Let me just start by saying that if you have a picky-eater in your midst, I feel your pain! Not only are my kids picky as hell, so is my husband! When I manage to get them to eat something relatively healthy, it is cause for celebration because we are coming out of the dark days of packaged and processed…
In my desperate attempts to get my family to eat well, I have resorted to all manner of threats. I’ve sent them to bed early, taken away toys and privileges, and left them sitting at the table for half the night. I have begged, pleaded, shouted, bribed, and even tried the good old-fashioned deprive-them-of-everything-else-until-they-eat-their-veggies. I’m not sure how so-and-so’s grandmother got her kids to eat veggies by letting them go hungry (“because kids will eat when they get hungry”), but my kids went on a full-blown hunger strike when I tried that method!
When I ran out of creative ideas to beat my family into submission, I went to the internet to find a new approach and found some pretty helpful advice. :
1) Let them choose vegetables at the grocery store: Kids are often not in control over decisions made in their lives, and that is probably very frustrating for them. Eating veggies is important, so my kids don’t have a choice in the matter, but I can at least let them have some control over which ones we eat. When I started letting my kids choose some of our veggies at the grocery store, they were super excited that they got to bag up produce and drop it into the cart. They even became curious about stuff we don’t usually buy (“What’s this one called?”) Being an active participant in the selection of produce not only got our kids curious about new foods, but it also teaches them valuable life-skills such as budgeting and selecting produce that has ripened properly.
2) Let them help prepare food in the kitchen: I was a little bit skeptical about this one at first, but I was pleasantly surprised at how keen my kids were to eat food that they had a hand in preparing. Allowing them to chop up apples for apple sauce (with a butter knife), wash the mushrooms, or peel carrots made them want to taste the fruits (uhh… and veggies?!) of their labour. They had fun comparing the insides of a butternut squash to their pumpkin guts from Halloween time, and found they actually enjoyed eating it! They felt proud to be my special helpers in the kitchen and contributing members of the family (we say ‘thank you’ at the dinner table to anyone who helped prepare the meal), and I felt proud to be teaching them about food preparation for their future.
3) Offer options: Same idea as at the grocery store, except at dinner time make two types of vegetables and allow your child to choose one, (“If you don’t want corn, then you must have peas!”) Everyone has personal preferences, but its still important to eat healthy foods, so letting them pick one lets them feel like they are in control of their choices sometimes, AND that you are compromising but still in charge.
4) Serve new foods together with known favs/Make a habit of trying new foods: At least once a month, we cook up a dish that is new so that our family is in the habit of trying new things. My kids can be very stubborn when it comes to trying new food, but usually when we try something new, they realize that it is actually as yummy as I said it would be and they declare their love for it! Some of my own favourite foods are ones that I used to think I didn’t like, but when I became more open-minded I discovered they were actually quite good! But trying new things can be daunting for a kid, so offer it up with something they know and love, you may find they are more willing to broaden their horizons.
5) Disguise it/Add cheese/sauce/dips: If all else fails, sneak the veggies into them. I am reluctant to suggest this because it was my default for the toddler years and these days I tend to think its probably best to have your kids be aware of what they are eating so they can develop healthy eating habits for later in life. But that’s not always an option, especially if you have kids with a sensitive gag reflex (I’ll spare you the details!) My kids literally refused to eat vegetables for a while there, and I felt like a horrible mother because of it. But I still snuck in the good stuff every chance I got without their knowledge. Fruit and veggies are great baked into muffins and loafs (in fact some recipes suggest applesauce as an alternative to sugar), blended into smoothies, juices and sauces, or pureed in soups. My kids LOVE hummus, but I’m fairly certain they don’t realize they are eating chick peas. I recently made some ‘tater tots’ out of cauliflower that were pretty yummy too! I actually have a great recipe book for getting kids to eat the good stuff, written by Jessica Seinfeld, called Deceptively Delicious which is worth checking out. And for those reluctant eaters who are brave enough to knowingly eat veggies, you can help them choke it down by adding a bit of grated cheese or a fun dip. Broccoli is just better with cheese on it, my kids will eat most cooked vegetables now if I let them dip it in ketchup, and I know a few kids who like raw veggies with some ranch dip. Whatever gets it in them, right?
