Happy Wednesday! I have been meaning to write a post on this for ages, but it keeps getting put off. What a better day than today right!?! Hopefully these tips, whilst directed at keeping kids eating well, can be applied to all of us to some extent!
Getting my kids to eat well has always been a concern, because I have worked with lots of kids and know lots of kids who are really picky, eat heaps of processed food and really suffer as a result. Poor diet can really affect kids in multiple ways, not only can it influence their physical well being but it can really influence their behaviour. And lets be honest if it is having a direct negative impact on them it is having a negative impact on us as parents, carers and I’m going to stretch it and say society.
As a parent you can really feel up against it when it comes to healthy eating. Junk food is everywhere and it is intentionally heavily marketed to kids. The end of every single aisle at the supermarket has colourful junk that grabs at kids. Not to mention every checkout is filled with chocolate, sugary drinks and other sweet treats. The placement of these products is no accident, but a well researched placement to increase temptation. So if you have made it around the whole store without bribing, fighting, negotiating because of junk food, they’ll get you at the end! I’m always wondering why Dora can’t put her smiling face on bags of apples instead of junky cookies.
My kids are not perfect eaters, but they are really pretty good. And I have developed lots and lots of tricks to encourage and motivate healthy eating. So I want to share what has been working for us. I am aware I may just be super lucky and have kids who are easy going about food, but I have also made conscious steps to encourage that and I think it has made a difference.
Getting them to eat well is a constant work in progress, everyday is different and kids (and adults) go through phases. Sometimes we are way short on time, or short on fuse. So if you have a meal or day or week where it isn’t working, take the pressure off. There is always the next meal to get back onto target with. I think that is key – staying relaxed- and not letting it become an extra stressor. Food is supposed to be fun, social and fuel us, not stress us out.
So what has worked?
Keeping meal times relaxed, calm and enjoyable as often as possible. This can be more challenging on different days and I think it is crucial to be empathetic with where your kids are at during each meal and have realistic standards. By that I mean if they are over tired, over stimulated or even just going through a transition (like working on a milestone, growth spurt, new school etc), don’t expect them to sit perfectly at the table, with perfect manners and eat everything you give to them. Expect a reasonable and realistic effort appropriate for their age and mood and role model the habits you want to instill. Don’t be too hard on them. Meal times need to be calm with minimum anxiety.
This leads me onto the next one, role model the behaviour you expect during meal times and eat well yourself. Kids learn a lot from watching others. Don’t think they don’t notice if you never eat anything green or try anything new. If you or any guests at meal time have issues with eating down play them as much as possible and show interest and excitement trying different foods. Work on yourself first though, our bad habits get picked up so fast by little ones.
Offer variety often. If you constantly give them the same foods over and over than don’t be surprised when they reject something new. If you have the time and energy to switch things up and present new foods or meals do it! The more your kids get used to eating new things the more they will enjoy trying new things!
Don’t accept rejection. I don’t mean force your kids to eat what you put in front of them, but if you give them broccoli once and they declare it looks like poison and won’t touch it laugh it off and keep offering it. Offer it in different ways and at different times too, so that it becomes a “normal” food. Eventually they may be hungry enough to try it and actually enjoy it! Apparently it can take up to 10 times before a toddler will be game to try a new food.
Set some ground rules and limits, but be empathetic about it. Everyone has different ideas about this, however, I think it helps to have some guidelines and lots of flexibility. For example, at dinner my kids (and of course adults too) always start their meal with vegetables. Usually either salad or steamed vegetables, occasionally soup or something more adventurous. “The rule” is that my kids have to make a reasonable effort to eat their veggies before they get their main. And by reasonable it doesn’t have to be everything, they can completely avoid one type of vegetable but they have to eat a full serve of vegetables. “The rule” in their mind is extrinsic, it is what they think everyone does. It is not “my rule” (although really it is), but it doesn’t feel so overpowering if it is an extrinsic thing that is part of our routine.
Give them as much control and choice in the process as you can. Whilst we have the “veggies before dinner rule” I always give my kids a variety of vegetables so that they can decide to eat or not eat a particular thing that night, so long as they eat a reasonable amount over all. I also take them to the fruit and vegetable store with me and to the organic markets. Fruit and vegetables are far more exciting when you have picked them out yourself than if they are blindly chopped up and served by Mum! It is also great because they tend to naturally be attracted to the fruits and vegetables that are in season. It makes it all a little bit more exciting. Also get them to help you cook, even if they are tiny there are little tasks and ways to include them. Obviously be very careful and keep your kids away from sharp things and hot things!
Put vegetables in everything (or as much as you can) and don’t be afraid to hide them. I know lots of people think hiding vegetables doesn’t really work, but I am an advocate because it gets your kids used to the flavours without the fear of something new. Their palates may need to adjust before they will appreciate some of the bitter greens. Also most people do not consume nearly enough serves of vegetables in a day so putting them in more of our meals is a good thing.
Don’t be afraid to not hide them either. It is great to get kids used to seeing new foods too! And kids love whole foods. My kids are so excited to have their own entire carrot or apple or banana. Try not to stress too much about food wastage, it is better they waste half a banana then eat an entire packet of cookies right? There are things you can do with the half eaten bits so that they are not wasted, such as composting, feeding pets, cutting off the eaten ends, washing, and storing the leftovers etc.
Make healthy food readily available and accessible. I don’t ask my kids in the morning if they want a piece of fruit I just make sure the fruit bowl is in front of them when they are waiting for breakfast. If I ask they complain and say no, if it is there and they are hungry they will usually reach for it. Leave out cut up veggies or fruit on the bench or table so they can easily grab it between meals.
Basically just relax, keep trying and don’t expect perfection. Perfection as a goal is not something your kids to try to adopt in relation to anything but especially eating! And have fun!
What are your tips and tricks for picky eaters?