Feeding our children in this day and age is challenging – unhealthy food is too readily available and social norms of accommodating children can cultivate picky eaters. As parents, we’re met with a plethora of feedback from grandparents, pediatricians, parenting books, media, peers, societal norms, and social pressures and expectations.
My kids, ages and 7 and 9, are good eaters, in the sense that they eat a wide variety of foods (meats, vegetables, grains), and will try new foods. Some of this may be luck, but it’s also due to habits. There are constant “turning points” in their eating career, and we can’t take their eating habits for granted at all. Their tastes and behavior continue to evolve and I’ve sometimes had to double down on some habits that wane easily. Below are our top 10 habits (10+ actually) to raising healthy eaters.
#1 Limit Snacks
Start with limiting snacks in quantity and frequency. This is very subjective – we’ve had friends who say they are limiting snacks but I see that their “limits” are quite different than ours. The basic idea though is that snacks, whether in the morning or afternoon, reduced my kids’ appetites for regular meals.
Not over-snacking is fundamentally important to being a good eater at mealtime. It’s totally fine and good for kids to be a little hungry or thirsty. The effectiveness of any other tactics that we use at mealtimes is very dependent on this habit of limiting snacks. I have seen a friend give his child a cupcake 30 minutes before dinner, and then fight with his son to have him finish a pasta dish. My friend didn’t realize that he himself had sabotaged his son’s appetite for that dinner.
#2 Eat Only in Designated Areas
We only allow eating in the kitchen and dining room, never in any other area of the house. First, it reduces ant and sticky toy problems. Secondly, it takes away the temptation to extend snacking and meal times and distract from the eating process itself – eating is not to be multi-tasked. Originally, we started this habit from when they were mobile because we didn’t want to be chasing them, or cleaning up after them all over the house. Then, I saw other kids running around their homes after taking a few bites, and coming back to the table for now cold food, and fighting with their parents about finishing their food. I realized we had conveniently sidestepped this battle.
#3 Try Everything At Least 10 Times (not during the same meal)
I once read from one of those child nutritionist guides that people need to try something at least ten times to determine if they like that particular food or taste. Whether this is true or not, I have actually used that rule of thumb to great success. My children have expressed dislike for a lot of foods at one point or another. I tell them the rule and continue to put the foods that they dislike on their plates. My only requirement is that they have at least one bite of the food that they dislike and they can discard the rest. Over time, they surprisingly just started eating more of that food.
One of my kids hated mushrooms with a passion. Over the course of a year of seeing them on his plate regularly, he suddenly started eating them. So don’t give up. Keep making the food a part of their meals whether they eat it or not. Foods come in and out of “favor,” especially the vegetables, so if I remove them from the lineup altogether, I’ll never know when they’re coming back into favor!
# 4 Don’t Offer Alternative Foods During a Struggle
There have been times when my kids didn’t like the meal we had prepared for them, and basically looked like they were going to be missing a meal. Their grandparents have then suggested that I heat up some leftover pasta or other food that they knew the children liked. First, missing a meal here and there is okay. Second, try not to give in during those moments. All it takes is your doing this a few times, for your child to see your potential as a short order cook.
#5 Prepare a “Reliable” Food
I might sound like a mean mom, but I don’t like my kids to go hungry either. To be proactive about avoiding a struggle, try to always have one aspect of the meal that is “reliable.” Reliable as in reliably eaten. That could be something as basic as rice, pasta or bread. If you’re introducing a new grain, then try to make sure either the meat or vegetable portion is “reliable.” That way, even if they’re not fully satisfied, they won’t “starve.” Or I might even heat up the “backup leftover food” and offer it as a side dish in advance, so long as they don’t think I got up specifically to go make a special dish that only they like to eat.
# 6 Offer Yucky Foods in a Variety of Ways
We prepare the “yucky” foods in different ways: different shapes, different spices, and different sizes. Our kids hated red bell peppers. Then I chopped them up and put them in chili (which has a pretty overwhelming flavor on it’s own). They noticed them, but couldn’t taste them. Gradually, I put the chopped bell peppers in less overwhelming dishes and before I knew it, they were eating large pieces without complaint (although still without love).
