We all want our kids to develop a taste for a variety of foods from an early age. But no one wants to beg their kids for “just one more bite” or threaten to withhold dessert. If you’re dealing with a picky eater who shies away from trying new foods, here are our top suggestions to help them grow into great eaters and save you from mealtime meltdowns.
Forget the old approach
The “Clean Plate Club,” or the idea that children should eat all the food served to them whether or not they like it (or are even sufficiently hungry!) is mostly a thing of the past. These days experts, including sociologist Dina Rose, Ph.D, author of It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating, encourage the development of good eating habits by getting kids involved in planning and prepping healthy meals, offering healthy familiar options alongside new foods, and then allowing kids to make their own choices from what’s offered.
The key to this strategy? Dividing up responsibilities. Your role, parents, is to handle the Big Picture. Yes, take note of your kids’ requests, but it’s up to you to integrate them into a larger overall meal plan that includes their requests in addition to other healthy options (we’ll dive into specifics on how to do that in a minute). Some of these healthy options can be “safe foods” that you know will be a hit; others can be more experimental to introduce new tastes and textures. As for the kids: Their job is to choose what and how much they want from the options you provide. This may sound counterintuitive, but the thinking here is that new foods that are introduced alongside “safe” foods are less scary than when they’re introduced on their own. Kids eventually branch out when they’re not feeling pressured, giving them a bit more autonomy and control during mealtime.
Take a breath
Remember: You’re playing the long game here. Don’t think of each meal as a do-or-die affair when it comes to developing healthy eating habits and addressing picky eating. One meal that’s light on variety won’t hurt, and think about each meal as an opportunity to offer healthy options that balance out what your child ate over the past few meals.
So now that you understand the game plan, here’s how to put it into practice:
- Create a meal plan for at least a few days. It’s a good idea to get the kids involved with your menu planning. Make sure the meal plan everyone agrees on has foods that you’re hoping your kids might decide to try and also some healthy slam dunks, like meatballs and even beans (!). You want the familiar options to be healthy enough that even if they’re all the kids decide to eat, they’re still filling up on nutritious selections.
- Shop in advance so that you have the ingredients on hand. Wash and store your produce and herbs to prolong freshness and keep them accessible.
- Next, prep some of the healthy snacks included in your meal plan, such as carrot sticks, cucumber slices, berries, and apple pieces. Place them in air-tight containers until you’re ready to serve.
- Invite your tiny chefs to help when you start cooking. They’ll feel proud of their contributions, plus it will help familiarize them with the foods they’ll be eating and hopefully pique their curiosity about new ingredients.
As for occasional treats: Integrate them into your weekly meal plan at a few specific times. For instance, schedule a Saturday evening ice cream making party, or allow the kids to throw a few freshly baked chocolate chip cookies into a snack container alongside the healthy options in their lunchboxes. The goal is to include sweets occasionally and allow them to be enjoyed rather than serving them as a reward, which can send the message that meals are something to “get through” and that the good stuff comes at the end.
Get the kids involved
Remember: Your children’s job in this whole shebang is just to eat. Their responsibility is to choose what and how much they’d like to eat from the options presented to them, which—remember—you’ve thought through and planned out to be part of a broader, balanced meal plan. You’ll be surprised to see that, over time, their increased choice and autonomy actually leads to the desired result of eating more and being less picky.
Two more helpful tips:
That’s it. Really! You can give them free reign to decide what and how much without worry or guilt because you know you’ve mapped out which healthy options are on offer and what will be served in upcoming meals.
And if you’re worried about chaos erupting as the kids make their choices, try not to be. Messes can be managed with long sleeved bibs that keep kids tidy as they explore at the dining table.
Ultimately, if you help your kids establish sound eating habits and prepare them to enjoy variety, before you know it, they’ll be up for more advanced culinary activities. When they’re ready, invite them to help you with adventurous recipes, like making homemade applesauce or roasting veggie chips. It’s a great way to add even more fun to mealtime.