Does your toddler refuse anything red, green, or orange. . . especially if they’re touching? Did your second-grader declare that she’ll only eat chicken nuggets and nothing else? When the dinner table becomes a battle zone, nobody wins.
It might be tempting to become a short-order cook every night just to keep the peace. For a busy parent, this approach will leave you stuck in the kitchen, creating more food waste, worrying if your children are getting enough nutrition, and spending less time with your family.
You’re not alone. And don’t worry, picky eating habits are usually temporary and a normal part of development in preschool children. It takes time for their preferences to adjust and mature, but in the meantime, here are some tips to create more dinner table harmony and promote healthier eating habits.
1. Create little rituals. Start with some simple table rules for everyone. Power down the electronics. Turn off the TV. When the food comes out, give everyone a minute to share something positive about their day—so the first thing everyone does isn’t complain about the food.
2. Set an example. When your children see you eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, they’ll be more likely to dig in.
3. Get creative. Top cereal with diced apples, banana slices, or fresh peaches. Grate carrots and zucchini into their favorite soups and casseroles. Try not to hide healthy foods, but use small and manageable portions for your child to sample.
4. Listen and respect what they say. When your child says, “I’m not hungry!” don’t force the issue. Your child might be resisting the new food, or they might not be ready to eat. Either way, it’s better to help them identify their own hunger and fullness cues than to force them to clean the plate or finish one particular food.
Ask your child to describe a food’s color, shape, smell, and texture instead of how it tastes. It’ll also help you better understand why your child might like or dislike certain foods.
5. Encourage a few bites. Instead of finish all your carrots, try a one-bite, two-bite, or three-bite rule. Use the rule that best fits your kids. Children like to have some control over what they eat, so maybe your rule is, “Take one bite of each food on your plate and then you can choose what you want to eat more of.” OR “There are three foods on your plate, you can choose any two foods to take a bite.”
6. Make it fun. When vegetables don’t look like what the kiddos expect, the result can be lots of giggles (and hopefully some taste testing). Spiralize zucchini, cucumbers, and squash into noodles and add them to an easy pasta recipe. Make a game of slurping them up!
7. Let the kids plan dinner. When you’re meal planning, let your kids come up with one of the weeknight dinner ideas. It’s another way to give them some control. Let them pick out fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. And when kids help make dinner, they’re more likely to eat it. These kid-sized cooking tools make it easy to teach your children some basic cooking skills.
8. Put a twist on a family favorite. Your children probably have a few tried-and-true picky eater recipes they love. But you and your partner don’t want to be stuck eating chicken fingers or mac ‘n cheese every night. Rather than make separate meals for everyone, put a healthy spin on something your kids will find familiar, but everyone can enjoy.
9. Bribe (within reason) with real food. You may have heard it’s never a good idea to bribe children with dessert. It enforces bad eating habits. But sometimes a little bribe can go a long way (especially when other tactics fail.) Rather than use dessert as the reward, use another food you know your child loves. Bribe them with a cheese stick, apple slices, strawberries, grapes—anything they still might see as a treat, but won’t leave you feeling guilty.
10. Try to relax. Stay calm when your children refuse to eat. It’s easy to agonize over every bite, but that puts too much pressure on everyone. Have your children stay at the table and enjoy being with the family for the designated mealtime even if they don’t eat.
Every family and dinner dynamic is unique. Some of these ideas will work some of the time or some might not work at all. Test-drive a few of these tips and adapt as you go. The best thing you can do is be consistent with little rituals and whatever guidelines you put in place. Healthy eating habits won’t change overnight. The more you expose your children to variety, the more likely (in time) they’ll grow to love lots of different foods.
Do you have tried-and-true tips for feeding picky eaters? What dinner time rituals keep the peace in your home? Share them in the comments below!