I’m a dietitian. And I have kids. So it stands to reason that I get asked on a regular basis if my kids are ‘normal’ eaters; meaning, are they picky like every other kid on the earth!? And the answer is a clear and resounding YES!
However, I feel that I’ve been able to use some mommy-dietitian-magic-trickery to help them make better choices. Here are a few tips that have worked for our little family, and may for yours too:
Involve the kids. Let them play a role in grocery shopping, making the menu, prepping and cooking (where possible). I know, sounds like a lot of work, right? But make it fun! The boys eat so much better when I get them involved in thinking of meal ideas and picking out healthy foods at the grocery store. We went hunting for dragon fruit a while back and it was such a blast for both of us (I created a back story that it may turn him into a dragon – he ate it up). Get the kids to find a new fruit or vegetable that they’ve never tried before, bring it home, Google it, and try it…like a mini-experiment! Maybe they can make a dish out of it if they’re feeling adventurous! Charlie made a salad the other day and it was actually pretty darned good! There’s such a sense of pride when they make something for the family to ‘enjoy’. Maybe you have a chalkboard menu where they can draw pictures or spell out the menu for the next day or week ahead.
Let them choose. Our job as parents is to give our kids healthy options to choose from. Don’t bring it in the house, or at least don’t have it visible, if you don’t want them to eat it. We try to make our dinners as varied as possible, and like deconstructing meals to allow give them as much choice as possible. We always include a couple of items that we know they will like and a couple of new ones.
That being said, we don’t bend over backwards for our kids and make them special meals unless our meal isn’t appropriate (i.e.; super spicy). The feeding gurus in my circles say that it is the parent’s obligation to provide healthy foods for the kids to choose from, and it is their choice to choose what they want from those selections and how much they will eat. On that note, if the boys don’t eat much of their dinner we will wrap it up and politely inform him that when he’s hungry later, that is what he will be eating :). The trick is that you have to stick to it when they say “I’m hungry” later!
Model good behaviour. It’s pretty hard for your kids to eat a healthy dinner if the parent is diving into a bag of potato chips at the same time or skipping dinner altogether. But seriously, if you want your kids to make good choices you have to do the same. They will learn most of their habits from what they see you do, and less from what you tell them to do, so make yourself a good role model!
Have family meals. Life is busy, but carving out time to eat together as a family at the table, minus the devices, makes a world of difference. It may not happen every single day, but do your best to make it a priority.
Get them to try it once. We tell Charlie that he has to try everything once and that if he doesn’t like it after one bite he doesn’t need to eat it. He’s very receptive to it, and has even started saying “I don’t like it now, but I will like it when I’m older”. Ugh, my heart! Love him. We told him that his taste buds will change and to not stop trying things as one day he will probably like it! You can even share an example of how you came around with a food. For instance, I didn’t like avocado or cilantro growing up, and now I could live off of them both I love them so much!
Teach them about food and the body. You don’t need to be a doctor or dietitian to know that healthy food is good for your body. We talk a lot about what different foods are good for and do little pop quizzes. Ie: what are carrots good for? YOUR EYES! We even talk about probiotics and fibre and the bugs in our tummies and the battle that goes on between the good bugs and bad bugs and how we want to feed the good bugs so that they can win the battle…. and of course, the topic of toots comes up, what little boy doesn’t find that hilarious!?
Grow a garden! Or at least visit one. What a gift to get your food from the source. And even better when they can actually grow the food with their little hands, then eat it! If you have space – even just a container on a balcony – to grow something, do it. We are so removed from our food supply, teaching kids about how food is grown will help them appreciate what is on the table. The farmers market is a great experience too.
Show them you trust them. At some point, I remember Charlie asking me if he could have yet another candy from a goody bag that he brought home after a birthday party. My response was “you’ve already had lots of candy, do you think that is a good choice to make right now”? He looked at me like I had three eyes, thought about it, then said that no it wasn’t. I did a small fist pump of parenting victory and told him that I thought he made a great choice and asked if he could think of something that was a better food to eat at that moment and that I would get that for him. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t always go this smoothly, especially in the beginning, but I believe it’s important to give children the tools to know how to make good choices and why versus just telling them what to do all of the time.
Watch your words: “Sometimes Food” vs “Junk Food”. We try not to demonize food in our house. I like the ‘all foods fit’ approach, and even I eat foods that aren’t 100% healthy sometimes because…I’m human! There are some foods that I truly dislike (i.e.: soda), and those foods never enter our house. Food is meant for nourishing AND enjoying, and I firmly believe that we set ourselves and our kids up for failure when we declare a food forbidden. We call foods ‘sometimes foods’ and ‘everyday foods’, and the kids really respond to it. I don’t want to give the boys anything to rebel against in the food department when they are older because what is the first thing you want to do when someone tells you that you can’t have it? It makes you want it that much more!
Let them feed themselves. This is for the little ones who are finding their independence. So, you like a clean floor you say!? Me too. I was that person thinking that my kids would be an exception to those others that look like someone put the blender on without a lid where the child was sitting after they ate. Boy, was I ever wrong. Our place is a MESS after dinner (better now that Max is older, but still) but they eat better at that stage when they feed themselves. Independence comes at a cost, and that my friends, is your house (or at least your dining area). We need a dog for the record!