My 4 year old son Benjamin is especially picky. When he was a baby, I tried really hard to introduce him to all sorts of new foods, and he was a great eater. However, the older he got the more picky he seemed to become. Fortunately, he loves a lot of healthy foods and generally dislikes foods that are greasy or sweet. He hates all kinds of sauces from syrup on pancakes to ketchup with his chicken. He won't even eat most desserts like cupcakes, ice cream, or some cookies. He hates peanut butter, eggs, sandwiches, soda, and even bananas. The list of foods he hates goes on and on, and yet I feel like he ends out eating healthy balanced meals, because he does love enough healthy foods (like Lifeway Kefir Cultured Milk Smoothies) and because we work hard to make sure that such a picky boy eats well. #KefirCreations #CollectiveBias
This is definitely a loaded topic where a lot of people have very strong opinions. Some people probably think we should be stricter parents and make Benjamin eat whatever we put in front of him. Others might think we push him too hard to eat what we want him to eat and that we should let him choose to eat whatever he wants to eat as long as it's reasonably healthy. I think parenting is a little more complicated than that, and each child/family/situation is unique. Here are some tips that have worked well for making sure your picky eater gets healthy meals:
1. Offer rewards - Bribing your child is not always the answer. However, offering small tangible rewards for reasonable goals can be a great strategy to help motivate your child to eat well. It could be something as simple as "you get dessert if you finish your whole dinner." For Benjamin, it helps to have even more specific goals. For example, he knows he has to finish his turkey before he is allowed to eat his chips (we get healthy chips that he loves). We may even have to remind him a few times, but the reward (the chips) really does seem to motivate him to eat his turkey well.
2. Play games - Most people play games when they are feeding babies and young toddlers, but who says the games have to stop when you get older. One fun game that my kids enjoy is where we all take a bite at the same time. Sometimes we will all take a "big bite"... sometimes a "teeny tiny bite"... sometimes a "shark bite"... This is also a great way to make the dinner table a more fun place and less of a stressful place. When your kid can tell you're geared up to battle with him to eat his food, he's more likely to prepare himself to be stubborn.
3. Eat the rainbow - Offering your kid different colors of foods is a great way to make sure they are getting a healthy variety. It's also a way to make their food seem fun and appetizing. One meal that I will make for my son would be purple grapes, blueberries, strawberries, oranges, grilled chicken, and peas. He gets excited to see the rainbow of foods, plus he's getting a wider variety of vitamins and nutrients. Color is fun! Use bright fun spoons, plates, and napkins.
4. Find healthy "treats" - This is such an important thing for us. There are a few foods and drinks that Benjamin really loves that are actually healthy. When we find these kinds of foods, we stock up on them and make them something that he gets to have every day. Sometimes, these healthy foods even become our rewards. We recently got the chance to try Lifeway's Kefir Smoothies. We found them in the milk aisle at our local Winn Dixie, and they are very healthy and delicious. Even though they taste almost like a dessert, they're low in fat and have no added sugar. Kefir is very similar to yogurt - full of probiotics and great for your immune and digestive systems. Plus, they're a great way for Benjamin to get protein and calcium. I'm obsessed with the strawberry banana flavor, while Benjamin and Lyla especially love the raspberry (it's a little more tart). I also love that it's made with milk from cows that are exclusively grass-fed and never treated with hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics. (You can also sign up to receive coupons for Lifeway Kefir products here.)
6. Avoid snacking - This can be tough for us because we want to make sure Benjamin is getting enough to eat and he loves to snack. He love to carry around bags of goldfish or crackers and eat them. However, when it comes time for him to eat his dinner or lunch, he is so much less hungry and less likely to eat what we put in front of him. What we've found is that it's better to give him a small healthy snack in between lunch and dinner (like a glass of Lifeway Kefir Smoothie, a handful of goldfish, and some apple slices) instead of letting him snack at will. Then, after he's eaten all of his dinner, if he is still hungry, we will let him have more snacky foods.
7. Cover the food groups - Try to make sure that most of the food groups are covered at any given meal, and that your child eats something from each food group at least once a day. For a picky child this can be tricky. Benjamin loves a lot of different kinds of fruit, but veggies can be difficult. Fortunately, he really loves peas, broccoli, and olives but those are about the only veggies he will eat. So that means that he ends out getting peas, broccoli or olives every day.
8. Offer a variety - Kids love to pick and choose, so I like to offer a lot of choices. When I put 4 or 5 different kinds of foods on Benjamin's plate, he always seems to get excited about his food and is more likely to eat everything. When I put only 1 or 2 kinds of foods on his plate, he's more likely to put his hands over his mouth and say "I don't like that" even when I know he does. One fun idea is to fill up an ice tray or mini muffin tin with many different kinds of little foods. Kids get so excited about all of the fun choices and want to pick and choose what they are going to eat first.
9. Make a fun presentation - Pinterest is full of great ideas for this one. I certainly wouldn't do this at every meal, but it's another great way to make meal time more fun and healthy food seem more exciting. Kitchen Fun with My Three Sons is a great blog full or creative and artistic meal ideas for kids. You might even have more fun preparing the meals than your kids will have eating them.
10. Let them be picky, but not too picky - This is where balance becomes important. I think it's okay for your kid to be a little bit picky and if you try too hard to make your child eat and like absolutely everything, every meal will turn into a battle and it will be harder to get them to eat a healthy meal at all. For example, Benjamin has always HATED eggs. I'm not sure why he hates them so much, but he always has. About once or twice a year I will get him to try one little bite of eggs to see if he likes them, but otherwise he knows he doesn't have to eat eggs at all. However, if I see him suddenly starting to refuse and turn down a certain food that he used to love (he has done this with spaghetti a few times), I won't let him get away with it so easily because I know he does like spaghetti.
Are your kids picky eaters? What surprising foods do they hate? What tips and tricks do you have for getting them to eat healthy meals?