excerpt from Healthy Food and Nutrition for Kids by Jane Sheppard, Certified Functional Medicine Health Coach and Parenting Coach
Is your child super-selective in what he or she will eat? Are you worried about your picky eaters getting enough healthy food?
Many kids are very selective, and a common eating pattern is to choose only certain foods and refuse everything else. At various stages of development, children may choose to eat very small amounts of food, or only one type of food, and they may not be willing to try new foods at all. It’s also common for children to have certain fixations about food, like the bread has to be cut a certain way or the foods can’t be touching each other, or some other thing that can drive you crazy.
The biggest mistake you can make is to try and control your child’s food habits. Why? Because it won’t work, and it will likely create a power struggle leading to more food issues.
Most kids who are labeled picky eaters are simply going through a normal process of experimenting with food preferences. Young children have inconsistent eating habits, eating well one day and practically nothing the next day. Most toddlers prefer to explore or play with food rather than eat it. Toddlers typically like to snack their way through the day and are not likely to sit down and eat full meals. If they do, most of it will end up on the floor! Eating preferences and habits change as children move through the developmental years.
The best advice I can give is to stop trying to control when, where and how your child eats. Let it go. Let her explore healthy food in a fun and stress-free way. Help her get more in tune with her body by noticing when she is hungry, instead of eating on demand.
Try to refrain from using labels like “picky eaters” or “fussy eaters”, since labels can keep children stuck in a pattern. The key is to not make food into a power struggle. Think of it this way. You can provide a variety of healthy foods in a creative, fun way, and leave it up to your child to choose how much he eats, when he eats, or even if he eats. If you give children the power of choice, they are less likely to struggle against healthy food. And more likely to adopt life-long healthy eating habits.
Of course it’s frustrating when you spend time and money providing healthy food and your child shuns it. But rather than stress about it, realize that in most cases, it’s fine for kids to eat selectively while exploring food and developing tastes and preferences. Acknowledge that you are doing the best you can to provide healthy choices for your child and then let go of her needing to have a perfect diet all the time. The most important thing is that she enjoys eating and she can feel the benefits to her body and mind. Above all, eating should be enjoyable and not stressful.
How to Encourage Your Child to Love Healthy Foods
It’s important to have an ongoing, open dialogue with your child about food, beginning at an early age. Small children can learn about all the different types of foods, how food affects their bodies, and what foods help them to feel better and to learn well. This can all be taught in many fun and imaginative ways. If you teach your children about healthy food and model healthy eating yourself, it’s likely that there will come a time when they will want to eat mostly healthy foods.
Find the easiest approach
Let’s look at some positive approaches to encourage children to eat healthy. Find what works for you, and don’t try to do too much too soon. Think about what might be the easiest approach and give it a go. The key is to do the best you can to not make an issue out of food. Make it a light and easy topic and have fun with it.
Look at what your child is eating over several days, rather than worrying if he is getting all the nutrition he needs in one day or at every meal. You may need to aim for a nutritionally-balanced week, not a balanced day.
Don’t take it personally
When your child refuses to eat the healthy foods you so lovingly provide, realize that it’s a developmental process and not a put-down of you or your cooking.
Know what works best with your unique child
You know your child better than anyone else. Pay attention to the methods that are most effective for your individual child, and do your best to ignore feedback that doesn’t feel right. Some of us have family and friends with good intentions that can create more stress than help. Follow your intuition and take a lot of deep breaths. I understand it can feel like an ongoing challenge. I’ve been there, and it does get easier!
Here are some more tips:
- Be supportive but not too attached. If your child knows you’re attached to him liking a particular food, it might create more resistance. Again, eating should be enjoyable and not stressful.
- Be a great example of a healthy eater. Show your child how much you enjoy your salad, an avocado or a kiwi, and talk about how good you feel after eating something healthy. Children learn more from what we do, rather than from what we say.
- Do your best to refrain from negative statements about food. Ask your partner and others to join you in this. If your child hears that Daddy dislikes chard, the chances of him trying it is slim.
- Explain how you’re putting fuel or energy into your body so you can play, think, work, and sleep well, etc. Help your children understand we choose food as fuel and that our bodies feel good when we eat certain things and not so good when we eat others.
