When it comes to kids and food, parents tend to think of their children as falling into one of two categories: "good eaters" and "picky eaters". "Good eaters" are the kids who eat veggies regularly and willingly try new, not necessarily "kid-friendly" foods, while their "picky" counterparts turn up their noses at anything that's not buttered noodles or chicken nuggets (or some equally bland, processed equivalent). Obviously picky eating is something no mom or dad wants to deal with, so what are some parenting habits that help you raise a "good eater"?
As a mother-of-three, I can say that while each of my children's individual personalities definitely influenced their dietary preferences, my own actions also played a role in shaping their appetites (for better or worse). My oldest wanted nothing to do with baby food or purées of any kind, so I gave up on that approach and — once she had a few teeth — started offering her whatever "grown-up" food I happened to be eating (from quinoa and tofu to lentil soup to spanakopita). Now, at 16, she still prefers healthy, "real" foods over the usual junk teens love. (Sure, she'll occasionally go for a bag of Flamin' Hot Cheetos, but it's not one of her major food groups.) My 12-year-old son, on the other hand, had multiple food allergies as a baby and toddler, and while he's outgrown most of them, he's much pickier than his sister. I swear it's because he had such a limited diet during those early years, which meant that there were only certain foods and tastes he could be exposed to safely. (So far, my three-year-old seems to be a fairly adventurous type, but who knows what the future holds?)
The point is, while kids are of course born with their own tastes, your influence as a parent can make a huge difference in the way they approach eating for the rest of their lives. And experts say these are some of the best habits you can adopt to set them on the right path!
1. Be A Role Model
This might seem obvious, but if your idea of a "meal" is scarfing down your kid's unfinished mac and cheese while standing over the kitchen sink, you can't very well expect your child to understand what healthy eating is all about.
"If you don't eat fruits and/or veggies, chances are your kids won't either," certified dietitian and nutritionist Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD, CDN, tells Romper.
"Show them that healthy eating tastes good and is enjoyable," she advises.
2. Don't Reinforce Food Ruts
Sometimes, when you finally find a food your kid will eat willingly, you just keep serving it again, and again, and again (especially if they refuse to eat anything else). This is understandable, of course, but definitely something to avoid.
"Do not give into 'food jags,'" warns Schapiro. "Kids can get stuck in a rut with their food and they don't want to try new things," she continues.
As pediatrician Claire McCarthy, M.D., wrote for Harvard Health Blog, feeding into these very specific demands (no pun intended) gives your kid exactly zero reasons to evolve:
"I talk to a lot of parents who serve one meal — and then make another one for their child (some make separate ones for separate children, or additional meals if the first one gets rejected). If you do that, there is simply no incentive to try anything new."
Keep offering new foods, or foods that your kids once liked, and eventually they will come back around, Schapiro advises.
3. Take Them Grocery Shopping
Admittedly, taking your little one to the grocery store will make your shopping trip a bit more time consuming, but involving them in this chore is actually a great way to open their eyes to new options, Schapiro explains.
"Exposing them to the food shopping experience helps them to feel involved and they are more likely to eat what they chose," she says.
Plus, these outings give you the opportunity to educate your kids about nutrition.
"You may not realize it, but you're serving as a role model when you grocery shop with kids, especially when you stop to chat with them about healthy foods," Jennifer Shu, M.D., author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup told WebMD.
4. Let Them Help In The Kitchen
Once again, when you're trying to get dinner on the table in a hurry (because when are you not in a hurry?), the idea of bringing your kid in to "help" might seem like the worst idea ever. But it's actually an important thing to do, because not only will they learn about cooking, they'll learn about eating, too.
"Having kids participate in the preparing of meals will make them more likely to want to try new foods," says Schapiro.
In fact, one study published in the CDC's "Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice and Policy" found that kids who helped out in the kitchen showed an "increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and dietary fiber, a greater willingness to try new foods and increased confidence in the ability to prepare foods," reported CBS News.
5. Let Kids Figure Out When They're Full
Most parents are guilty of doing the "just one more bite of spinach and then you can have dessert" thing at least once in a while. But this seemingly harmless bribe can mess with kids' natural instincts, as Dina Rose, Ph.D., author of the book It's Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating, wrote in Psychology Today.
"It means letting children learn to gauge how much they need to eat, knowing they’ll sometimes get it wrong."
Indeed, sometimes they will get it wrong — but that's okay. Think about it: Even as adults, those of us who make an effort to eat as cleanly as possible as often as possible occasionally fall off the wagon, so to speak. But the important thing is getting back on track, and raising kids who will grow up to do the same!
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.