When it comes to raising healthy kids, there’s almost nothing as important–or, sometimes, as frustrating–as what you feed them. Here are a few strategies to help you make meal times with your little ones as easy, pleasant and nutritious as possible. Keep in mind that every child and household is unique. Not every tip will work, but they are certainly worth a try.
Remember Who Is in Charge
Parents decide when, where, and what foods are offered. Kids decide how much (if any) food they want to eat from what parents are offering. Respect your child’s appetite or lack of appetite, but keep in mind that you are in charge of what and when their next eating experience will be. No permanent damage will be done if a child goes to bed hungry once in a while. In fact, they may be more likely to try new foods at the next meal or snack you serve.
Keep Kids on a Schedule
Avoid letting kids mindlessly graze between meals. Too much munching between meals can prevent kids from coming to the table hungry and ready to eat. Strategically timed snacks can be a great way to fill in the nutrition gaps of a child’s diet. Plan snacks around food groups that may be harder for them to get during meal times such as fruits, veggies and dairy.
Don't Be a Short-Order Cook
Serve kids what you are eating and be a good role model in trying new foods and enjoying a variety of nutritious options. Offer at least one food at meal times that you know everyone likes, but don’t give alternatives beyond this. Making children different meals will only encourage them to limit variety. If kids know that there won’t be an alternate meal, they’ll work harder to like the foods you offer.
Let Kids Serve Themselves
From a young age, kids are good at gauging how much food will satisfy them. Serving food on the table “family style” can allow children to portion their own food. It can also help them deconstruct a food that they may enjoy part of but not all. Spaghetti for example; maybe the red sauce turns them off, but they are willing to eat noodles and meatballs.
Don't Give Up
Keep offering new foods. Kids need to see and experience foods multiple times before learning to like them, so don’t give up if your first try isn’t a success. Offering new foods a few times helps kids get used to seeing them, and more likely to eat them. Even if they are unlikely to eat something, encourage them to explore by touching, smelling and even licking the food. Research shows that it can take up to 10 times of experience a food for children to like it. But at the end of the day, understand that you may not like all foods either and that’s okay!
Serve Foods in a Variety of Ways
Give kids carrot “grass” (shredded carrots) instead of sticks, or serve them with their green tops still attached. If your child loves chicken nuggets, try serving grilled chicken cut into nugget-sized pieces, or breaded fish sticks to mimic the texture of chicken nuggets. Dig out the cookie cutters and cut fruits, veggies, and cheeses into fun shapes. Kids love dunking foods in dip, so use this to your advantage! Serve favorites like hummus, salsa, or ranch dressing with unfamiliar foods to encourage kids to try something new. Try our fun, Superhero Veggie Dip recipe or Harmons hummus!
Have Kids Help With Prep Work
Kids who help in the preparation of their meal are more likely to try the finished product. Have kids help pick out produce at the grocery store, and provide them with kid-friendly kitchen tasks, like cracking eggs, stirring batter, or washing vegetables. Having some ownership in what they eat by helping will help them feel proud about food choices.
Keep it Positive
No matter what, keep the conversation around food positive. Or better yet, focus your mealtime convo around other positive aspects of your day. A relaxed, comfortable environment is the best setup for your child to develop a healthy relationship with food. It can be nerve-wracking to watch your child turn their nose up at food you want them to eat, but gentle perseverance will pay off with time.
If you would like more information from our dietitian team, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you!
Melanie Taylor is a registered dietitian nutritionist and mother of five busy kids with a wide range of picky palates. You can read more about mealtimes in her home here. She completed the coordinated master’s program in nutrition at the University of Utah and has worked in the areas of education, food service, nutrition consulting, home health and hospice, and substance use recovery.