By Tammy Woeppel
One of the biggest challenges many parents face is dealing with mealtimes and picky eaters. It certainly was one of my fears before having my first son, and something that I really wanted to bypass if at all possible. Building a foundation to have a healthy, robust eater in the house is definitely a process, but with both of my children I have seen that it's totally possible to create good eating habits at a young age. I'm very lucky in that I think I was blessed with fairly adaptable children, but I also created a few guidelines that encouraged their good eating habits. Below is a list of things that worked for me- every child is so different, so I can't say it's failproof, but if you're struggling to find creative ways to feed your child, this may offer up some inspiration.
1) You Don't Necessarily Have To Start With Rice Cereal
Right around the time I was starting my oldest on solid foods, the dietary recommendations for introducing foods were changing from exclusively offering carbohydrates like rice cereal and plain oatmeal to foods with slightly more complex nutrient profiles like fruits and vegetables. I never saw the need to begin with cereal's as I knew my son would be fine digesting avocado, so that's what I started with (I did this with my 2nd son as well). Both have gone through phases where they ate copious amounts of this fruit, to months where they wouldn't consider eating it. At 2 and 4 years old, we are currently in a 'love' phase where they both go crazy over having guacamole as a side to whatever meal they're eating. As a mom, you need to trust your gut- if you think cereal would be safer to start with, or something different like sweet potato, homemade unsweetened applesauce, etc. go with it!
2) Show Them That You Also Eat Healthy
Setting a good example for your children can go a long way. Mine constantly saw me drinking green smoothies and it was only a matter of time before they started asking for a sip here/there and then it became a regular part of their routine. My oldest son actually calls them green milkshakes because to him, that is the only milkshake he knows! He is at the age where he wants to be big and strong just like daddy, so knows he has to eat his vegetables to achieve this. We've also been known to foster a little sibling rivalry by reminding him that his younger brother may just grow up to be bigger with all the veggies he's eaten and that always lights a little fire to finish his plate!
3) Don't Let Them Snack Their Appetite Away
I purposely held off on keeping snacks everywhere (thanks to Bringing Up Bebe) until my kids had their meal habits pretty established. I think my son was about 18 months before I bought cereal puffs/puree pouches for the 1st time and that was only to keep him occupied on a long flight. I never offered them anything in the stroller as infants, nor the carseat. Now, I'm much more lax because I know they won't opt to snack in place of eating meals.
4) Juice Is A Treat, Not An Everyday Thing
Water is the most-requested things my kids want and I made sure to encourage that from the 12 month mark when we introduced non-breastmilk liquids. I actually hate the idea of juice boxes, and only allow them here/there when we are at playdates or birthday parties. In our house, we sometimes stock freshly-squeezed juices (the perks of living in South America where this is as common as having Coca Cola). If they want a little juice, that's ok but I make sure to dilute it with water before serving it.
5) Offer New Foods To Them At Every Possible Opportunity, Along with "Safe Foods"
They can't try something if you don't offer it. My son got a tiny piece of plain lettuce with a carrot stick on his plate every night for weeks before I could get him to try it- along with foods I knew he already enjoyed. The salad inevitably got left on the plate, but little by little I convinced him to try it. Now, he eats a small plate of salad most nights. If he has indulged earlier in the day, he knows the salad will be a bit bigger to compensate. My 2 year old is in the 'tempermental' phase where one day, he loves a certain food, and the next won't even look at it, so we are not quite there in establishing the regularity with which he'll eat something, but I kow we'll get there.
6) Do A Pantry Audit
Does your pantry look like the cookie/cracker aisle of a grocery store? If you are trying to improve your child's picky-eating, then you need to get rid of the culprits. They won't insist on eating gold fish if they're not constantly in the house.
7) Creatively Hide Nutritious Foods and Make Healthier Versions of Store-Bought
In this day and age of Pinterest, and a huge clean-eating movement, it's so easy to find healthier substitutions for just about any guilty pleasure. Your child will only eat sweet foods? Sneak spinach/kale/spirulina in their smoothies. Make black bean brownies, banana ice cream, whatever you need to do. I make my own granola so they get their sweet cereal fix but it's a healthier version of what I would find in the store. My toddler won't eat steamed veggies on their own but when we chop them up and mix them in with brown rice, he'll happily shovel it down. My mom also happens to be the best dumpling-maker on the planet and sneaks a ton of veggies into the filling so the kids don't realize how much they are eating. There are neverending opportunities to sneak in nutrient-dense foods.
8) Include Them in the Meal-Prep Process
Kids love to copy their parents, and this is no different when cooking is the activity at hand. If they are invested in the process, they are more likely to try the fruits of their labor (no pun intended). Something as simple as letting them sprinkle rosemary on the potatoes, putting the fruits and veggies into the Vitamix before you blend up your smoothie, or sprinkling the cinnamon on the granola mixture can generate a lot of curiousity and interest on their part.
9) You Don't HAVE to Order From The Kid's Menu
There is no reason that you can't order from a regular menu. My kid's have always loved soup, so I tend to order that and have them split 1 portion before I look at the hot dog/grilled cheese options.
10) When All Else Fails, Bribe Bribe Bribe
If left to their own devices, my children would eat sugary cereals, cookies, lollipops, and pizza/pasta on a regular basis. Getting them to agree to healthy options can still involve a bit of negotiation and bribery. There have been MANY instances of "if you want to eat that, then eat this first". This has been especially useful when we are out at a birthday party where the meal looks a little something like chicken nuggets/fries/juice, followed by candies from a pinata, followed by cake, followed by a goodie bag with additional treats in it. If possible, I'll grab some raw veggies and tackle my sugar-filled child with the ultimatum that they cannot eat a slice of cake unless they compensate with some healthier foods first. He is so accustomed to this, he doesn't even think twice about accepting carrot sticks and broccoli.
So there you have it, my simple-but-effective list of ways to make your child a healthier eater. Come find us next week, where I'll be sharing some of my kid's most-requested recipes.
Do you have any tips and tricks to convince your little one to eat better? Share them in the comments!
photo courtesy of: @organicfoodforkids