Kids meals are designed to be delicious, using sweet, salty and fatty flavors that humans are hardwired to enjoy. While they are perfectly fine to eat every once in a while, how do you encourage kids who only want to eat fast food to try new, healthier foods?
Here are a few tips from the experts.
1. Set the right goal
The goal of mealtime isn’t just to get food into a child, but rather to help a child build a healthy relationship with food. You want your child to eat well because they want to, so focus on positive messages:
- Food is fuel for our bodies
- It’s fun to explore new things
- It’s important to enjoy mealtime with friends and family
- And so on.
2. Never force a child to touch or taste a food
Think of a food you don’t like. Now imagine being forced to eat that in front of a crowd. Asking a child to take just one bite of something can feel like that to them, and it puts extra pressure on children who aren’t naturally adventurous or who suffer from anxiety. That can lead your child to connect eating with stress, which can have lifelong effects.
3. Don’t make separate meals for picky eaters
You decide what food to serve when, and your child decides whether or not to eat it. Catering to picky kids’ preferences creates a cycle of need, and places more attention on that child than anyone else. If your child doesn’t like the meal you’ve prepared, give them a few healthy but plain alternatives. Nutrition expert Sally Sampson suggests allowing kids to get up from the table and serve themselves plain yogurt, cottage cheese, or non-sugary cereal in place of any meal they don’t want to eat. The result: children rarely choose the plain option.
4. Make variety the norm
If you eat the same things every day, your child will learn that monotony is normal. Even if the foods you serve are healthy, eating the same thing all the time creates problems when your child is asked to eat different things at home or out in the world. If you don’t have time to try new recipes often, swap or add one new ingredient. Add a new topping to your usual pizza, top your salad with a different vegetable or cheese, or use another type of meat the next time you make tacos. While it seems like introducing a new, healthy food alongside favorites will decrease your chance of success, the opposite is true. If a child knows they’re trying something new along with foods they already enjoy, they’ll feel safer exploring the new ones.
5. Encourage kids to play with food — but not at the table
Did you know preschoolers who play with their food are more likely to try new things and eat a varied diet? It’s true, and if your child is a particularly picky eater, playing with their food may be a low-pressure way to help them explore smells, textures and eventually tastes of unfamiliar foods. Food play can involve everything from letting kids help you cook to drawing a picture of their food before dinner to filling up their toy dump truck with carrot sticks. Removing the stigma around new food may help take some of the pressure off of trying it.
6. Don’t bribe kids to eat
Once kids realize adults can’t really make them eat, they may refuse to eat in order to exercise control. Bribing kids to eat certain foods sets expectations you can’t meet, and sets up some foods as chores and others as rewards. For example, if you force your child to eat her apple before she eats her hotdog, she may eat the apple, but she won’t enjoy the experience. That doesn’t build positive associations long-term.
7. Never trick children into eating something
Trust is the basis of any good relationship, so if you start trying to sneak things past your kids, one of two things will happen:
- They’ll figure it out, and they’ll feel hurt or foolish that you tricked them, even if they like the new food, or
- They won’t figure it out, and they’ll eat a handful of spinach in their smoothie; however, they won’t know they’re eating it, so they won’t know they like spinach or choose it later on.
Either way, you’ve skipped an important step: the act of trying something new. You want your kids to eat because they want to, not because they’ve been tricked into doing it.
8. Know that rejection is natural
The first time a child tries a new food, they probably won’t like it. That’s okay. Nutrition research indicates it may take a child being exposed to a food up to 12 times — which includes seeing it, hearing it talked about, smelling it, tasting it, etc. — before they really consider liking it. Don’t force the issue. It can take months or years to create a curious, healthy eater, but patience and persistence usually win out.