Before you became a parent, you probably imagined yourself lovingly preparing toddler meals featuring fresh-picked kale and free-range chicken eggs from your backyard. But despite the best laid plans, feeding kids wholesome, healthy meals is a constant challenge that becomes even more complicated by kids who turn up their noses and complain about the healthy foods they're served.
It's no wonder that many parents give up and serve their kids a staple rotation of chicken nuggets and boxed macaroni and cheese. The problem is that the habits kids form now will guide their tastes and eating habits even as adults. It's important for kids to develop healthy eating habits young, and it's important for parents to avoid turning mealtimes into a battleground.
While some children have legitimate feeding problems that require special handling, most picky eaters are made, not born. These seven tips will help you raise kids who enjoy (or at least sample) everything from carrots to kale.
1. Don't push too hard.
Mealtime can quickly devolve into a power struggle. Don't push your child to clean their plate, or bribe them to finish a given food. Instead, serve small portions that will encourage your child to ask for more and learn how to read their own hunger cues.
2. Be patient with new foods.
Young children learn just as much by touching and smelling a food as they do by tasting it. So all of that messy mealtime play is actually building the foundation for healthy feeding habits down the line! It's normal for kids to be wary of new foods and it can take a dozen tries before a child adjusts to a new flavor. Keep offering new foods and eventually your child will learn to like them.
3. Involve kids in the process.
Most kids are more interested in trying new foods when they're involved in cooking and preparing them. You can even recruit your child's help in the grocery store, asking them to pick out the best bunch of asparagus or the ripest melon. Talk to your child about their food and encourage them to take an interest in what they eat.
4. Play with your food.
Healthy food doesn't have to be boring. Try cutting up food into fun shapes, serving vegetables with a favorite dip, or selecting brightly-colored fruits. If all else fails, don't be afraid to slip finely-chopped vegetables into sauces or casseroles so kids still get the nutrients they need.
5. Be present at mealtimes.
Family mealtimes are important for connections and establishing healthy eating habits. It's not always possible to have meals together, but do your best to find time to eat at least a few meals each week together as a family without any distractions like TVs or cell phones at the table. Fewer distractions helps kids focus on eating, while also avoiding ads for sugary snacks.
6. Set a good example.
No matter what we tell our kids, they pay the most attention to how we act. If you're eating a variety of healthy foods, your kids are more likely to eat them too. Toddlers love to sneak food from mom or dad's plate, and adding a few extra veggies to your plate to share is a great way to introduce kids to healthy foods.
7. Don't fall into the short-order cook trap.
No matter how much easier it might be to cook separate meals for your kids and avoid the mealtime drama, you're not doing them any favors by giving in. Developing healthy eating habits sets the foundation for a healthy lifestyle, and kids need their parents to introduce them to the skills and habits they'll need to carry their healthy lifestyle into adulthood. Stand your ground now, and soon enough your kids will be eating like foodies.