.
Even little kids can grasp the concept: Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables – something from every color of the rainbow – everyday. By using a rainbow as a guide, you can ensure that your kids are getting a wide range of vitamins and minerals. One food can’t do it all.
4. Don’t be afraid to hide fruits and veggies.
Jessica Seinfeld made a bestseller out of the idea of hiding healthy food in more kid-friendly recipes, such cauliflower in macaroni and cheese and spinach in brownies. While we don’t agree that it’s always best to trick your kids into eating well, it’s a not a bad idea to sneak a bit of extra nutrition in wherever it works. For instance, add some finely chopped carrots and zucchini into a well-loved pasta sauce or sneak some greens into a smoothie. Kids will likely never know the difference, and you’ll stress less about their diet when you know they’ve had an extra does of nutrition here and there.
5. Get them involved with food.
Research proves kids are more likely to eat foods they help select and prepare. Let your kids help make a grocery list, find items in the store, and help to prepare a meal by cleaning, prepping and cooking with you. Make the tasks age-appropriate so they don’t get injured or overwhelmed. In addition, take kids on a trip to the farmer’s market or farm and use the outing as an opportunity to talk about healthy choices. The next time you’re grocery shopping together, show them the beautiful array of local produce and let them choose something new to try at home.
6. Work up an appetite.
Your kids will eat more and better when they are hungry. Help them work up an appetite each and every day by ensuring that they get at least an hour of physical activity and whenever possible, fresh air.
7. Make peace with condiments.
As much as you may cringe at the thought of smothering lovely, fresh veggies in dressing or dunking a nice bite of fish in ketchup, let your kids do whatever it takes to make their food appealing to their young palates. Consider making fresh condiments, rather than clunking a big bottle of high fructose loaded ketchup or bottled Ranch dressing on the table. It’s quick and easy to make your own condiments, and the taste is far superior.
8. Respect mealtime.
You can teach kids the value of eating well by teaching them to respect mealtime. Outlaw all electronics, yours included, from the table, and whenever possible, eat together as a family. Make meal time enjoyable, talking about your day and things you look forward to doing together. Avoid fighting about what your child will or will not eat. Keep it positive time together.
9. Make “good for you” good.
Transform ordinary foods into special treats. You can turn berries into an easy cobbler, a freeze fruits and yogurt to make handfuls of frozen grapes, cups or sticks of yogurt, homemade juice pops, and fruit smoothies.
10. Don’t prepare a separate meal.
We don’t want our children to starve and after a long day, the last thing we want to do is go to battle with them over food. It’s tempting to avoid the battle and ensure that they eat by making them a separate meal. Resist the temptation. You don’t have time to be a short order cook, and you’re really only reinforcing your child’s will to refuse what the family is eating.
Instead, stick with healthy recipes that are reasonable for a young child and occasionally introduce new sides or variations to gently expand their palate. Mark Bittman, the esteemed food writer and home chef, recently said in a column in the New York Times that he never made separate meals for his kids when they were young, but allowed them something simple that they could make themselves – think a peanut butter sandwich, bowl of cereal or toast – if they did not want to eat what was cooked for dinner.
Whichever tips work for you and your picky eater, remember to be consistent. Don’t forget to share your tips and rules with your babysitters and make sure your kitchen with well stocked with healthy treats and meals for them to serve your kids while you’re away.