What are you making for dinner tonight? I often ask my mom friends this question, in hopes of getting some great new recipe that my kids will devour rather than push around their plate. However, the question is regularly answered with a shrug of the shoulders and a look of frustration. I am not a nutrition specialist, nor am I a pediatrician, but some of my mom friends are. To hear them having the same struggles as me was both reassuring and frustrating. It seems my mom was right after all, every child is different and you shouldn’t expect them all to eat the same things. Ugh! I hate when she’s right 😉
So after years of pestering my friends and my mom for advice, I’ve finally figured out what works, without forcing them to eat or arguing. Seriously, forcing kids to eat is not only unsuccessful it’s harmful. It’s no fun for the parents and it teaches kids not to listen to their own bodies. Here are my tips and tricks to get my kids to eat what I make, make one meal for everyone in the family and get them to try new things. I promise it’s not too good to be true, it’s really possible!
Serve foods they can customize themselves:
My favorite meals are those the kids help me to create. Some examples of these are: tacos, pizza, eggs, pasta, and rice. Tacos and pizza are obvious, putting out lots of healthy toppings for them to choose from is quick and easy. I do the same thing with eggs, pasta and rice. I put out options like carrots, spinach, green onions, parsley, kale, Italian sausage, or grilled chicken, basically whatever I have available in the fridge is up for grabs.
We have breakfast for dinner night when the kids get to pick the ingredients I put in their omelet. Or pasta night. I make the pasta, toss it in olive oil and then everyone adds their favorite toppings. I love grilled chicken, tomatoes, kale and olives. My daughter likes grilled chicken, kale and cheese. Both are great options. Fried rice night is a huge hit at our house, I make a big batch of fried rice with eggs scrambled in, then they get to add their favorite veggies and sauce and mix it up.
Serve at least one thing They Love:
It seems obvious right? When introducing new foods putting them alongside some old favorites makes them more palatable and more appealing. If your kid loves blueberry waffles and wants one at every single meal, great! Serve a blueberry waffle at every meal…but serve it with three to four other healthy options you want them to try. They absolutely do not have to try the other things, just having them appear visually on the plate next to their favorite food allows them to be introduced to the new food. It could take a week or longer of serving broccoli with waffles but eventually they will get used to its presence and it won’t be so scary.
My son went through a phase for a few months at 4yrs old where he would smell the foods I offered him prior to eating them. He would give it a sniff and then either take a bite or declare “it’s yucky!” He acted like I was constantly trying to poison him with food, everything was suspect. The funniest part of this behavior is that one night he smelled broccoli and decided that it was safe to eat. I can only imagine that it was because his sister was woofing down the broccoli like it was cotton candy.
Be realistic about portion size:
Children need much less food than we think, frankly adult portion size is also way too large in this country. When you’re trying to get kids to eat a balanced and nutritious diet, putting too much of any one thing on their plate can quickly lead to an unbalanced diet. My kids love carbs. They would happily eat an entire box of macaroni and cheese for dinner by themselves, without any protein, fruit, or vegetables in sight.
That doesn’t mean I can no longer serve macaroni and cheese, it just means that when I do, I serve it according to my children’s size. It’s served along side a protein option and a variety of fruits and vegetables. The 11yr old gets 1/2 a cup and the 4yr old gets 1/4 a cup of everything, I eat the same portion size as my 11yr old. I will always allow them to get second or third helpings. However, requiring them to eat then wait for me to get more, gives their bodies time to process the first helping, which will help them to recognize the cues that they are full faster.
Beware of too many snacks:
This nugget of advice comes from my pediatrician…hungry kids will eat what you put in front of them. She’s right, this trick works every single time! They get breakfast, lunch and dinner but no snacks. If they refuse to eat what you served for lunch, by the time dinner rolls around they are going to absolutely love whatever you serve. It will be hands down the best meal you have ever made.
I really struggled with this concept to begin with, thinking that starving my kids made me a terrible mother. The truth is children will not starve themselves, when they get hungry they eat. Missing one meal on one day isn’t going to negatively impact their health. It will however teach them a valuable lesson, one of natural consequences, if you choose not to eat what is provided then you will be hungry.
No foods are off limits:
Really, it’s okay to eat from a drive through or order a pizza or enjoy an ice cream treat. Only allowing healthy options all the time takes the fun out of life, everything in moderation. It really is fun to make an ice cream sundae the size of your head and then share it as a family. Some of my most favorite memories involve food. When we move into a new house the first night we always order pizza and sit on the floor of our new home and eat it straight out of the box, no plates or utensils needed. You can feel confident allowing these special food memories because at most other meals you are offering plenty of healthy options.
Practice what you preach:
Our children learn more from watching us, than they ever will from what we try to tell them. It’s so crucial that we are also trying new things and eating along with them. It can be really challenging for me to sit down and have a meal with my kids. Mostly because they are on a completely different eating schedule than I am. They eat breakfast while I’m still on my first cup of coffee, lunch is served at school around the time I finally decide to eat breakfast, and some nights they’re eating dinner at 4:30 right after I’ve made myself lunch.
I do sit down with them whether I’m hungry or not so I can chat with them about their day. I make myself a small plate of fruits and vegetables, knowing full well more healthy choices are a good thing for me as well, no matter when I choose to eat them. I don’t need to eat a bunch of carrots to demonstrate good eating behaviors, just one will do.