Restoring Mealtime Peace: Helping Picky Kids Eat Well

When my husband and I met in college, I liked three vegetables (carrots, corn, and lettuce) and five fruits (bananas, apples, grapes, pears, watermelon), and had a deep-rooted affection for cereals loaded with marshmallows, fruit juices, and Little Debbie snack cakes.  Changing the way I think about food so that I now crave broccoli instead of these things has been a 7-year journey, and there are still things I'm working on liking.

Broccoli image via stock.xchng

With this as my story (and I've given you only the tip of the iceberg), you can see why I want to encourage my children to have a healthy relationship with food starting now. But there are some other reasons too.  I want my kids to learn to be gracious guests, to be able to cheerfully eat whatever is set in front of them.  I don't want food to be an obstacle should the Lord call them to missionary work in another culture.  I don't want them to be embarrassed in front of colleagues at a business lunch, picking things out of their orders and laying them aside.  I want them to have a deep appreciation for the Lord's provision and Creation.  And, selfishly, I don't want every time we sit down to eat to be a whinefest.  Life is too crazy for me to be a short-order cook at every meal.  For these reasons, this has been a "hill worth dying on" for us.

BBQ lunch image via stock.xchng

For the longest time my daughter refused to transition to real food.   She nursed and ate jarred baby food until she was two.  It was exhausting and expensive.  It hadn't occurred to me to make our own baby food until it was too late--at that point Gerber bananas were already preferable to my freshly pureed ones. I asked lots of other seasoned mothers about their experiences and got told a lot that "she'll grow out of it," but it just wasn't sustainable.  I was worried she wasn't getting the nutrition she needed and finally got some liberating advice from our pediatrician: "She won't starve.  If she's hungry, she'll eat.  This is the arena where she is exerting her will, and it's time to put your foot down."  We did, and she is now (for the most part) a happy, appreciative diner.  For this transformation, I credit God's mercy and the following tidbits of hard-won wisdom that I hope may be helpful to you as well:

Pray about it.  With every season of trial, start here.  God is powerful to help, even in our mundane domestic ahhhhhhhhghs.

Try it, then try it again.  We have a rule that our kids must try one bite of a new food.  The next time we serve it, they must try it again. Usually this kind of gradual approach leads to acceptance and then enjoyment. 

Change your language.  We've encouraged phrases such as "it isn't my favorite" and "I don't prefer that" to replace "I don't like iiiiiiiit."  It's subtle, but it helps kids to realize they don't have to love everything to be able to eat it.  There are varying degrees of enjoyment and that's okay. 

Get the kids involved.  Whether your food comes from your backyard or your local Walmart, kids are more likely to eat things they help grow or choose.  Let them hold open a produce bag while you drop in the broccoli crowns.  Or let them help you pick cherry tomatoes and green beans from the garden, snacking as you go.  They can tear up lettuce for salads or sprinkle cheese on a pizza.  My daughter loves to cook and I need to get better about letting her do the little jobs she can. 

Sauce it or dip it.  Kids love to dip and they love sweet sauces.  Try some Ranch salad dressing or make a homemade cheese sauce for dipping veggies, or go for the ketchup and barbeque sauce (in moderation) with meats.  One of the first meals my daughter ate (at 25 months or so) was a cut-up cheeseburger with fresh garden tomato, lettuce, and Sweet Baby Ray's honey barbeque sauce.  It blew us away.  So while I'd avoid anything approaching the ketchup-is-a-vegetable-right? mentality, I am all for "a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down."  As tastes mature, you can use less and less, and if you want to avoid HFCS, Google a barbeque sauce recipe that uses just tomato sauce as a base instead of ketchup.

Keep it interesting.  Don't always serve things the same way.  If you're stuck in an idea rut, try a dish from a different culture.  (If you homeschool, this can be a great learning opportunity as well).  To come up with dinner ideas, I find it's helpful to think about variations on a theme. The theme might be a certain genre of food, like Mexican (tacos, enchiladas, chili, quesadillas, fajitas, black beans & rice, etc.). Or, the theme might be a certain ingredient(s). A "pasta/macaroni" theme might suggest: spaghetti & meatballs, lasagna, alfredo with broccoli or peas, macaroni and cheese, tuna noodle casserole with peas, etc. If the kids like one thing from a "theme," they'll probably like the other things, too, and when you introduce it you can tell them what to expect by comparing.

