Trying to feed picky eaters is a thorn in the side of numerous parents. It seems like once kids have made up their minds about what they will and will not eat, there's no undoing what's already been done. However, with a little patience and creativity, there are things you can do to teach your kid about healthy eating.
I've got two toddler boys on my hands, and feeding them several times a day, every day, admittedly causes me a great deal of stress. The younger one just wants to do what the older one is doing, and the older likes to put his little toddler foot down when it came to his meals, and has long before I was able to adequately introduce him to the entire food pyramid. He's quite the picky eater, to say the least. He's got a few go-to staples in his diet that he requests at every meal, and getting him to try new foods without the use of a time machine or hypnosis has proved to be quite difficult.
However, in recent months we seem to have turned a corner. My kids' diet is about as well rounded as I'd like it to be, but their occasional willingness and interest in new foods has my partner and I cautiously optimistic for an even healthier, more well-balanced day-to-day diet. Feeding picky eaters is hard, but it can be done. It just takes a lot of patience. I mean, a lot. So, if you're wracking your brain trying to find new ways to trick your children into eating vegetables, take comfort in knowing that you might not need to trick them at all. Instead, try the following nine things out before you wave the white flag and surrender to a life of chicken nuggets.
Let Them Help You Prepare Meals
Children are curious by nature. They want to know how everything around them works, and why it works the way it does. Use their curiosity to your advantage when you're preparing meals. If you allow them to participate in making dinner, they might show more interest in actually eating, since they know how it was made.
While eating the meal, be sure to praise your child's accomplishment and tell them how good it tastes and what a good job they did. They'll feel proud, and may even want to know what such an accomplishment tastes like. My older son wanted to help me make scrambled eggs one night, so I let him whisk them once they were in a bowl. He stood on a little stool with me while I talked to him about cooking them, and to my surprise, he wanted to try them once they were finished.
Make Dinners Colorful
Most children like anything brightly colored. Bright colors catch their attention and peak their interest, so by making dinner more colorful they might be more curious about it.
My youngest son started to go on a food strike when he saw that his older brother wasn't eating what everyone else was. I stopped playing the role of a short order cook though, and started making everyone the same thing for supper. Supper is as colorful as I can make it with my limited culinary skills, but I have seen some improvements since implementing this new routine. My youngest son now loves carrots and corn and peas, not to mention every fruit under the sun. He won't eat mashed potatoes (weird, right? What kind of kid doesn't like mashed potatoes?), but he'll eat prunes. Go figure.
Play Games That Teach Them About Food
We live in a world where as long as we've got a wifi signal, we've got endless information and resources at our finger tips. The internet is loaded with games that cater to picky eaters, many of which were created by pediatricians or parents of picky eaters themselves.
For kids who are old enough to communicate fairly well, you could try a game called "Who's Your Momma?" Alan Greene, M.D., is the pediatrician who came up with this game. Your fridge and pantry are full of props for playing "Who's your mama?" Take turns choosing food items and asking where they come from. Apples come from trees. Milk comes from cows. Carrots grow in the ground. If it's got a simple family tree, it's real food, but if you choose something that uses ingredients like dextrose, gelatin, calcium carbonate, Blue 1 and Red 40, then the answer is "factory." This game will help your child get familiar with where real food comes from, and could deter them from wanting to eat something that's of an unknown origin.
Use Apps Geared Towards Kids' Nutrition
Put that smart phone to use! There are tons of apps that help picky eaters try new meals. They're meant to educate children about healthy food, and encourage them to try new things with the use of games that teach them about the benefits of healthy eating (carrots help you see, spinach makes you strong, etc.).
Combine Healthy Foods With Foods They Already Like
I've recently started preparing meals with the entire family in mind. Since I didn't want my older son to starve, I always include at least one thing on his plate that I know he'll eat. I don't give him a hard time if he doesn't eat everything on his plate, which he usually doesn't, but I have seen some improvement. The other night I made salmon with corn and toast. The toast was the only thing I was positive he would eat, but once he finished it, he took a few bites of his corn, too. He didn't eat all of it, but corn is now on the list of things he will eat. Baby steps!
Give Them Comparable Alternatives To The Foods They Already Like
Although my older toddler has made some positive strides with his diet, feeding him healthy food is still a challenge. In an attempt to overcome this lingering hurtle, I try to substitute the things he likes with something comparable but healthier.
For example, he loves sweets, as do I, so instead of giving him ice cream, I give him yogurt (usually Greek). Instead of regular white bread, he gets whole grain, and instead of sugary popsicles, he gets the kind that are made with only fruit. If he wants something sweet, he typically gets fruit. His chicken nuggets are also completely organic and antibiotic-free. They do cost a little more, but I feel that an extra dollar is a small price to pay to make sure he's getting good food.
By taking these baby steps, I feel less guilty about feeding him a lot of the same thing, and it's helped to introduce him to new foods that taste just as good as his favorites, but are much more nutritious.
Eat Meals Together
Kids instinctively mimic the behavior of their parents. That's why we've got to be mindful of what we say and do in front of them at all times, including supper time. For a long time, our family didn't sit down at a table together for dinner. Our schedules were just too crazy, and their father and I were usually so busy that we didn't always have the time to sit down as a cohesive, family unit. After Christmas, we bought a small dining room table (really small) on clearance (because hello, budget). Now, we make an effort to have at least one of us eating with the boys at the table for dinner. When they see us all eating the same thing, they're more likely to try something new, too.
Don't Force Anything On Them
I made the mistake (many times) of getting mad at my son when he wouldn't try even a bite of something new. I remember trying to give him cotton candy one time, and he wanted nothing to do with it. I thought it was weird, and I was definitely annoyed after I had spent $10 on cotton candy from a fair, so I got upset with him. That wasn't the first time, either. Every time he would turn his head at even the tiniest bite, I would get frustrated. While speaking with his pediatrician about my frustrations, she told me not to try to force him to eat anything, that it was likely causing more harm than good because he would associate that particular food with a bad experience or with me being angry. She was right, too; that little booger still won't eat cotton candy.
Give your kid the time and space they need to try new things on their own terms, otherwise, you're just taking steps backwards in terms of nutrition.
Practice What You Preach
I admittedly didn't have the greatest diet growing up. I never had weight or health problems, but I was a picky eater for most of my life and I've got a major addiction to sugar as a result. When my son started eating solid food, I made an effort to feed him a variety of different foods, and did my best to avoid giving him too much sugar or processed food.
However, when he went to bed, I'd stay up and eat ice cream or cookies or a cheeseburger or something else that I wouldn't allow my son to eat (not that those things are bad in moderation, because they aren't). Pretty hypocritical, right? When my son got a little older and started to be more picky with what he would and would not eat, I knew that I needed to start practicing what I was preaching. So now, if he eats carrots, so do I. If there's broccoli on his plate, it's on mine, too. By showing him that I'm eating the same things that he is, he will sometimes eat more of what's on his plate, too. Since he sees me eating them, he feels less threatened by the vegetables on his plate, and as a result, we both benefit from a healthy diet.