Many parents tell me that their child won’t eat. They are often frustrated, worried, and impatient, or feeling like they have somehow failed at parenting101. If children came with guidebooks, I’m sure rule number one would be, kids will eat when they get hungry. However, it would not say that kids will always chose to eat nutritious foods. Here then, are some tricks and tips to getting your child to eat what’s good for him.
Establish Regular Meal Times
Children are very dependent on schedules. If you always eat breakfast at seven a.m., then your child is far more likely to be hungry by seven a.m. If your mealtime changes from day to day, your child really might not be hungry when you finally get the food on the table. Set meal times at five or six hour intervals, and allow your young child one or two snacks spaced throughout the day.
Keep Snacks Small
Snacks are just that – a small snack to tide your child over until the meal is served, not another meal in itself. Do not allow seconds at snack time. A snack can be one graham cracker and two or three ounces of juice. A snack may include two food groups, but only one small serving of each.
Be a Good Role Model
Children learn everything from watching their parents. They learn how to talk, walk, and even use the toilet by imitating mom or dad. Eating is no different. Do not expect your child to drink his milk if you are drinking soda. Sit with your child at meal times. Demonstrate proper table manners. If you want him to say “Please pass the potatoes” then you need to ask him politely, as well. Don’t burp, and your child won’t burp. Do thank your spouse (or have your spouse thank you) for serving dinner. Children who learn manners may do better in life than smarter children, stronger children, more talented children, because employers respond better to them.
Don’t Go to War
You can’t have a mealtime battle if you refuse to fight. You’re the parent. Don’t argue with your child. Set a rule, and then expect it to be obeyed. If you insist that your child take a polite “no-thank-you bite” of her meal, fine. Let her sit there until she complies. Do not argue with her, beg her, demand her, or threaten her. If she gets down from the table, simply, and silently, put her back on her chair. She cannot leave until she complies. It won’t hurt her to take a single bite, unless she is allergic to that food!
Setting is Everything
Make meal times pleasant. Use pretty dishes. Set a table cloth, with colorful napkins. Use glasses made of glass, not plastic. Light candles, at least some of the times. Use fresh flowers for a centerpiece. Play soft music. Dim the lights slightly, which encourages slower eating. Turn off the television. If mealtimes are wonderful family times, then your child will be more likely to join in the fun. Sometimes, change the location. Eat in the backyard, at a park, on the living room floor with a tablecloth over the carpet, on the tailgate of the pickup truck outside a sporting event, on the beach. Food is one of our truly great pastimes. Let your child learn to enjoy it.
A Little Bit Will Do It
We are all encouraged to cut back on salt, especially if you buy processed foods. Raw peas come without salt, but canned peas have salt added. Peas in a chicken pot pie have more salt. Soups have a lot of salt. If you add ketchup, that is salty. If you add soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce, that’s salty. There is salt added to breads, cookies, vegetable juices, salad dressings, and more. By the time you serve a meal, there is so much salt in everything as to make it unhealthy.
Children have a finer sense of taste than most adults. A little bit of spice will taste much spicier to them. A dab of salt will taste saltier. Go easy on the seasonings when cooking for children.
Start Small, Offer Seconds
Preschool children have very small stomachs – about the size of one of their fists. Do not put too much food on their plate and expect them to eat it. Most Americans eat too much food, partly because restaurants provide such jumbo servings as the 16 ounce steak or the third-pound hamburger. An adult serving of meat is three ounces. That’s all an adult needs, which is about the size of a deck of cards, or about half of one average chicken breast. Learn what a serving size is, then offer a third less than that to your preschooler. Put two grapes on his plate. Two cubes of cheese, two crackers, four peas, one peach slice, or one chicken nugget. Then, allow your child to take seconds if he’s still hungry.
Many of us have been tempted to bribe our child. “If you just eat two more bites of stew, then you may have a cookie”. This doesn’t teach your child that he should eat stew. It doesn’t teach your child that fruits and vegetables are good for him. It teaches him that even you prize dessert above all else. Dessert is the reward for enduring icky stew. This child may develop a serious weight problem when he grows up, because either consciously or unconsciously, he will think that dessert is better for him.
No matter where you live, you can grow something. Maybe you live in a suburb and can have a small vegetable patch. In rural areas, you might have a large garden and sell the excess at a Farmer’s Market. Even in an apartment complex, you can grow some vegetables in flower pots on a window sill or balcony. Some ambitious growers have even raised sweet corn in a closet with grow lights and timers. Get your preschool or toddler child involved in planting a garden. If he’s planted peas, watered them, weeded them, picked them and shucked them, he might be willing to eat them.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Occasionally, try something unusual. Maybe one night this week you’ll serve Mexican food. Serve tacos with refried beans. Play some Latino music. Next week, try serving Chinese foods and eat with chop sticks. Many preschoolers prefer routine, so it may be hard to balance that with variety. It is not uncommon for a preschooler to love one thing this week – peanut butter sandwiches – and want you to serve peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and supper! Then next week, he may not want to see another peanut butter sandwich. So keep only one night a week for something new. Then, if your child didn’t like it at first, wait a few weeks and offer it again.
Love Conquers All
If all else fails, and you still have a fussy, finicky eater, then try repeating this mantra to yourself. “This too shall pass”. Eventually, your fussy eater will either outgrow that stage, or move out of your house. In the mean time, just smile and love your little one.