5 rules to help your kids eat what you give them. How to help your kids be great eaters who are not picky about what they eat.
by Autumn Battaglia
Since becoming a mother to toddlers, one of the most frequent conversations I find myself in is about how to feed children. Specifically, how to make them “good eaters”. And until my first was about a year and a half, I never gave it a whole lot of thought. At some point, we realized that he was starting to refuse some foods that we wanted him to eat and we found ourselves negotiating bites with him.
I knew I did not want to become a “short-order cook” to my family, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to prevent that from happening. A quick internet search led me to Denaye Barahona’s website and podcast “Simple Families”. There, I read and listened to her advice on how she feeds her kids and adapted her recommendations to fit our family.
My two boys are by no means the world’s greatest eaters, but I have to say that they are almost always very good. And when they’re not- here’s the trick- we don’t stress about it. Because 95% of the time, they are. Sure, if you offer them treats, they’re going to choose treats over broccoli, but they’re not going to throw a fit over a plate of broccoli either.
Disclaimer: the rest of this post will not take into consideration allergy restrictions, developmental delays, or other feeding difficulties. I have no experience with these.
Feeding Philosophies for Kids
So what do WE do? How do we feed OUR children? You may not agree with these and they may not work for YOUR family, but here’s a breakdown of our feeding principles:
- We eat at the table. Always.
- Adults choose the what and when, kids can choose how much
- No prompting or bargaining or begging
- Avoid “likes” and “don’t likes”
- No snacks
We Eat at the Table
First, we eat at the table. Maybe that’s too traditional of an approach for some, but that’s our standard. Meals are enjoyed as a family, at the table, and nowhere else. At the most basic level, it keeps the house clean. But it also keeps the meal time focused and predictable. Our sons know that when they’re at the table, they’ll be fed. They know phones and toys and other distractions don’t come to the table–just us and the food.
Adults Choose What and Where, Kids Choose How Much
We follow the principle that the adults choose what and when we eat and the kids can choose how much (if any) they want to eat of that which is offered. I make meals that my husband and I ate before we had children and expect our kids to eat those meals. I’m not totally unrealistic though, so I’m not going to give them a plate full of things I know they don’t prefer or haven’t had before. I’m always sure to put at least one thing on their plates that I know they will readily eat. Sometimes, they will eat only that one thing and they will eat four servings of it. And that’s OK. We are providing healthy, nutritious food, so if they decide to only eat one part of that meal, they’re still getting the benefits.
No Prompting, Bargaining, nor Begging
Next, we do not prompt them to eat nor do we EVER make them eat something. Kids are smart and know what to do with a plate of food in front of them. I think this was the biggest sanity-saver in our early days of changing our feeding approach. It was nice to take out the begging, the prompting, and the pressure that seemed to happen at each meal. It made the table a more relaxing place to be for everyone and made each meal more pleasant.
Desserts are not a reward or punishment in our home. If we had planned on having dessert after dinner, our sons are allowed to have it, regardless of whether they ate a single bite of dinner or five helpings of spinach. Some nights we have a dessert, some nights we don’t.
If we’re serving something new or something we anticipate may not be their favorite, we simply put it on their plates and let them see us eating it, and almost always they follow suit. They will, at least, usually put it in their mouth, even if they take it out after having tasted it. To us, the tasting is the important part.
Tasting new and different foods is essential to developing a mature palate in kids (and adults!), so every little exposure counts. With this, we never stop serving food to our kids that we’ve noticed in the past that they may not prefer. The studies vary in the exact number of times needed to prefer a particular food, but the general idea is that it takes 7-12 times before you can make a good decision. Too often we let ourselves and our children decide we don’t like something, just based on a first experience.
Avoid “Likes” and “Don’t Likes”
This brings me to our next rule of eating. We try to avoid labeling foods as “likes” and “dislikes”. In fact, we discourage using the phrase “I don’t like this” and instead encourage “I don’t prefer this”. Because ultimately, that’s what most adult palates are. I think we can look at most food this way:
- Our absolute favorite foods
- Foods we eat regularly and enjoy/prefer to eat
- Foods we eat, but aren’t our top preferences
- Foods we cannot stand
I suspect that many adults have foods that they eat in social settings (business meetings, when you’re at someone else’s house, etc.) that they don’t necessarily prefer, but that they’re willing and able to eat to be polite OR because they know it’s good for them. Kids need to be taught this, as well. Not all foods can be a favorite and we don’t always get to eat things that we absolutely enjoy, but instead, there are many foods we will eat that aren’t even our preference. And that’s OK!
For example, I do not prefer cucumbers. Which, I know, is a very tame vegetable, but they’re just not a preference. I don’t plant them in my garden, I don’t select them from a veggie tray at a party, and I don’t buy them from the store. However, if you make me a salad with cucumbers in it, I will eat them. I would never pick them out of something and they certainly don’t make me gag, but they’re just not the top of my list.
So I’m not bothered when my son tells me “Mommy, I don’t prefer this” because that’s a normal response to a lot of foods. We respond, “That’s OK that you don’t prefer this, but it’s what we’re having for dinner” and we leave it at that. Quite often, especially if he’s hungry, he’s going to eat it anyway. If not, that’s alright too. Sometimes, he’ll have four things on his plate, not take more than a single bite of three of them, but eat five servings of another. If he wants to eat a pile of green beans for dinner, that’s alright by me.
Now here’s a big thing that I think has significantly helped our sons to be good eaters: we do not do snacks. I know a lot of people will say that’s impossible with young kids, that they need to eat more frequently than three times each day and so forth, but I’ve simply not found that to be true. I’m here and my sons are alive to tell the tale. I have no advice as how to stop the snack habit if your kids are used to it, but if you’re finding your kids are picky eaters or not eating at meals, I would suggest cutting down, and possibly totally out, snacks.
It’s not that we NEVER have snacks, but rather it’s just not our norm. If we’re somewhere that snacks are offered, I’m happy to let my sons have one. However, I know that they will not eat as much at the next meal. Without snacks, our sons come to each meal pretty darn hungry. Hunger is not a bad thing for kids to feel. (Obviously, starvation and not having access to food is not what I’m talking about here.) It’s GOOD for the body to experience hunger. And when we’re hungry, we’re much more likely to eat something that might not be our favorite food and may not even be a preferred food. This all helps kids expand their palates.
Another bonus of the no-snacking standard is that I never hear my sons whine for or even ask for snacks; they simply don’t think of it as an option. We DO allow them to snack on bits of the meal as we’re preparing the meal if they happen to be around and hungry. If they’re helping me chop up veggies for a salad, they’re absolutely allowed to snack on the veggies as we go. If they’re going to be eating the salad in the next hour anyway, I have no problem with letting them fill up a bit on it in the moment.
So that’s it! Those are OUR feeding principles for OUR home. As I stated before, these may not work for your family or line up with how you desire to feed your children. But when I’m asked about how to help kids become better eaters, the above advice is what I give. It’s worked very well for my family so far. I love that it takes the pressure away from the table. It’s a clear division of labor in my mind: we choose what to serve and the kids can choose if they want to eat it. There’s no power struggle to be had and that keeps us all happy and healthy and well-fed.