Every once in awhile I find a parent who does not admit to having trouble getting their preschool-aged children to eat. Usually their children are grown and have their own children, so I am not entirely certain that their memories are completely accurate. For the most part, though, every parent I know has at least one child who is a “picky eater.” I don’t know how much help I can be in getting your child to eat, but hopefully some of the strategies we use will be helpful to you. Because I taught preschool and Kindergarten before I had my own children, my husband and I formulated our plans regarding mealtime well before our first child arrived. I started by talking to the parents of the children I worked with who had healthy eating habits. I have picked up a few other ideas along the way from other moms and, admittedly, from signs in the pediatrician’s office.
Here are some of the guidelines we use in our house for eating. Glean from the list what you want, ignore the rest.
1. We eat dinner together as a family (and we do not answer the phone during dinner).
Both my husband and I ate dinner every night with our families growing up, so this was important to us. It is one of the best ways to stay in touch with the whole family in this busy day and age. There has been more publicity about family meals in recent years because studies are showing that children who sit down and eat dinner with their families on a regular basis do better in school, are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, and have healthier eating habits. http://www.poweroffamilymeals.com/Mealtime_Matters/
2. NO “kid food!”
This one is important to me because, well, I like to eat. I grew up in Louisiana, which basically means that our lives centered around good food…really good food. I’m not saying that we never eat macaroni and cheese or hot dogs or chicken nuggets, but we don’t eat them on a regular basis. We only eat them if my husband or I decide that one of those items sounds good. Take, for example, pizza. Pizza is considered by some to be a “kid food.” However, it just so happens that pizza is my favorite food, so we usually eat it for dinner once a week.
3. Mama makes ONE meal.
This is a rule I learned from the mother of one of my students who ate anything you put on a plate in front of her. I asked her mother how she got her kids to eat everything, and she told me this rule. She also told me that if the kids didn’t like what was for dinner they could get a bowl of cereal. (They didn’t keep any sugary cereal in the house.) She said only twice did her kids ever opt for the cereal. They would even eat sushi.
4. You must try one bite of everything on your plate.
If you try it and don’t like it, then you don’t have to eat any more of it…for the night. Sometimes my children will tell me they don’t like something, but when they try it, they are surprised to find it tastes good. Also, according to a sign from Gerber foods in the pediatrician’s office, it can take 10 to 15 tries of a new food before a person develops a taste for this food. (http://www.gerber.com/AllStages/Nutrition_And_Feeding/Trying_new_foods.aspx) This is why I keep making certain foods even when my children tell me they don’t like them. Two specific foods that we have had dramatically noticeable success with in our house are salmon and spinach salad. Also, it is very rare that a small child will choose to go hungry. They will generally eat at least one of the things you have made for dinner.
5. You are not required to finish everything on your plate.
When you force your children to “clean their plates,” you are essentially teaching them to ignore the signals their bodies are sending. This can lead to obesity later in life (and even early in life). Here’s the thing, young children are excellent self-regulators when it comes to eating. You have probably already noticed that they go through fazes of eating a lot and then eating a little. (My kids follow this cycle when they go through growth spurts. They tend to sleep a lot after they go through a period of eating a lot.) HOWEVER, if your children refuse to eat much dinner, but then want a snack 30 minutes to an hour later, you may have to do a little more encouraging. I recommend letting your child know that if they are truly full, then they may be excused from the table. BUT if they are hungry again later, their unfinished meal will be waiting for them.
6. Offer at least one fruit or vegetable at every meal.
This is a good way to make sure you and your kids are getting at least 5 servings of fruits and veggies every day. Offer them as snacks as well.
7. Your kids will be better about eating a variety of foods (read “vegetables”) if you are willing to try different foods.
This last rule is a tough one, but like most things in life, your children learn by example. You may be surprised by the things you now like. I didn’t grow up eating bell peppers because my father is allergic to them. I always thought I didn’t like them or only liked them cooked. I have since discovered that I really love peppers. My kids can’t get enough of them. They are now one of our favorite snacks. Keep in mind my earlier comment about trying things several times before developing a taste for them…this goes for you too.
If you are having trouble getting your children to eat a variety of vegetables (or in some cases, any vegetables at all), try this trick I learned from another mom (who learned it from her daughter’s pediatrician). When you are making dinner in the evening and your children begin to circle the kitchen because they are hungry and can smell the dinner aromas, give them raw vegetables to eat. If they are young enough to still be in a high chair, strap them in and place a few raw veggies on their tray. If they are out of the high chair have them sit at the table with some raw veggies and ranch dressing or hummus for dipping. Also, frozen peas (or other smaller frozen veggies) feel great on teething gums. My mom told me she used to give us frozen veggies as a snack and for relief for sore gums when we were toddlers.
This is just my two-cents on the matter of eating with small children. I hope you found something useful in all of my ramblings. I also have suggestions for dealing with low-blood sugar. I’ll save those comments for another post, though.