- Focus on the foods they CAN eat rather than what they can’t have. Try the empowering approach: “Yes! You can have a snack. Would you like apples or carrots?” “Would you like your salad now while you’re waiting for dinner to be ready?”
- Ask your children which healthy snacks they want in their lunch, after school, etc. Let them be part of the decision process so they feel empowered.
- Make your own healthy sweet treats together. You can control what ingredients go into them, and kids like to eat something they made themselves.
- Create a menu together. Let your child be involved in the family meal planning. This way there will be no surprises about what’s for dinner.
- Invite your child to draw and color healthy meals on a paper plate. Create guidelines about what they need to have, for example, 1 protein and 2 veggies, etc. This can inspire some great things in the kitchen.
- Let your children do the cooking or help you within reason. They like to eat what they cook themselves.
- Allow your toddler to play with food. Provide a small variety of healthy options and allow her to explore. Toddlers are very interested in textures, smells, tastes and putting things in their mouths.
- Join your child in playing with food! There are many creative things to do with vegetables – cauliflower sheep, cucumber frogs, tomato lady bugs, carrot flowers. These foods won’t seem as scary if they are in a fun form.
- Offer a snack tray of finger foods to your toddler since toddlers like to graze. Snacking or grazing on healthy foods throughout the day minimizes blood sugar swings and can prevent those outbursts that come from lack of eating. Put a variety of colorful, bite-sized portions into a cupcake tin, an ice-cube tray, or a compartmentalized dish. This can look like a fun, colorful collage. Name these finger foods with fun names so he will want to gobble them up!
- Put this snack tray out so that it’s easy to reach while your toddler is roaming around. This way she can stop and nibble, then move on to the next fun thing, then come back and nibble some more. Remember to put out foods that can last an hour or two without refrigeration.
- Find a task that is age appropriate for your children to help in the kitchen. Your two-year-old can get the vegetables out of the bottom drawer of your fridge and set them up to be cut, and your 10 year old can be in charge of a side dish.
- Go on a scavenger hunt in the grocery store. Beforehand have a list of things your children are in charge of finding and give them label-reading responsibilities so they can begin to learn what is in their food.
- Find a story, or make up a story, about a character they can relate to that enjoys eating healthy food.
- Children love to dip food into tasty dips, so put dips out with cut-up vegetables or fruits.
- Children love spreading or smearing, so let them spread their foods with spreads like peanut butter, cashew butter, yogurt, fruit jams, or guacamole.
- Kids also love toppings. Put a favorite topping on top of a new food to make it more appealing and familiar.
- Make a healthy smoothie with your child.
- Cut foods into various shapes to make them more fun
- Serve foods on whimsical play dishes, or something that is out of the ordinary, like a plastic measuring cup, or a muffin tin.
- Kids have small tummies so keep servings small. Frequent small portions are better and less intimidating than large portions. Small amounts of food served frequently also helps to stabilize blood-sugar levels.
- Offer at least 3-5 servings of vegetables a day, but realize that for kids, a serving is small – a tablespoon for each year of age. So a two-year-old serving is only two tablespoons of vegetables.
- Make a garden with your child and let him plant, water, harvest and prepare the vegetables.
- Let other kids set an example. Invite another child to lunch or dinner, one whom you know really loves to eat a variety of healthy foods. Children like to model their peers and this may help your child catch on to how great it is to eat healthy.
- Keep a variety of healthy foods on a shelf within your child’s reach so when he wants a snack, he can open the refrigerator or cabinet door and choose one. It allows him to eat when he is hungry, which is a good way to think about food.
- Kids don’t really care what is supposed to be breakfast food or lunch food. If your child wants “breakfast” food at dinner or “dinner” food at breakfast, does it really matter as long as it’s healthy?
- Offer nutrient-dense foods as much as possible, so when your child does eat, he’s getting a lot of nutrition, even if it’s a small amount. Some nutrient-dense foods that children usually like are avocados, nut butters, eggs, squash, red bell peppers, berries, etc.
- You can cut up some veggies or other snacks into small containers to keep on hand for the next time you have to get to an appointment in a hurry. Simply grab it and go.
What has worked for you? Feel free to share your tips in the comments below.
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