The joke with parents is trying to get your picky eater to have their broccoli before they can have their dessert. They won’t eat it, so you weather a tantrum storm and hope for something better the next night. Rinse, repeat. How do you curb these habits and teach children to eat a healthy meal instead of the sugary junk food they will undoubtedly prefer?
It Starts With You
First, you need to know about healthy eating yourself. Have a prepared pantry full of healthy snacks instead of processed sugar snacks marketed towards kids. If you already have a picky eater who is used to unhealthy snacks, take the same approach as with a diet: start with a sustainable change, such as changing out one of their normally unhealthy snacks for something healthy.
Remember you are also a role model, and young children often mimic their parents, guardians, and other adults that are often in their lives. If they see you eating healthy foods, they will want to try what you are eating. Do not make a big deal out of it; you don’t have to emphatically say “Mmm! Yummy!” for the child to want it. Instead, be casual. Act like it’s completely normal to eat something that the child does not normally eat. After all, it is normal — just not for the child.
If you have a baby or toddler who is ready for solid foods, typically between 6 and 9 months, you can start early with baby-led weaning.
Before explaining baby-led weaning (BLW), it’s important to note that this is not a replacement for milk or formula. Milk or formula should be the primary source of nutrition until 10 to 12 months old. If your child can sit in a high chair, move their jaw up and down, and move food from the tray to their mouth, they are probably ready for BLW.
The concept behind BLW is fairly simple: Skip the purees and frozen baby food, and jump straight to giving them food from your plate. There are caveats, of course — many foods will need to be cut up or broken down into components so that they are not choking hazards, but otherwise the child can eat what you eat. Starting with soft foods, like flaky fish, soft meats, or ripe fruits, so that they can develop the skills to eat.
Major benefits of BLW include exposure to a wider variety of foods, which can lead to a preference for varied and healthier foods later in life, lowering risk of allergies (especially to fish and peanut butter), and less likelihood of becoming overweight. This is on top of developing manual dexterity and learning how to chew.
It’s important to know that at this age, they will likely not eat everything offered. The important part, no matter if you have a toddler or a 5-year-old, is to keep offering.
If you are trying to feed your child a vegetable, it’s possible they take one bite and stop. It’s also possible that they ignore a new food 10 to 20 times before they even taste it. It could take another 10 to 20 times before they decide if they like it or not. All told, it could take offering a food 40 times before a child makes a final decision.
One way to help with this is to let your child choose a vegetable they’ve had before to add to the meal. Ask them, for example, if they want peas or corn. This gives them a sense of choice and ownership, making them more likely to eat what they chose, rather than what they see as something you arbitrarily gave them.
Also remember that while it’s your job to buy healthy food, you can’t force your child to eat it. It’s your child’s job to eat what is offered. They will get hungry eventually, and if you have consistently bought healthy foods, and that is what you have on offer, they will eat it when they are hungry.
It’s important to expose your child to many different healthy food options to find ones they like and will readily eat with no fuss. However, especially in younger children, it may be wise to space out how often you serve new foods.
Generally, you want to give at least a few days between new foods so that you can determine allergies. Be aware that allergies can build up over time, and that allergies very rarely present a major reaction the first time your child eats something. It’s typically the second time they eat something that they will have a major reaction.
You can make a food adventure out of trying new food items. For example, go down a list of herbs that are great for kids, letting them smell the herbs and use it in cooking. Have them help with the cooking, as well, and they will again have ownership over the food, making them more likely to eat it. Spend a few days with them helping you use a certain herb in a few different dishes before moving on to a new herb.
Despite all of this, you need to manage your expectations. If you are starting a journey to healthy eating with a toddler, there’s a good chance that they will show little resistance to eating broccoli and cauliflower. Starting with a 5-year-old is trickier but doable.
It takes time to unlearn bad habits, and children simply are not as consistent as adults. Offering healthy choices over the course of a week and not just one night means they will have at least something healthy, and that’s a start. Simply offering a wide variety of healthy snacks, instead of buying chocolate-covered cherries, may be all you can do to start. However, getting the ball rolling and having a child realize that they like healthy snacks, and cutting down to only the occasional unhealthy snack bar, is how you start your child down the path to a life of healthy eating.