“How do I get my children to not only eat, but also to eat foods that are good for them? Where is the line of encouraging children to eat without creating food issues down the line?” – JB
My first counseling position as a dietitian was at a pediatric practice and I continue to see many children here at Soolman Nutrition and Wellness LLC. JB is not alone in her concerns, as many parents share the same questions stated above. While every child and family dynamic is different, I do find that the following ideas tend to help.
Allow your child to help with food selection. Take your child to the grocery store and let him pick out a new fruit or vegetable that he is curious about or finds interesting. I remember not being a huge fan of carrots as a kid, but then one day I saw carrots in the supermarket with the green stems still attached, which made me think of one of my favorite cartoon characters, Bugs Bunny. Suddenly, I wanted carrots! If bringing your child to the supermarket is not appealing because of the potential for conflict over foods you do not want to buy, consider going to a farmers’ market instead where the non-produce temptations are less. Having a garden that your child helps to maintain can be a great way to get him interested in vegetables. Even an indoor planting system, such as the AeroGarden, can have a similar effect.
Involve your child in food preparation. Your child can participate by performing tasks that range from pulling grapes off their stem, to slicing a pepper, to making a side dish, to preparing an entire meal, depending on his abilities and level of interest.
Give one alternative and that’s it. If your child is a picky eater and does not want to eat what the rest of the family is having for dinner, offer one standby alternative, something that is easy for you to make and is relatively healthy, such as a turkey or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It is understandable that parents want to give their child what he wants, and the fear that he will not eat anything can also be stressful, but being a short-order cook usually leads to more stress and conflict in the long run. Create an environment where the only options are Choice A or Choice B and your child will likely adapt.
Set ground rules ahead of time for trying new foods. Children often fear trying new foods not because of the foods themselves, but because of what might happen if they say they like or dislike a new food. Their rationale is often, “If I say I like this broccoli, are they going to make me eat more of it? I don’t want more of it, so I had better say I don’t like it.” Negotiate ground rules with your child ahead of time regarding how he will try new foods. For example, how often will he be expected to try something new, how much must he sample, and what happens if he dislikes the food? What if he likes it? Just this week, I brokered a deal between a mom and her son that established the ground rules under which he will try new fruits, and they both walked out of here happy and excited. Be nonchalant about the process and roll with whatever reaction your child has. Remind your child that tastes do change over time and encourage him to keep an open mind to the possibility of retrying a disliked food again down the road.
Tap into your child’s motivation. Many children have trouble appreciating that what they eat affects their health down the road, so instead draw a link between what your child eats and what currently motivates him. If he wants to be a better soccer player, for example, talk about how eating can help him play better. I find that nearly every child perks up if I ask him if he would like more energy. That gets my foot in the door to talk about basic nutrition concepts. The child does not care that what I am teaching him can reduce his risk of chronic disease decades in the future, but he is engaged and pays attention because what I am talking about will help him with what feels important to him right now.
Set a positive example. In my experience, the families in which the parents eat one way while expecting their children to eat another way also tend to be the families with the most conflicts around food, and I do not believe this to be a coincidence. Role modeling the eating behavior you desire for your child can have a very positive effect on his own eating.
Talk about balance and being mindful, not weight or dieting. Eating disorders, disordered eating, exercise obsession, poor body image, low self-esteem, and associated issues often (but certainly not always) start with messages that children pick up at a young age. How you behave and treat yourself rubs off, so be wary of going on diets, talking about diets, disparaging yourself, or discussing weight in front of your children. Similarly, overly restricting children can lead to secret binges, as was the case with a recent patient of mine who snuck a bunch of 100-calorie snack packs and soda when his mom was not looking. Labeling foods as “bad” can also be detrimental. Children need to learn how to find balance while incorporating all sorts of foods. Otherwise, think about what can happen when that child grows up and has the freedom to access previously-forbidden “bad” foods whenever he wishes. Instead of all that, a much more positive message is to talk about listening to what makes our bodies feel good, honoring our preferences, and loving and accepting ourselves no matter what we look like. Help your child to build a foundation of balanced eating that gives him the best shot at having a healthy relationship with food for the rest of his life.
Note: For the sake of brevity, I referred to a child as “he,” as opposed to “he or she,” but in no way was that to imply that these suggestions are specific only to boys. On the contrary, I find that these ideas work well for both boys and girls.