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Feeding our kids is just one of the many vital tasks we are responsible for as parents. And we can’t just feed them anything–we have to get healthy nutrition into their growing bodies! This is not nearly as simple as it sounds. If you are a parent, you will at some point struggle with getting your child to eat. We have all been there, having slaved away for an hour or more preparing a healthy, balanced meal for our family only to have someone flat out reject it. Or, heaven forbid, your meal actually brings someone to tears!
While some of kids’ behavior is directed by their personality, there is still a lot that is learned behavior and that parents have the opportunity to influence for the better. By following these key tips, you will be headed on the path to raising a good eater who has positive thoughts surrounding food, enjoys a variety of foods, and is open to trying new things to eat.
Essential Tips for Raising a Good Eater
1. Limit snacks between meals
This guideline is crucial for obvious reasons. If kids aren’t hungry at mealtimes, they are way less likely to eat at all, much less to try new foods. In order to improve the chances of a happy, productive mealtime, try to cut your kids off from snacking at least a couple of hours before any meal. I find that if I make sure the kids have some protein with their afternoon snack, like a cheese stick or hard-boiled egg, they are more likely to be able to make it to dinnertime without complaining and feeling hungry early.
2. Eat together at the table
The speech therapist in me cannot skip over the social aspect of eating. A mealtime is a social event in every culture I know of. Preserving the social element of eating a meal will encourage your child to be an active participant in mealtime.
Here’s an example of a social routine we have at our house. We all sit together for dinner at the table (well, whoever isn’t at a practice sits together!) and we each take turns asking and telling about what happened during the day. The kids LOVE this time, and they learn to be patient when listening to others, too. Establish your own mealtime social routines to make it a time that your child looks forward to.
Eating together as a family is also important because kids learn by example. Watching older siblings and parents eat goes a long way toward encouraging positive imitation. Behaviors you might want your child to imitate include everything from using utensils and a napkin, to trying new foods and thanking the cook!
This can work in the reverse too if you have an older child who is a difficult eater. It may provide some motivation if he knows his younger sibling is watching, and he may feel some responsibility to be a good role model, especially if you point out that his little sib is watching.
3. Try to not pass on your own food prejudices
Maybe you hate Brussel sprouts, yogurt, or the texture of eggs. Most of have some aversions to certian foods. But, do your best not to influence your child and pass along your own pickiness. In my family, my husband is the pickiest eater out of the 7 of us, but our kids have no idea! He does a great job of shoveling in first whatever thing he doesn’t love, be it vegetables or orange chicken, and then enjoying the rest of his meal. I know this is easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort.
If you are a very picky eater, try to consider that by not introducing foods to your children, you may be determining their future dislike of the food. I would imagine that most of us have some food that we have never tried and never will. For me, oysters are on that list. I know a lot of people really love them, but I’ve gone 40 years without having them and I’m good without ’em. On the other hand, I bet that if I’d been exposed to eating oysters as a child, I’d probably love them. Oysters are one thing, but if you have a lot of common, healthy foods that you don’t personally care for, try to still expose your children to those foods so they can have the nutritional benefit.
4. Feed everyone the same meal
Avoid becoming a short-order cook to accommodate a picky eater. When we have babies and toddlers with very few teeth, it is necessary to make some special accommodations for them at mealtime. Of course. But as soon as kids are old enough to eat the foods that make up your family’s meal, give it to them. You can do this from a young age. If you are practicing baby-led weaning, this may be pretty simple. Even if you don’t practice baby-led weaning, it is easy to adjust the consistency of whatever food you’re eating as a family so that your older baby can eat it too. A mini food processor for your kitchen counter makes it fast and simple. I have this Cuisinart one–it’s the perfect size for small portions of meat sauce or steamed veggies. As an added bonus, you will save money and reduce your waste of those single-use toddler food pouches.
5. Don’t give up on a particular food after one rejection
It often takes a few presentations of a food before a young child will even try it, and even more tries if a child is particularly sensitive. Keep putting a small amount of the new food on their plate spaced out by a few days or a week. It is helpful to serve it along with familiar foods that your child already eats without difficulty. Start small, for example, with just one asparagus spear or a couple leaves of salad or two tiny pieces of barbeque chicken.
One thing that my husband and I try to be very conscious of is never saying things like, “Oh, so-and-so hates to eat that!” Even if it’s true. If you say it in your child’s earshot, and you believe it, then it’s as good as fact. Instead, help your child stay open-minded and encourage them to keep trying the food.
6. Let your child feed himself once he is able
Provide a kid-sized utensil with every meal when your baby starts solids so that he or she can practice using it at will. (This actually doubles as a solution to the baby who learns how to grab the spoon as you’re feeding them. Just give him another spoon, and the problem is solved.) Of course, the important part is that the food gets in him, however messy that may be!
Like anything having to do with young kids, empowering them with a sense of control and say over what they do will go a long way toward making them want to cooperate and go with the flow.
7. Season foods starting at an early age
Lightly seasoning foods like scrambled eggs, oatmeal, and pasta allows kids to taste the amazing variety in food and to learn to enjoy the flavors that are typical of your family’s cooking. Keep in mind that kids’ taste buds are more sensitive than ours, so you do need to be mindful of not over-salting or going overboard with anything potentially irritating, like cinnamon or spices.
8. Vary the presentation of familiar foods
Somedays cut your child’s cheese into cubes, somedays cut it into sticks. Toddlers and preschoolers are known for being creatures of habit. By changing up how you present foods that they eat frequently, your child will not get used to it being only one way. Teaching kids to enjoy food in different forms is bigger than just the food: it helps them become more adaptable and resourceful people.
While always cutting a sandwich in circles may seem like no big deal to you right now, chances are that down the road it will become a source of inconvenience if you are at a restaurant or a friend’s house and your child will only eat circles. The idea is simply to mix up the form your child’s food takes so they do not become “set in their ways” and are able to enjoy food that looks different.
Sensory Issues That Affect Eating In Children
While the ideas here apply for any young child, if your little guy or gal seems to have sensory issues that make mealtime difficult, I recommend that you talk to your pediatrician. Sensory red flags can include things like frequent gagging during feeding, aversions to specific textures of food, and extreme discomfort when hands get messy, whether during a meal or at other times. Occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists are two types of specialists who work with parents and children who are struggling with sensory issues that affect eating. A specialist will be able to work with your family and your child’s specific needs to develop a plan to help.
Do you have other tricks to turn your kids into great eaters? What works for you?