Get semi-sneaky.  Make a pan of roasted root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, parsnips, sweet potatoes) tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and call them all veggie fries.  Hide spinach in lasagna, mashed cauliflower in mashed potatoes, pumpkin in pancakes, cooked squash in baked pasta,etc.  Fill up tacos with a bean and meat mixture, then top with cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, onions, etc.  Make kale chips.  My kids eat both visible and "invisible" veggies.  I never lie about what's in a dish or purposefully conceal it, but "sneaking" in extra vegetables cuts down on calories while upping nutritional value significantly.  It's helpful for me, too!  I learned to like many veggies cooked up with chicken and smothered in delicious, fragrant sauces in stir-fries.

Try again with leftovers.  If a meal is refused at dinnertime, we pack it up and offer it again at lunchtime the next day, letting the child enjoy breakfast as normal but being careful not to offer mid-morning snacks.  We eat leftovers for lunches anyway, so this just makes sense.  If a food is refused the second time, I generally call it quits.  Who wants to eat chicken that's been reheated twice?  Not me.  At that point, it's not even a good representation of the food.  You can try again next time you cook that meal.  Nowadays, when presented with the choice between finishing at dinnertime or facing it again for lunch, my daughter typically chooses to just finish.

Berry mix image via stock.xchng

What about snacks and desserts?  We like to think about both as the exceptions to the rules.  Bedtime snacks are a special treat, not a must-have in the nightly routine.  If they've eaten a good dinner, it isn't necessary.  Despite all the cakes you see on this blog, those kinds of things are special occasion items.  We only have a big treat--like ice cream--once or twice a week (though I do keep a jar of chocolates on the counter, and sometimes I even share).  Snacks throughout the day can also interfere with mealtime appetites, so I try to keep them to a minimum and offer fruits before crackers.  I always have a couple small boxes of raisins in my purse while running errands. 

Don't go crazy (unless you want to).  This is just to help you keep your sanity in the long run.  I don't believe in specialized "toddler meals" of individually quarantined foods cut into adorable shapes (at least not as a regular thing), but that's a personal choice. I think taking crusts off bread and other things of that nature are hard habits to break.  I think it's helpful for kids to eat what you eat the way you eat it, obviously making exceptions for food allergies and tiny mouths that are more gums than teeth. :)

Empathize and relate.  Kids love to hear about when mommy and daddy were little.  If you've learned to like a food you previously hated, tell them--it lets them know change is possible, and that you understand how they're feeling.  The unknown can be scary!

Walk the walk...or you can't talk the talk.  This is not a "do as I say, not as I do" sort of issue.  I hate the texture of oranges, mushrooms smell like feet, eggplant is like swallowing eyeballs, and raw tomatoes are a big NOPENOPENOPE in my book, but my husband forces encourages me to keep trying them in front of the kids.  And then I just say, "well, it's not mommy's favorite."  :)

Don't back down.  Kids are like sharks...they can smell blood in the water.  If they sense whining is working, they won't stop doing it.  So make your expectations, whatever they may be, very clear and consistent.

Circling sharks image via stock.xchng

While my daughter (now 5) will still complain about new foods or foods that aren't her favorite, she now requests homemade pizza topped with broccoli and Thai curry with tatsoi and bok choy, among other surprising things.  My son (turning 2 soon) only ate homemade baby food, can count daal and rice among his first "real" meals, and recently relished two helpings of a vegetable-loaded red curry so hot I could barely eat it myself.  His palate, trained from early on, seems truly "global." 

I hope that if you find yourself dreading mealtime arguments I've given you some helpful tools.  Obviously, use your own common sense in applying these tips, and don't force a child who is truly full to finish.  I'm not a doctor, and if you have serious concerns about your child's eating, you should consult your pediatrician.

Clean plates image via stock.xchng

Here's to happy, peaceful mealtimes!  If you have other tips that have helped in your home, please chime in in the comments.


Beverly said…
nice post! great job! We dont let our children have a snack before bed If they didnt eat their dinner...or at least make a good attempt. and we call those unwanted portions with new things- "no Thank-you helpings" aka- just give me a bit, cuz I really dont want it anyway...
Sara B. said…
"No thank you helpings" -- I like that!

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