Children can have very selective palates and often go through life stages in which they eat a limited variety of foods. Worrying about whether their children are getting adequate nutrition is a significant concern for many parents. Knowing how to respond to eating behaviors like refusal, self-limiting and sensory problems is often beyond the scope of what parents want to deal with at mealtimes.
Tackling the issue of improving eating habits for children is a daunting task that frequently leaves parents feeling frustrated and defeated. There are many ways you can help your child develop healthier eating habits:
1. Structure settings to promote good eating habits. Keep healthy choices like fruit or nuts available in the pantry, refrigerator and when traveling.
2. Help your child develop a taste for healthy food at a young age. Set a good example by enjoying nutritious snacks, eating at the table and not skipping meals.
3. Keep a regular schedule for meals and snacks so children know food is available at certain times of the day. It is a good idea to offer three meals and two or three snacks a day, but remember to limit drinks and snacks before meals or they won’t be hungry.
4. Children are asserting their independence when refusing foods. Give them some sense of control by allowing them to have some choice in the foods they are given at mealtimes.
5. Timing is important. Offer a new food when your child is hungry and rested, and try to offer only one new food at a time, pairing it with familiar favorites.
6. Make it fun. Present familiar foods in different shapes, or arrange colorful foods on a plate. This helps children to try both new and familiar foods prepared in different ways.
7. Small children enjoy foods that are their size. Bite-sized pieces, finger foods and smaller portions help create kid-friendly meals.
8. Allow children to explore new food. They can look at it, touch it, smell it and eventually give it a try. Offer younger children a few bites during feeding, or ask older children if they would like to try a little.
9. Get creative! Have a salad bar or a picnic at mealtimes. Use fun plates, napkins or food themes. To make a new food more appealing, give it a fun name like “superhero spinach” or use your child’s favorite cartoon character.
10. Try not to use food as a reward for children, to avoid the development of unhealthy patterns for coping with stress or upset. Children can be rewarded for eating new foods with praise, sticker charts and other helpful incentives.
11. Teach children early about healthy eating. Allowing them to help with simple food preparation will encourage them to try the dishes they helped to create. Visit a farm or farmer’s market, and read books designed to support good eating habits.
12. Keep trying! It may take several attempts before your child tries and decides if they like a new food. The more they see it, the more likely they will be to try it. Presenting new food 1–3 times a week helps the food become familiar, but try not to over-do it.
Helping your child establish healthy eating habits while they are young could save them from a life of obesity, eating disorders and the myriad of lifestyle diseases associated with a poor diet. Lead by example and show them the value of eating well.