Everyone wants their kids to grow up to be good eaters. But the road map on how to get there often seems more complicated than it needs to be.
So what is a “good eater” anyway? To me, it’s obviously someone who likes a lot of foods. But it’s also someone who has an overall good attitude about food, isn’t afraid to try something new and who reacts appropriately when they are served a less-than-favorite food.
Over the years, I’ve read and heard a lot of really good advice on how to raise a good eater. I’m passing on some of my favorite “words of wisdom” to you here.
1. Serve more veggies. Chances are, your kid is not eating enough vegetables. Most Americans — both kids and adults — fall WAY short of eating enough of this food group. But I know what you’re thinking… “My kid won’t eat vegetables…”
- Words of Wisdom: It’s your job to serve vegetables to your child, without comment or judgement. If they eat it, great. If they don’t, that’s fine too. All you can do is make vegetables available to them on a regular basis. Because one thing is for sure…if you don’t serve them, they definitely won’t eat them.
- Smart Tip: Even if my kids turn their noses up at a vegetable one day, I make it a point to serve it again the next day, often varying the prep method (e.g. raw broccoli one day, steamed the next). Some of you may think this makes me stubborn (my husband would agree with you). But I’ve found that eventually my kids will stop complaining about it, even if they don’t like it. And that’s okay. Teaching kids to be okay with what’s on their plate is part of the goal.
2. Offer more variety. One of the biggest complaints that I hear from parents is that their child will “only eat kid food” or will only eat a single item, like grilled cheese, for lunch every day. While it’s certainly okay for a child to have a favorite food, it’s our job as parents to help our kids like a lot of different foods.
- Words of Wisdom: Kids are natural explorers. Much of what they experience in life is new to them and food shouldn’t be an exception. Treat the introduction of new foods like you would other new experiences or skills: with enthusiasm, support and lack-of-pressure.
- Smart Tip: I often like to offer new foods to my kids when they are hungry, but before they are crabby, which is usually about 3 hours after their last meal or snack. I’ve found they are much more willing to try new foods then. It also helps when I serve the new food with something that they like but that is NOT their favorite food. Finally, I try not to say anything until they’ve tried a few bites of it. I can’t tell you how many times my son has spit out the first bite of a new food, only to go on and try a second bite, and ultimately declare it delicious.
3. Give your child choices. Anyone with kids will readily agree that trying to force a child to eat something will usually (always?) backfire. Kids are desperately trying to stretch their wings, and when it comes to food, they love to call the shots. Can you blame them?
- Words of Wisdom: The kitchen table shouldn’t make kids feel like they are on The Fear Factor. Forcing them to eat something they don’t want to eat is the ultimate way to create dislike of the food, fear of new foods and general distrust of the eating experience. Giving children some control over their eating situation will make them much more likely to try new foods.
- Smart Tip: When I’m plating my kids’ meals, I try to offer two choices in each of three food groups. For example, I will ask “For your vegetable would you like carrots, red pepper or both?” This not only empowers them with choice, but it also is a good way to subtly teach what a balanced meal looks like.
4. Trust your child’s sense of fullness. Trying to figure out how much food your child will eat on a given day can sometimes seem more difficult than predicting who will win the Super Bowl. Some days, my one-year-old daughter will eat more food than me. While other days, she goes on an outright food strike.
- Words of Wisdom: Kids have a much better sense of how much they food need than adults do. As adults, we typically eat whatever is put in front of us (and sometimes more). But kids are more in tune with their caloric needs. As such, they will more readily compensate for their rate of growth, as well as for how much they ate (or didn’t eat) the day before. As a parent, it’s your job to decide what and when your kids eat, it’s their job to decide how much.
- Smart Tip: Personally, this is probably the toughest one for me since my kids are easily distracted and will sometimes stop eating even when they aren’t necessarily full. But I’ve found that having set eating times definitely helps. If my kids are too distracted to eat a meal, they have to wait until the next meal/snack to eat again. I’m not perfect at it, but I try really hard not to cave in.
5. Teach them good food coping skills. There are few things more embarrassing than being on a play date and having your child make a huge scene about a food that the host mom served to your kid. It’s important that your child learn good food manners, both for their social success and yours.
- Words of Wisdom: It’s important that children are pushed outside of their food comfort zone at home, so that they can better cope with new eating situations when outside of the home. Give kids a few good phrases to use, such as a simple “no thank you” or “I’d rather not eat that today” so they have a polite way out of the situation.
- Smart Tip: Since I work really hard to provide my kids with lots of variety at home, and I’ve armed my three-year-old son with a few polite phrases, we typically haven’t had problems outside the home. That said, I will say it’s also helped to teach him how to discreetly spit out a food that he doesn’t like. 🙂