While it's an absolute vital part of the day for every person on the planet, meal times can be a struggle for parents. Discussing food-related issues with kids can lead to an onslaught of unintended consequences from refusal to eat or extreme pickiness, to overeating. Despite any tyrannical protests from cranky kiddos, your kids have to eat — and they will eventually. But you may find yourself in the same boat that I have been in myself time after time wondering, "How can I get my kid to eat without forcing them?"
This is a legitimate question, and the topic includes a goal that experts agree takes some finesse to achieve. One important part of helping encourage kids to eat is to start with how you talk about food. "As a mom of two young girls, we use a number of strategies at home. We talk about healthy food making our bodies strong, that they’ll be able to go higher on the swings, run faster on the playground," Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling, International Food Information Council Vice President of Research and Communications, tells Romper. "It’s important to focus on issues that they care about — 'heart health' isn’t going to register to a 5-year-old!"
Lewin-Zwerdling holds a PhD in nutrition, but still tackles food battles with her own children and has learned ways to combat them firsthand. "I learned this from my daughter’s teacher, but we encourage 'no thank you' bites. If they take a 'no thank you' bite, they’ve tried something they might not have tried before," she says. "I’m also a big fan of star or reward charts that encourage eating new foods. In our house, after a week or two of trying new foods, they might get a special outing. It’s important not to reward good behavior with sweet treats. And I love using the MyPlate plates at home — it’s a fun lesson for kids to understand their food groups and also helps to portion out meals."
Another expert tip from Lewin-Zwerdling is to get kids involved in meal planning and preparation. "Get them in the kitchen with you! It’s never too early to introduce basic kitchen skills to kids and there are several companies that sell kid-approved cookware," she says. "We try to ask our kids what type of vegetable they want during the week so they feel a little empowered about their food decisions. And we try to keep the healthier foods super accessible — bowls of fruit, water, etc. that they can get on their own any time they want them. Some of it we learned from a Montessori preschool, but much of it reflects what we adults know as behavioral 'nudges.' Leave out the healthy foods and encourage in both subtle ways and not healthy eating behaviors."
Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Children’s National Health System explains that parents and children both hold defined roles when it comes to feeding kids. "Parents’ role in healthy eating is deciding when kids eat and what food is presented. However, it should be up to the kids to decide what to eat and how much," she tells Romper. "The more parents try to force kids to eat, the less likely kids will be to eat healthful foods. Be sure to praise the effort of trying or for good meal-time behavior, not what is actually eaten. The more you make it a battle, the more kids will fight back."
There are some things Dr. Mackey suggests that encourage kids to eat without arguing or criticizing during mealtimes. "Kids like to have choices. Parents can give two acceptable choices and let them choose. This can be food related or not. For example, 'would you like peas or carrots tonight?' or 'would you like to eat on the purple plate or the blue plate?'" she explains. "Remember that it takes 10 to 15 tries of a food to get kids to accept it. This means parents shouldn’t give up too early! Don’t force your child to eat, but praise them for even tasting without swallowing. For example, 'I really like what a big girl you were to taste that new food!'"
If laughter is the best medicine, then making meal times fun should be the number one prescription given to parents who are sick of struggling with getting their kids to eat. "Make food fun and they will enjoy it," says Angie Weiss, nutrition services director at Wichita Falls Area Food Bank in Texas.
"Cut fruits and veggies into different shapes! Cucumbers can be cut into circles, or you can cut the circle in half and make a smile when you hold it up to your face," Weiss says. "Shapes are fun. Let the child make a silly face on their plate. Or let them explore shapes and colors. Bell peppers are very colorful. You could let them try one of each color."
Another tip is to change the focus of the conversation around food from the negative to the positive. "Never discourage food or instill your own dislikes on your child," Weiss says. "A great phrase for negativity is 'Don’t yuck my yum.' Just because one person at the table doesn’t like it, doesn’t mean you have to feel the same way. Always say you enjoy healthy foods, or at least something positive about the food. If the parent doesn’t like peas, you could say, 'I love that peas are the color green, that is my favorite color." You don’t have to lie about liking peas, but at least make a positive statement rather than a negative association."
The dos and don'ts of encouraging healthy eating habits in kids can feel overwhelming, as the list itself is a mile long. But adopting an ease around meal times is key to ensuring that your kids actually eat enough to thrive and helping your family find a flow to food routines that will keep everyone happy and healthy. In other words, relax. Your kid will eat — eventually.