Trapped in a vicious cycle of chicken nuggets and crackers? Or maybe you don’t want broccoli to become a battle zone. Setting your child up for maximum success at mealtime doesn’t have to be a stressful, exhausting process, says Jennifer Anderson, R.D.N., M.S.P.H., the registered dietitian and mom behind the website Kids Eat in Color, which promotes healthy eating habits in children.
It starts with regular food. “There is this idea that there is ‘kid food.’ In reality, there is food, and there is nonfood,” Anderson says. What kids really need, she says, is food that’s developmentally appropriate — meaning pureed, chopped, or sliced — for their age.
Create balanced meals for your child, but also offer them something they like. She uses Goldfish crackers as an example: If you serve a few with a meal, they become less exciting and kids are not motivated to wait for snack time.
It’s also important to model eating balanced meals. Carve out time as often as you can to enjoy meals together (think family dinners or breakfast every morning), and set a meal and snack schedule so your child knows when food is coming. “It’s OK for kids to be hungry for an hour,” Anderson says.
Serve as much variety as you can, because repeated exposure to new foods, flavors, and textures helps kids develop a broad palate. (Not all picky eating is avoidable, because of things like genetics, sensory issues, or anxiety, Anderson says.)
Just try to keep mealtime free of pressure. Research shows that using such authoritarian tactics as insisting your kids have to eat every last bite on their plate isn’t beneficial, Anderson says. Taking a relaxed stance often diffuses trouble before it even starts. “When your kid doesn’t want to eat something, and you say they don’t have to, where does the battle go from there? You don’t have a fight,” she says.
Instead, Anderson urges parents to focus on putting balanced meals on the table: “It’s going to be a lot more motivating to you than trying to control something like your child’s appetite.” That way, you can rejoice in your victory — healthy options — and when your child tries a new food, that’s their win.
Play With Your Food
One cute thing — think colored silicone muffin cups or fun food picks (for ages 3 and up) — can make a world of difference to a picky eater. “It piques their interest,” says dietitian Jennifer Anderson of the website Kids Eat in Color. That might be all the encouragement they need to try a taste. Cutouts can add appeal, too. Anderson says she once swore she would never cut a sandwich into a shape. Then she had a child who didn’t eat much and wasn’t gaining weight. “Guess what I started to do?” she says. “Getting a set of mini-cookie cutters is such a big win for so many kids.” They don’t have to take much time, either, she says: Twenty seconds is about all you need for cutouts.
Dietitian Jennifer Anderson uses this basic formula for snacks: fat + protein + fruit + veggie = healthy snack. Here are some sample combos.
Ground nuts + applesauce + cucumbers
Hummus + broccoli + blueberries + crackers
Cheese + date-nut balls + watermelon + carrots
Plain yogurt + pomegranate seeds + clementines