#7 Have One Bite and Don’t Force Finish
We have a one bite rule. It doesn’t matter if they spit it out. The important thing is that they put it in their mouth. And the important thing is that they try it every time it’s offered.
On the flip side, we never encourage the kids to finish their meal either. We encourage them to stop eating when they feel full even if it means leaving a lot of food on the plate. We don’t say just “a few more bites.” However, we also have limited snacks and don’t prepare special meals outside of meal times (unless someone is sick), so there’s no gaming the system for extra snack food.
#8 Offer a Variety of Foods Early On and Repeatedly
It’s now commonly encouraged for parents to introduce babies to a diverse diet as a way of limiting the likelihood of developing allergies. However, this advice has multiple benefits. It helps develop a diverse palate early on. The ability to eat a variety of foods early on makes it easier for kids to get the different vitamins and minerals that their growing bodies need. To avoid FOMO, even junk food, snacks, and desserts are all sampled – just in limited quantities! The important thing is to keep offering the variety even as it is rejected. . . possibly over and over again.
#9 Control Meal Portions
Controlling how much food your children eat is contrary to most of the advice I found in baby-led weaning books, parenting books, and from our own pediatrician. All these sources advised that babies and young children know how to self-regulate and will stop eating when full. This ranks among some of the most incorrect advice I ever heard from “official” sources. Maybe this was true for breast-feeding, but absolutely wrong for milk and solids. Or perhaps this may have been true for humans prior to a world of processed foods, fiber-free food where eating bite after bite was not so easy.
Yet given the ubiquitous advice, I tried this many times, and watched as my babies, and later, children absolutely did not know their limits over and over again when eating a food they liked (usually something fried, sweet, or a processed snack). In fact, adults often don’t know their limits either when it comes to snacking or foods they like in particular, and we somehow expect children to? Allowing kids to stretch their stomachs too much on a regular basis sets them up for a cycle of overeating and getting more than their bodies need. Try to limit meals to reasonable quantities until you’ve taught your kids to reliably know how to stop eating.
#10 Educate About the Foods They’re Eating
Don’t underestimate the ability of your children to want to do right by their bodies. In past societies, food education may not have been so important, but with all the choices of foods these days, teaching kids how to navigate the food world is just as important as teaching them how to navigate cyberspace.
I wasn’t very aware about food growing up, but the trends towards understanding what we put in our bodies and our babies has really heightened my awareness around food and its impact on our health. Talk to them often about what your family is eating and why it’s good for you. Or when you’re having junk food, talk about why it’s not good for you and why you shouldn’t eat too much of it. Talk about cultural differences in foods and diets and the relative healthiness of each. Talk about the evolution of food. Talk about it all repeatedly. Eventually, it will resonate.
For example, you can explain in a way kids can understand more easily. An 8/18/21 study published in Nature Food, framed eating a hot dog to be akin to losing 36 minutes of healthy life! Eating nuts, on the other hand, added 25 healthy life minutes. That news gave my children pause!
#11 Educate About Junk Food, Peers, and Society
When we joined the food world through organized sports and school, our kids became inundated with birthday party pizza and cake, sport practices that included brown bags filled with a variety of processed/healthy/sugary snacks, and classmates who got to eat candies and chocolate milk regularly at school lunchtime. We had to teach our kids about how food and snacks are thought about differently by each family and why they might not get to eat as much of the snacks and sweets as their friends. Holding off the peer pressure to eat like their friends can be one of the toughest things to do, but it gets easier the longer you do it.
#12 Model Food Behavior
Finally, what if you’re a junk food junkie and / or a picky eater yourself? It’s extra, extra tough to raise your kids to eat differently than you do, so I had to model the food behavior I wanted them to have.
I found myself learning to be a better eater by following the habits that I was trying to model for my kids. Interestingly, my appetite for junk (formerly quite strong), waned when I removed a lot of the items from my shopping list. After I learned to pay attention to labels and ingredients, the rational side of me was put off by many of the ingredients in a lot of packaged foods that I used to eat.
Similarly, I hated lamb meat, eggplant, and brussel sprouts growing up, but in an effort to diversify and follow the behavior I was trying to encourage in my kids, we introduced it in meals periodically. Roasted brussel sprouts and spicy garlic eggplant are now in my list of favorite vegetable dishes. I’m still working on the lamb meat, one bite per meal. . .