Making Mealtime Fun to Coax Picky Eaters
At one time or another, we have all sat at the table and heard one or more of the following:
- “No, I don’t want that.”
- “I’m not going to eat that.”
- “That looks yucky.”
- “Uh-uh. Nope.”
The protesting and whining quickly roars into full swing because the picky eaters have come to dinner!
Most children go through a finicky food stage, and for some it persists well into the teen years. Maybe it’s an aversion to a certain color or texture of food. Throw in a fear of something new and you’ve got a choosy foodie on your hands.
We all want our children to have a well-balanced and nutritious diet. Yet it’s not uncommon for youngsters to survive on a rotation of mac ’n’ cheese and chicken nuggets. Helping your children expand their palates requires a lot of patience and abundant enthusiasm. The tips below will give you plenty of food for thought and inspiration!
You Insist, They Resist
Don’t let mealtimes devolve into power struggles. The more you push, the more kids push back. The last thing anyone wants is for the kitchen table to become a place of constant frustration and anxiety. Lead by example. If mealtimes are more relaxing, chances are your picky eater just might forget his or her dislike of greens.
Food Is Fun!
Have you ever heard someone say “Quit playing with your food”? Well, sometimes picky eaters really do need to play with their food! Try introducing some of these guided food-play techniques at the table:
Encourage youngsters to taste foods that start with various letters. Or have them create edible letters, like making an X with carrot sticks or an O with raisins.
The kitchen is the perfect venue to practice math skills. Tots can look for color patterns, count ingredients on the plate, or eat various geometric shapes, such as carrot circles and triangle pizzas. As children get older, ask them to measure out recipe portions or compare and contrast different weight systems, like the number of fluid ounces in two cups.
- World Culture
Discover international flavors and customs through traditional meals. You can taste the many cuisines of China one plate at a time with dim sum, or travel back in time to ancient Greece and dine on souvlaki. Get kids involved in creating a festive atmosphere by making decorations or finding music from the featured culture.
Use color as a menu theme. For example, serve one ingredient each day that is orange, such as tomatoes, bell peppers, or a creamy red sauce over pasta. End the week on a colorful note and “taste the rainbow,” serving fun and healthy dishes like fruit parfaits or this rainbow pizza.
The “No Thank You” Bite
When children are very young, it’s important for you to request and expect that they take a “no thank you” bite. Sometimes it might really be a “no thank you” lick, and that’s all right! Encouraging children to take one small taste is actually a giant stepping stone. Older eaters may not be so easily persuaded, so you may need to barter and trade, perhaps offering extra media time if your child tries the oxtail stew.
One Bite at a Time
It’s important to introduce new foods both slowly and with a measure of excitement. Don’t serve a heaping mound of creamed corn or a pile of peas right off the bat. Instead, serve five peas, a tablespoon of corn, one floret of cauliflower. Then encourage your choosy foodies to investigate the new item. Allow them to touch it, examine it, and even smell it! Turn the tables on older children and let them choose this month’s new food (and yes, you have to try it, too!). As the fear and reluctance ebb, gradually increase the serving amounts. What was once new and strange may just become a family favorite!
Mapping Out the Menu
Helping children make reasonable and responsible food choices is important, and what better way to begin this lifelong skill than involving them in the menu planning? Incorporate their favorites while emboldening them to try something new. Just remember to limit the number of choices from the get-go. Rather than asking an open-ended question such as “What would you like for dinner,” say “We can make either spaghetti or tacos.” All ages will appreciate being able to make some of their own choices.
Help Wanted: Calling All Sous Chefs!
An extra set of hands is always welcome in the kitchen, and not just for dishwashing! Little ones can easily wash produce and set the table. Younger children will enjoy “pantry scavenger hunts” to gather ingredients, while older kids can begin learning basic cooking skills and techniques.
Don’t forget to browse through cookbooks together or watch one of the many kid-chef television shows. Perhaps you’ll even hold your own family cooking challenge once a month!
The Power of Presentation
We all tend to judge a dish by how it looks on the plate, especially our demanding diners. Food should be a feast for your eyes as well as your for stomach. Just looking at these fun veggie plates will make you want to try them!
It’s all right to hide foods within family favorites to get children to eat vegetables. Conceal cauliflower mash in the mashed potatoes, toss chopped spinach into the mac ’n’ cheese, or add zucchini meatballs to your favorite pasta dish. For more tips on meal or snack presentation, check out the popular snack ideas here.
Don’t Become a Personal Chef
So many parents fall into the trap of becoming a short-order cook when a child rejects the planned meal. It’s stressful, time-consuming, and frustrating for everyone. If despite all your best efforts there’s still no interest in that wonderful eggplant parmesan, a simple bowl of cereal or sandwich with fruit will suffice.
From Farm to Table
Many finicky eaters have vegetable aversions. Yet vegetables not only are nutritious but also are really cool! So how do you get children to eat vegetables? Plant the seeds of curiosity with science. Celery will change color when it absorbs food dye. Green beans can grow in cotton balls, and cabbage stems will produce new leaves when left in a glass of water. Take it a step further and plant a vegetable or herb garden. From tabletop containers to deck planters, many vegetables today don’t require a huge garden plot.
Remember, it takes patience, practice, and time to turn that picky eater into an adventurous diner. Some days you might want to literally throw in the kitchen towel, and that’s all right! Just try again the next day with renewed enthusiasm. The more children are exposed to different tastes and textures, the less likely they are to keep fussing over food. With a little imagination and lots of love, you can help those picky eaters become real foodie fans.
How have you encouraged your child to try new foods and become a more adventurous eater? Share your best ideas in the comments.
Today’s special guest blogger is Jennifer Buchet, a self-professed foodie and award-winning children’s author who frequently contributes to Faces magazine.