Kids’ eating habits can be hard to predict. They can often go from not eating much one day, to eating all day long another. They love and ask for a specific food every day for weeks, and then suddenly refuse to go near it. Each child is also unique and no 2 children eat the same types or amount of food. As challenging as this may seem, it is perfectly normal.
You can’t force your child to eat but you can provide nutrient-dense, real, whole foods, demonstrate healthy eating habits, and set the stage for enjoyable mealtimes.
You want to offer your kids healthy options and for them to eat real food, but how do you actually go about it?
Developing Healthy Eating Habits
When offering your child a new food, patience is key. You may have to offer a food multiple times before your child will try it.
Make Food Fun
Kids seem to love food that is fun! That may be why so many ‘kid food' items come in bright colors, fun shapes, and interesting packaging. Having fun with healthier food choices can be fun too! Try cutting vegetables, fruit, cheeses and the like, into cool shapes with cookie cutters. You can also use the cookie cutters to make fun shapes with ground meats. You could use some interesting plates (bright colors, divided sections, bento boxes) or take a muffin tin or something similar and fill each section with little snacks: berries, bite size veggies, cheese slices, dipping sauces, etc. and make an interesting little snack tray! You can also have your child come up with special names for their favorite foods.
Instead of serving a single option to your child, give them the opportunity to choose between two options. “Would you like broccoli or cauliflower for dinner?”
It also helps to serve new foods alongside known favorites which may make trying something new easier.
Serve The Right Amount
Offer your child 1 tablespoon of each food for each year of age. For example, if they are 3, serve 3 tablespoons of each food. Smaller portions give them the chance to try something new to ask for more of their favorites.
Let The Kids Help
Enlist in your kids’ help in the garden (if you have one), the grocery store and the kitchen. In general, if they grow it, they will eat it, if they choose it, they want to try it and if they cook it, they can’t wait to see what it tastes like. You can then work out a way they can help prepare the meal or set the table. Participating in the different parts of mealtime may make them more likely to eat.
There is something quite soul-nourishing about growing and preparing your own food. Don’t hoard that feeling! Let your children experience it, as well.
Kids love dipping their foods. Provide healthy dips to encourage your child to try new whole food options that may seem unappetizing to them. These could include guacamole, avocado oil mayonnaise, hummus, dairy-free yogurt, or home-made salad dressings – whatever fits into your real food philosophy.
Lead By Example
If your child sees you eating a variety of healthy foods, they will be more likely to try them.
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Creating Enjoyable Mealtimes
Children like it when things are familiar and the same. Set regular mealtimes. Sit in the same place for each meal you eat at the table.
Give A Heads Up
Ten to 15 minutes before mealtime, tell your child it will be time to eat soon. Sometimes the tiredness or excitement from school, homework and play activities results in children not wanting to eat, or not realizing they are hungry. By telling them mealtime is coming they can transition from whatever they are doing, to mealtime.
Mealtimes Are For Meeting & Talking
Put all toys or electronic devices aside when sitting at the table. Avoid letting your child read a book or watch TV, either. It can help to talk about how good it is to eat together and encourage them to stay at the table until everyone is done eating. Everyone at the table needs to model the same behavior to avoid sending conflicting messages to.
Creating pleasant mealtimes is important as this will make your child more likely to look forward to eating. Try to avoid arguments or negative talk at the table.
For more on the importance of eating together, read on here
Include Smart Snacks
Many younger children often can’t or don’t eat enough in one meal to remain full until the next meal. 3 meals and 2 snacks is appropriate for a growing child.
A snack may be necessary if the next meal is several hours away. If the meal will be within the next hour, skip the snack. coming to the table hungry, means your child is more likely to eat.
Offering small, healthy snacks between meals can feel challenging, but can be quite simple.
Healthy snack options can include:
- Sliced fruit or berries
- Healthy dips
- Cold meat slices
- Low sugar smoothies
- Cheeses (if including dairy)
- Milk-based or non-dairy yogurt
- Gluten-free crackers with nut butters
- Children love platters, so fill a plate with colourful nibbles.
Many of our kid’s lunches work brilliantly as snack options too – with bits and bites and dips and nibbles. Grab your child and choose their favorites here >>>>>
A Few Things To Consider
Use Real Food Favorites
Unless your child has an allergy or intolerance to a specific real food, continuously offering their favorites is a good way to ensure they are getting real food benefits. If your child loves bacon, work it in as much as possible. If smoothies are a favourite snack, make a daily smoothie. Eggs for breakfast every morning is a great way to start the day if eggs are the favorite food of the moment.
Continue to offer new foods and encourage your child to try them, but do not create food battles. There is no need to become a short-order cook, but try to have something at each meal or snack that your child enjoys.
Once they are no longer hungry, allow your child to stop eating. Making them eat when they’re not hungry can interfere with their natural cues that tell them when they’re full. Allowing them to choose when to stop eating teaches them how to listen to their bodies and make healthy food choices.
Don’t Negotiate Or Bribe
Too often parents try to force their kids to eat what is on their plate by giving rewards for so many bites or not letting them up from the table until certain amounts are eaten. Threats, punishments, and rewards aren’t good ideas as they often lead to power struggles. Avoid making deals. This enforces the behaviour of making deals to get rewards for other things. In addition, making something like dessert a reward, gives it higher value in your child’s mind which can, in turn, contribute to unhealthy attitudes toward sweets.
Manage Your Expectations
As long as there is no allergy or intolerance to a particular food, let your child make some of their own choices. Your child will be offered treats by well-meaning adults and children alike. Teach them the polite way to say “No, thank you” if they truly do not want the treat, but also tell them that you will not be disappointed if they give in.
If your child is eating well at least 80 percent of the time, having a food that does not fit perfectly into your food philosophy on occasion will not damage their bodies beyond repair. As more and more people are embracing a real food lifestyle, it is definitely becoming easier to find nutritious options in common social settings.
Even though the process is not a quick one, it is possible to have children who not only enjoy but actually prefer real food. Keep your relationship with your child at the forefront and avoid creating food battles. Help your children understand why real food is important. Make the transition slowly and feed them the real foods they love. This is the best way to teach your child how to make good decisions about food.