By Leika Suzumura, R.D., PCC Nutrition Educator
The New Year always brings a fresh commitment to ourselves, especially around our health and eating. But getting the whole family to eat better can be a challenge, even more so when you have a picky child. The two most common questions or concerns I hear from parents are: “How do I get my child to eat more than plain pasta?” and “Is it alright to let my child eat dessert if they don’t eat dinner?”
As parents, the well-being of our children is always at the forefront, and even the most well intentioned parents may sometimes use unhealthy tactics to get their children to eat. Let’s talk about healthy practices and how to incorporate them into your daily routine so your child can develop a good relationship with food.
Make mealtime a nourishing experience — avoid forcing food or bribing with desserts. This is really important because if mealtime becomes a constant battle, your child will start to associate food and mealtime as a negative experience and may carry that into their later years. Find your own balance of encouraging them to eat their meal. Maybe it’s “try bites” or “power foods first.” Help them understand why their meal is important — it gives them energy to be strong in their body and in their mind. Treats are a “sometimes” food that we should enjoy … sometimes! Bribing them to eat dinner first before a treat can lead to using foods, especially sweets, as rewards for good behavior and can become an emotional filler in adulthood to feel approved or rewarded when feeling down. Set boundaries that you feel are appropriate and feel confident that you are supporting them to have a healthy relationship with food.
Engage them in decision-making and meal planning. Kids are much more likely to eat something they picked out. This can be done while shopping in the grocery store or at home when making a shopping list or meal plan. Ask them what they’d like for lunch, snacks, as well as dinner and breakfast. Having them help in the kitchen also can be a great way to motivate them to try new foods because they are vested in the foods they made themselves.
Give them a choice at mealtime and avoid making a separate meal if they refuse to eat. I like to say that within boundaries, we have complete freedom. When preparing dinner, you can ask your child, “Would you like to have broccoli or salad for dinner?” and let them choose. This narrows the options and they can choose the vegetable they want. If you ask, “Do you want broccoli for dinner?” the answer likely will be no and then you’re stuck.
The key is patience. It may take up to 10 or more times for a child to try something new. If they don’t like the raw vegetable, try it steamed, stir-fried, blended into soup or dipped in some ranch.
Explore options that build on what you know they like. For example, if they like potato fries, try making them with sweet potatoes. Put broccoli creamed into soup or move from plain white pasta to a tri-color mix.
Model healthy eating — this is more powerful than you may realize. I had a parent once complain that her kids always picked out their veggies and she didn’t know how to get them to eat more vegetables. When we sat down to eat dinner together one night, I noticed that she too selectively picked out all of her veggies and it became apparent why the kids felt validated to do the same practice.
Parents have the important responsibility to feed their children and help them develop a balanced relationship with food. Building healthy habits from a young age will help them grow strong and carry good habits into adulthood. They’ll thank you later!
About the Nutritionist
Leika received her undergraduate degree in nutrition at Bastyr University. She has dedicated her career to community nutrition with an emphasis on childhood nutrition and parent education as a way to support the livelihood of the next generation. Her approach focuses on bringing kids and parents into the kitchen so that learning nutrition is fun and delicious!