For many parents, mealtimes mark the age-old struggle to get your child to “eat your veggies!” Of course we all want our children to be healthy and have a balanced diet, but when your child gravitates to nothing but junk food, what can you do? Here are some tips that might just help ease the mealtime strife, help kids maintain their ideal weight, and encourage a healthy relationship with food.
Quit the Clean Plate Club. A recent study from Cornell University researchers showed that when children were forced to clean their plates at home they ate greater quantities outside the home when able to make their own choices. Requiring kids to eat everything on their plates discourages them from listening to their own bodies about when they’ve had enough.
Stop the bribe and punishment. Food is meant to be enjoyed, but using it as a punishment or a reward generally sends the wrong message. This means never denying a child a meal for misbehaving, as well as not promising chocolate to end a tantrum. Even using food as a negotiating tool at the dinner table can be a slippery slope. Dangling dessert in front of children in an attempt to get them to eat their broccoli inevitably makes broccoli the bad guy and cake the hero.
Run your meals like culinary clockwork. Keeping a regular and predictable meal schedule helps cut down on anxiety and over-eating. Knowing what to expect can also help teach the emotionally valuable art of delaying gratification.
Take a minute to make the food look good. A perfect time to be creative in the kitchen is when plating and serving your family’s meals. There are many ways to make food look appetizing, from replicating photos of haute cuisine to creating shapes or smiley faces. Color is key and also adds nutritional value to what you’re serving. Another advantage to serving plates restaurant-style as opposed to family- or buffet-style is portion control. Meals are balanced, beautiful, and complete—with less temptation for seconds or thirds.
Make water the beverage of choice. There’s no nutritional reason to start kids out filling their bottles and sippy cups with fruit juices. Take advantage of the years when all they know about food and drink is what you give them. They’ll develop an appreciation for pure, clean water and won’t crave the sugary taste of juice and soda as much when they get older.
Relax. A recent study suggests that when you become upset while eating, the stress hormone cortisol actually blocks the body’s absorption of nutrients. If your goal is to optimize your child’s health, then power struggles, threats, and punishments are not likely to accomplish this goal—regardless of your good intentions.
Provide only healthy options. Fill your refrigerator and pantry with only healthy and beneficial foods—no junk! That way, everything your child reaches for will be acceptable, and your child will feel empowered making his own choices about what he puts in his body. However, at mealtimes, if you know your child is going to eat only the croutons on the salad or the crackers with the soup, don’t even put those items on the table. Or be sure your child has eaten some of the healthier option first and then bring out the bread later in the meal.
Try juicing. A great way to get a power-packed dose of vegetables is by investing in a juicer and making green beverages a part of your family’s day. Add kale, celery, cucumber, zucchini, spinach, carrots, apple, and pineapple. The apple and pineapple sweeten the juice and make the flavor of the vegetables nearly undetectable. Have your children drink it first thing in the morning and you’ll worry less about what they eat or don’t eat throughout the rest of the day.
Introduce change one tiny bite at a time. Sometimes children’s aversion to a particular food is more about the texture than the taste. The smaller the bite, the easier it is to chew and swallow. This is also a time to put table manners aside and let your children eat with their fingers.
Educate and enlighten. Inspire your picky eaters to try new things by informing them as to why certain foods are nutritious. Give them specifics about what they’re eating and what it does for their bodies.
Don’t give up. Mealtimes are meant to be fun, a time to be together and share. Be confident that you are setting a good example for your kids in the way that you eat, and keep plating up foods you want your children to eat so they can at the very least get used to seeing them as part of a complete meal. Know that taste buds mature and palates change and that much of what we are doing as parents is planting seeds—seeds that may take awhile to germinate.
Amy Bearman is a writer and educator with a master’s degree from New York University. A wife and mother of two, Amy is always searching for new ways to reconcile her love of gourmet cuisine with good nutrition.