When my boy was young, I remember someone telling me that there are three things you can never “force” your child to do: eat, sleep and poop. I’ve always remembered this as sound advice. Trying to force a child to eat creates a negative association with food, and we all want to associate food with happiness, good health, smiling conversations, and family time. That doesn’t mean that I don’t strategically encourage healthy eating. In fact, it has always been a mission of mine to encourage my son to have an accepting palate and be adventurous about eating.
As a working mom, I am also mindful that I do not want to be a short order cook in my own house. I want to respect my child’s tastes, and encourage him to explore and expand his tastes. I don’t want to use force or bribery or coercion to get him to eat healthy foods. I want to build healthy habits honestly. But that is most certainly easier said than done, especially in a world where the unhealthiest foods are the most pervasive.
So how do we encourage our children to love a variety of wholesome and delicious foods?
Change it up!
In my house we never say, “I don’t like that.” We say “I don’t prefer to eat that right now.” We recognize that tastes change, and sometimes we just don’t want to eat mushrooms, but other times, they are delicious. Taste depends on many things: texture, emotional state, cooking method and yes, even, day of the week. So I encourage “I love mushrooms on my pizza, but I do not prefer them on my salad today.” Honestly, even my husband follows this rule. He loves dried watermelon strips, but he does not prefer watermelon fresh cut. Allowing for changing preference and preparation, keeps the conversation open, and accommodates the changing taste buds of growing children (and adults!).
So don’t make a big fuss when your child refuses a food. The less of an issue you make of it now, the less of a fuss you will get the next time. Wait a little bit, and try again with a happy, positive attitude. Don’t give up so easily or remove the food from your child’s diet. Just change it up!
Create recipes. Read and follow recipes. Make it homemade. Soup, crackers, bread, pizza, soda, marshmallows (yes, sweets are on my recipe list too!). One time my son and I decided to try every kind of bean in the bulk foods section at the grocery. Each week we bought different beans, found recipes, and made them for dinner. It was a grand experiment. We decided that we did not prefer some of them, and others became new favorites.
- Use real ingredients (not from a box)
- Experiment! (in other words, make up your own recipes!)
- Prepare foods from scratch and understand what ingredients make up healthy foods.
- Encourage sharing.
- Add nutritional extras to homemade goodies. Things like kale can be added to a delicious strawberry smoothie. Spinach or zucchini can be added to brownies.
Keep it coming!
Young children like to eat on the go. So arrange their food to accommodate them. Let them graze, pick at their food, and try new things as they move their incredibly busy days. Use a muffin tray and fill it with all colors and textures of deliciousness. You can include all sorts of goodies like:
- thinly sliced apples
- avocado slices
- broccoli or cauliflower bits
- cooked and thinly sliced carrots
- cheese blocks
- hard- boiled egg wedges
- frozen peas
- rice cakes
- red pepper slices
- tofu blocks
Dip it! Spread it!
Yes, it can get a bit messy, but dipping and spreading food is fun. It is also good motor control practice, but mostly it is just fun, and yummy too! Fill some of the muffin tin cups with tasty dips and spreads to encourage a variety of foods and textures into your young child’s palate. Try these as dipping sauces:
- cottage cheese
- cream cheese
- fruit compote
- peanut or almond butter
- pureed fruits or vegetables, like roasted red peppers
- applesauce or pear sauce
Play with it!
There are many ways to help your child love food, not just eating, but experiencing the whole world of food. Learning foods from the seeds, soil, gardening and growing, cooking, and even clean-up is part of eating and being healthy. Every part can be fun, a place to learn, and a place to interact with your child. My sister has a step-ladder in her kitchen, and her kids helped to wash dishes on the step ladder. The ladder made them feel tall and important in the kitchen.
- Make food art. I made food art with my son. He became comfortable with texture and flavor through physically handling foods.
- Read about food. Make it a theme night. Read a story and then prepare the foods in that story.
- Garden, even if it is inside in small pots (or milk cartons). We’ve grown everything from avocado seeds to sprouting onions from scraps, to building and growing greens in a cold frame.
- Plan meals with at least one item you know the child enjoys. Kids are more likely to enjoy a meal if they helped plan or prepare it. Make variations on favorites too.
We’d love to hear about tricks you try to make eating a healthy part of the conversation in your family. Whatever they are, here’s to enjoying the meals, the messes and the energy that all result from healthy eating!