By Lindsay K. Germain
Maya sits at the table, slowly taking a bite or two, and then says she’s done with her meal. She doesn’t like most of the foods she tries, and she often calls a food her favorite one week and then hates it the next.
Can you guess how old she is? If she was 35, we’d really worry about her, wouldn’t we? And since she’s justturning four, we don’t need to. Developmentally, she’s just like lots of kids her age. In the long run, she’s likely to become a good eater, expanding the variety of foods she eats.
Meanwhile, how do we support her to get her nutritional needs met? Here are my favorite ways to support children developing healthy food habits. These tips will support healthy changes in the long-term:
– Trust your child will eventually eat a variety of foods, which will happen naturally over time. We’d worry about Maya if she was a grown-up, but for someone her age, her behavior is typical.
– Refrain from saying anything about not eating or picky eating. Getting attention, whether or not it’s positive, is a powerful driver for children. If your child knows s/he can upset you by not eating something, you may accidentally be reinforcing this behavior.
To avoid encouraging behaviors you don’t want to see, you can refrain from saying anything when your child isn’t eating. Children don’t let themselves starve, and s/he’ll eventually eat.
At the same time, you can try showering your child with some one-on-one, positive attention prior to a meal (even three minutes makes a big difference!). That way, you know your kiddo’s love cup is full and you won’t accidentally end up with an attention-hungry kid acting out just to get your attention.
– Present a fruit and/or vegetable at every meal, even if your child never eats it. This will build his/her awareness that a full meal contains these foods. Over time, your child will become developmentally old enough to understand it makes sense to eat them.
– As hard as it might be, try not to make a child eat. This may work when your child is young, but it can easily backfire or create resistance over time to eating certain foods or trying new things.
– If you have a picky eater, integrate nutrition in other ways. You can get creative and add “secret” ingredients to foods your child does eat. For example, you might add a little cooked, blended spinach to a red pasta sauce, or lightly sauté anchovies, stirring and pressing them into a paste before adding them into mac and cheese or pasta with butter. These invisible ingredients add a nutritious boost, without being detected.
Though eating nutritious food is ideal, a daily gummy vitamin can also make a huge difference and give you some peace of mind when your kid refuses to eat anything but pasta.
– Talk about foods as “yummy,” not “healthy.” Research shows children are skeptical of things having more than one purpose. When they’re young, kids can only really hold onto the idea that an item has one particular use. So, when you focus on saying it’s “sooo good,” rather than, “It’s delicious, and good for you,” you’ve got a better shot at your child giving a new food a try.
– Eat, and enjoy, the foods you want your child to eat. If you model healthy eating, your child learns what a balanced meal looks like and that grown-ups love broccoli. What message are you sending if you never drink a glass of milk or eat your own veggies? Children are receptive, not just to what you say, but also what you do. So you can try setting an example by eating your own veggies, and loving them!