“If it were my kid, they’d eat whatever I served; I’m no short-order cook.”
“When I was a child, I either ate my food or had it served cold at breakfast.”
“Picky eaters weren’t allowed in my day.”
I’m a mother of two, and I will confess: Before I had my kids, I was the kind of person to say these kinds of things. Feeding children seemed simple; they either ate the food or they didn’t. Case closed.
But now that I have two very opinionated children at my table each night, the case is not only very much open, it’s a daily wrenching drama of wills that has driven all of us to the kind of emotional extremes usually reserved for daytime soaps.
It would be entertaining if it weren’t so frustrating. My son, almost 4, refuses to touch his lips to anything green; my 6-year-old daughter weeps at the sight of any kind of meat on her plate that isn’t a chicken nugget or hot dog.
A Food War on All Fronts
Some of this is typical of little children. Their taste buds haven’t matured, and they prefer routine, plain meals with simple textures and expected flavors.
But we’re also up against a proliferation of sugary, fattening foods marketed to their age group: Candy-flavored yogurt, gummy “fruit” snacks, chocolate bars posing as granola bars, juice jacked up with artificial flavoring. This, when one in three children in America suffer from obesity – which leads to a range of heart problems like high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.
And no: You can’t force-feed or starve them. As a parent, you not only want your children to get enough to eat, and to eat enough of the right things, you want their relationship to food (and to you) to be healthy and positive. Forcing children to eat can lead to serious binge behaviors and prevents them from learning self-regulation.
Never fear – the Children’s Fitness Clinic is here. My kids and I met with Angie Hasemann, registered dietitian, to find out what she does to help kids eat better. Hasemann usually works with kids who are obese or suffering from high cholesterol – she’s seen these factors in kids as young as age 3. But her tips and ideas for getting kids to eat healthy meals can apply to any parent facing dinnertime with dread.
Introducing New Foods: Play With Your Food
While Hasemann doesn’t advocate playing games with food or at the dinner table all the time, creativity can be one way to encourage a skeptical kid to try something unfamiliar.
1. Everyone at the table puts their hands behind their back and tries to eat the food in question without using their hands – or using a straw. “Imagine your kids sucking up fiber-filled peas like a vacuum,” Hasemann says.
2. Parents have to try foods they don’t like – and kids play the enforcers. In Hasemann’s experience, “this will likely help kids to then try new foods, too.” One fun idea: Use a blindfold. Often kids gauge the taste of a food based on what it looks like.
3. Paint a rainbow with the food – have kids help you fill the plate with something of each color.
4. Track each family member’s daily intake of fruits and vegetables on a wall chart (possibly to earn a prize). Hasemann’s advice: “Encourage a friendly competition and cheer on each other’s successes.”
5. Food art! Be creative and make a face or build something with the food.
Presenting food preparation and eating as fun can help reduce anxiety and stress for the whole family.
Add a Chef to the Kitchen
Kids are more likely to eat foods they’ve picked out or prepared themselves. Some ways to get them involved:
6. Let your child pick out something new at the grocery store.
7. Have them help make the food. One fun idea is to mash sweet potatoes or a similar type of food in a closed plastic baggie that “can then be added to many dishes as a hidden power punch of vitamin A,” Hasemann suggests. Other jobs children can easily perform:
- Putting food on kabobs
- Shredding cheese
- Shucking corn
- Cutting and spreading soft butter or spreads
- Peeling fruit, such as bananas and oranges
8. Stock the fridge with fresh fruits washed and ready to eat in a bowl right at their eye level.