You hear a wet splat hit the floor and turn to find your toddler playing “mud fight” with the healthy lunch you just so lovingly prepared. Maybe you want to get mad. Maybe you want to throw the food back at your ungrateful eater. The power struggle has begun. Have you been here before? Here are 6 ways to encourage your child to eat healthier and help you to keep your sanity.
1. EMPOWER YOUR CHILD TO MAKE HEALTHY CHOICES
When possible, give your child options that you are happy with. Ask your child, “Are you going to eat carrots or broccoli tonight?” “Which apple, red or green?” When we make a regular habit of giving our kids choices about matters that won’t hurt them or anyone else in the world, it boosts their self-esteem and sense of control, which, if practiced consistently, helps them to act out less because they feel less of a need to rebel. Parents who give away control about things that don’t matter tend to naturally have more control when they need it (without having to fight for it.)
2. GET CREATIVE! PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD
Bust out your blender or electric juicer to make fresh fruit-veggie smoothies or juice! Capitalize on the fun colors produced by produce (orange from carrots, green from kale or spinach, purple from berries, etc.) It’s always good to throw at least one fruit, like an apple, to ensure a little sweetness. For more ideas on healthy smoothies, see http://familysponge.com/simple-green-smoothies/10-kid-friendly-green-smoothie-tips/.
Turn mealtime into a simple art project! Make “bone” sandwiches (bread, open-faced, smeared with peanut or almond butter, topped with “apple straws”;) “pirate-eye” toast (cut hole in bread with round glass rim or cookie cutter and fry an egg inside the hole;) the list goes on. The classic “ants on a log” can be reinvented with hummus on celery, flanked with sliced black olive “ants.” For a list of more fun food recipes, check out: http://www.parenting.com/gallery/fun-recipes-for-kids.
Buy fun tabletop products like “Mr. Food Plate” or “Ms. Food Plate” from http://www.casa.com/ or “Construction Plate and Utensils” by http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/construction-plate-utensils.
3. TRY NEW THINGS NEW WAYS
Rather than try to convince your 3 year-old, “Eat this; it’s good for you,” focus on how you can improve the taste of a certain dish instead of throwing it out entirely. “Maybe we can add some salt to this broccoli.” “These Brussels sprouts could use a little butter.” “Let’s try steaming the carrots this time.” Add kale or spinach to her grilled cheese sandwich without being sneaky. It’s okay to let your kid know about vegetables. Take note of how he or she responds.
4. INVOLVE YOUR KID IN THE COOKING!
Find age-appropriate things your child can do to help you prepare meals. Whether a toddler, teenager, or any age in between, your young cook can contribute. Williams-Sonoma has fantastic ideas on this topic, catergorized by age: http://www.williams-sonoma.com/recipe/tip/skills-by-age.html. Plan a date with your child to pick a recipe, shop for the ingredients, prepare the meal and enjoy it together.
Cooking with your kid not only provides teaching moments, it’s a terrific way to bond with him and build his self-esteem!
5. HONOR LIKES AND DISLIKES
Avoid forcing your child to eat or making her “eat her veggies first” or “clean her plate before she leaves the table.” Kids’ hunger cues need to be respected from an early age to lessen risk of creating unhealthy relationships with food and mealtime. The key is to make healthy things like fruits and veggies available to them meal after meal, day after day, without making a big deal about it. Just keep serving them, even if your kid doesn’t touch them at first. Chances are, she eventually will, and she may even learn to love them. Check out these awesomely helpful guidelines from the book French Kids Eat Everything: http://joannagoddard.blogspot.com/2012/06/french-kids-eat-everything.html.
Stop labeling your kid as “picky” (even if he is; labeling only reinforces pickiness!) Every person has different preferences, and over time our palates can be trained to like certain foods we never thought we would previously, while other foods don’t quite cross over onto our list of preferred eats. (I have learned to love yogurt after hating it as a kid, for example, but I still can’t bring myself to gag down a raisin.) Respect your kids’ preferences while still offering healthy options. Playdough to Plato has compiled a terrific list of picture books you can read with your child as you encourage her to expand her palate: http://www.playdoughtoplato.com/2012/03/13/15-childrens-books-for-picky-eaters/.
6. FOOD EXPLORATION AND POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
Avoid freaking out when your kid eats sweets. Lecturing or shaming him may only make him want to boycott your requests, or sadder yet, resort to eating sweets in secret. Instead of stigmatizing sugar as “bad,” think of it as a “sometimes food.” Fruits and veggies need not be glorified as “good” but rather “everyday foods.” Check out the video Sometimes Foods vs. Everyday Foods for a cute presentation by kids for kids: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6OSXaVTimQ.
Try to be a positive example. If you struggle with food, do what you can to set some goals to make practical, realistic changes, ask for ideas and support from trusted family and friends, and seek professional help if you need it (especially if you struggle with or suspect you have an eating disorder. It’s okay to get help. In fact, it’s healthy and commendable.) Above all, remember that no parent is “perfect.” With loving attention, consistency, and a genuine approach to avoid power struggles while setting healthy boundaries, you’ll figure out how to be most helpful to your child with regard to balanced eating without losing your marbles.