I believe one of the best pieces of advice another mother gave to me long ago, which had nothing to do with the usual stuff (breastfeed or don't, time out or not, co-sleep or no way) was to feed my daughter what my husband and I were eating.
When her son was young, she got into a habit of making him an entirely separate meal. She did this because she felt he wouldn't eat what they were eating, particularly if it had any type of flavor or spice. (I have to admit, I did skip out on flavoring for a while. We ate food as bland as white walls. Funny thing is, I then read about children in India who grow up on spiced foods and I realized I probably should have fed my kids the same exact meal - as long as it wasn't fire hot, of course.)
When my friend's son got a bit older, he refused to eat anything that wasn't a chicken nugget by-product or buttered noodles. No vegetables, no fresh chicken, no fish. No protein, other than the fake kind. Mac and cheese, but only from a box. That is, until he was 7, when my girlfriend had enough of making two meals and fought hard for months to change his poor eating habits. (Trust me: this fight resulted in many tears, his AND hers!)
I saw the same thing happen with another friend. Unfortunately, the habit has not been broken and her kids continue to eat what they want for dinner, which often results in a load-up of carbs (ie: buttered noodles slathered with cheese) but minus a veggie and protein.
I don't have perfect kid-eaters, and I don't claim to have all the answers. We still struggle with certain food habits in our home, and while I'd like to say my kids nosh on fresh fruit and natural foods all the time, we don't. But early on we established rules about food - in particular, rules about dinner. The following four have been my biggies, and I honestly believe they have been the best way to get my kids to eat healthfully - or at least to try new foods.
First, my kids eat what we eat. I don't cook a separate meal, though if I'm doing something spicy I may leave the sauce off until the end so the girls can eat their food plain. Otherwise, if I make meatloaf, we all eat it. If I make fish, we all eat it. If I make chicken picata, we all eat it.
Second, they have to eat vegetables with dinner. Period. I've heard, "But I don't liiiiiiiike it," or, "Can I just eat a bite?" so many times my ears twitch when I see the girls revving up to say it again, but my answer is always the same: You have to eat the veggies I cook. This means my children have been munching on artichokes, a household favorite, and brussel sprouts, my 7 year olds favorite, since they could chew. When I put a veggie down in front of them, it's not a foreign object (though that doesn't mean they love them all!). Both girls even like salad, and I love having them eat raw vegetables without complaint.
Third, they have to try everything on their plate. Every single time. Their taste buds change over time - sometimes from week to week! What they hated last week, they might like this week; but I -and they - won't know this until they give it a try. I always ask my kids to take at least one or two bites of each item we're having for dinner. Sometimes, they even surprise themselves!
Fourth, special treats are just that - Special Treats. We don't eat sweets after every meal, or on a daily basis. Special treats come once or twice a week in the form of a cookie, a white pretzel (yogurt pretzels, which my kids have had as special treats for as long as they could stand and still think of them as dessert!), or ice cream on movie night. Every other night, if they finish their dinner and get hungry before bed they can eat fruit: bananas, apples, peaches, strawberries, grapes, etc . . .
If Your Child is Still Young . . .
If you are the parent of young children, start now by serving them what you eat. Otherwise, you'll help in creating a picky eater. Think of it this way: if you lived on pasta and red sauce, you'd miss a variety of nutrients and minerals important for growth and health. Kids are the same. A diet of frozen chicken nuggets and buttered noodles will come to no good. Teach your children about healthful foods as soon as they begin eating solids. Serve fresh chicken (you can always dip them in bread crumbs & saute them in olive oil to make 'frozen nuggets'), steamed vegetables, fresh fruit, and whole grains from the start. The earlier you start, the better your chances of avoiding a fussy eater.
What if your child is used to eating a separate meal and you are now ready to break that habit? Or you've tried to turn your fussy eater into one that is not so, well, fussy?
Randy Wright, author of "The Wright Choice: Your Family's Prescription For Healthy Eating, Modern Fitness and Saving Money," suggests offering one new vegetable (or food) per week into the current eating plan. So this means if your child is stuck in an "I'll only eat green bean" phase, offer carrots one night. Ask them to taste the carrots. Serve them again with a leftover meal. Ask them to taste the carrots again. Says Wright, "Slow introduction of new food is much more helpful to getting them to eat their veggies."
Ask your children to help around the kitchen at mealtime. When I am making foods with which my kids can help prepare, they are much more likely to be excited about the meal when it's time to eat than they are if they've been doing something else while I cooked. We love making lasagna together; the kids layer the veggies and meat on the noodles and cover them with cheese and sauce. They are proud of the creation and more likely to eat it when they assisted.
Let them choose recipes. This is for kids five or so and older, but we have a variety of kid and mom cookbooks (and I have a ton of adult cookbooks). Plus, I subscribe to a few cooking magazines (can you tell I love to cook and eat!?). I have my kids go through and choose meals. Then, we shop for the ingredients and make the meals together. This gives them a sense of pride, and they are more likely to try new foods when they are proud of their work.
Wright also says, "Teach kids about food and they will learn healthy habits early in life." In our house, we often talk about what different types of foods do: carbs provide short term energy and are good when you are running and playing a lot; proteins provide the 'filling' stuff so you aren't hungry an hour later; fruits and veggies are great for vitamins and minerals.My daughters will try to guess which item on the plate is a carb or protein.
Grow a garden. This has been a big one in our family. We've put in a small garden the past three years. We let the girls pick out the seeds and plant them. We check on the garden every few days; and we eat what grows. They've tasted and enjoyed new vegetables, like zucchini, that they really didn't want to eat when I bought it from the store. While it might be too late to put in a summer garden now, you can begin to think about next year.
Getting your child to eat new foods goes beyond putting the new food in front of them and telling them to eat. Will they do it this way? Probably. Will it be a struggle? Most likely. That's not to say that getting them involved in talking about, preparing, and eating new foods is an easy task or goes without a fight. It's not easy to change habits. Still, it can be done, and the sooner the better.
How do you get your kids to eat healthy meals?
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