6) Ongoing positive conversation about healthy choices: Encouraging your children to eat well for the sake of being healthy and strong is much more likely to go well than telling them to eat because they ‘ought to’ or ‘because I said so’, so I try to focus on positive reasons. ‘Milk will make your bones strong’, ‘carrots help you see well’, ‘broccoli makes your muscles big’ and that sort of thing. I’m probably making stuff up half the time, but after choking down their veggies, my kids are happy and proud and they show off their big muscles! I’m much more concerned about my kids developing a lifelong love of healthy-eating than whether or not they ate their carrots on a given day.
7) Hold out on desert/treats: There are usually a variety of delicious not-altogether-healthy treats kicking around our house (I like to bake), but we make a strong effort to teach our kids that these things should only be eaten in moderation ‘as part of a balanced diet’ as they say. If they want a cookie, they need to eat some fruit or yogurt first. If they would like ice-cream for dessert, they need to eat all their cauliflower at dinner time. If my kids want to tell me they are ‘full’ at dinner time without having eaten well, I am certainly not giving them junk food an hour later when they say they are hungry again. My kids know the drill, so they are usually just in the habit of requesting healthy snacks.
8) Set a good example: I LOVE vegetables! I love them so much that I grow a garden, and my kids really enjoy being a part of it. They see me eating things that they are still developing a taste for and they are grossed out, but curious too. My husband, on the other hand, is not altogether fond of most vegetables. But he makes an effort to eat well because it would simply not be fair to ask our kids to eat their vegetables otherwise. Setting a good example with your own healthy eating habits will not only be a positive influence for your kids, but will help you live longer to enjoy them!
9) Insist: At the end of the day, you are the parent, and it is your job to ensure your children grow up strong and healthy. I don’t ask my kids to eat veggies because they ought to obey me, instead I explain to them that it is my responsibility to carry out the doctors instructions to provide them with a balanced diet. Its my job to provide the food, its their job to eat and grow big and strong. Full disclosure here folks… my kids used to walk all over me. They refused to eat things, and I would throw my hands up in defeat (we’re talking toddlers here!) But the moment I stood my ground and insisted that I was only doing what was best for them, they started taking me seriously. At first they resisted, but when it became a regular every day expectation that they make healthy eating choices, there was a dramatic positive change in their willingness to do so.
10) Sit and eat together as a family: Making a conscious effort to eat together as a family has been BY FAR the most helpful piece of advice I found. When our kids were little, we often just grabbed meals on the go, or we would sit the kids down to eat and worry about ourselves later. Once we started sitting down together, magical things started to happen! Suddenly we weren’t short-order cooks making whatever was demanded. There was just one meal prepared and we all learned to try new things together. The added opportunities to teach the kids about table manners resulted in well-behaved children at family functions and restaurants. And everyone felt more connected because it was our chance to discuss everyone’s day, highs and lows. If someone has finished eating before the rest, we just tell stories until everyone has finished eating. It is your chance to set a good example by eating your veggies, or to admire your kid’s biceps after each bite of carrot. I realize that many families are so busy that this is not always an option, but even one family meal night per week where most members of the family are able to join in can be very beneficial for connecting as a family.
Instilling healthy eating habits in children can be a very tricky process. My son has always had a sensitive gag reflex, and our challenge with getting him eating new foods was not so much to do with taste as it was to do with textures. I imagine parents with children who have sensory processing disorder can understand this issue on a whole different level! In an attempt to be patient and understanding about how hard this change can be, I have become pretty creative and I try to search out fun meal recipes that I think our family will find appealing. I hope to share some of our favourite healthy meal recipes in a future post and have an ongoing discussion about raising kids with a love of healthy eating.
It has taken a lot of work, but I am proud to say that our family is in a much better place with our eating habits, and while I certainly don’t profess to be any kind of expert on the subject, I am happy to share the knowledge I have gained in this process. Feel free to reach out to me if you are feeling defeated about your picky-eater, and I will help guide you if I can!