People tell me that I’m lucky to have kids who will eat anything, but in reality it has very little to do with luck: I’ve worked hard to get them to eat well! My daughter (now six) was two when I finally admitted that I was raising a picky eater. After lots of reading, discussions, and quite a bit of trial and error, we came up with a plan that eventually turned the situation around. Here is what worked for us:
1. Cut out snacks
A big problem with getting kids to eat at mealtimes is that they aren’t actually hungry. They’ve been snacking on crackers, fruit, yoghurt, juice, raisins, etc., and they have no motivation to eat anything on their plate other than what they know they like.
When I started the new routine with my eldest, I cut out ALL snacks. It was hardcore. I felt like such a mean mama even though I knew I was doing the right thing. Luckily, the results quickly spoke for themselves: cutting out snacks meant that she was more willing to eat what I set out for meals.
2. Refuse to be a short-order cook
When I make my kids breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snack, what I serve is not subject to negotiations. Sure, they can make requests (cereal for breakfast, banana for a snack, etc.), but once I’ve served them, that’s it. I don’t want to hear that they’ve changed their mind, or that they don’t like how I’ve cut the bread (for some reason this one is a real issue in our house . . . ). If they try it and they don’t like it, then I’m fine with them not eating it, but there will be no substitutions. (In addition to the issue of picky eating, I hope this also teaches them something about the value of food and the importance of not being wasteful.)
3. Mix it up
My daughter has always been a massive fan of pasta with red sauce. It was always an easy go-to meal for her because she would consistently eat it without complaint. While this pasta obsession was extremely convenient, it was also a slippery slope into cupboards full of noodles and pasta sauce, and I wanted her to have a more varied palate.
Limiting her pasta intake made things more difficult for me initially. I started by restricting our pasta meals to once every two weeks, which forced us to engage with different foods with a variety of other flavours and textures. She put up quite a fuss at first, but eventually began to have more interest in the other meals she was being served. Plus the whole “out of sight, out of mind” thing really works: once she knew pasta wasn’t regularly on offer, she didn’t request it as often.
4. Discourage preferences
I’ve met so many parents who claim that their child won’t eat an orange unless ALL of the white bits have been picked off the outside, or they won’t eat pasta unless it is a certain shape, or they won’t drink milk unless it is from the jug with the blue lid (NOT green!!), or they won’t eat a sandwich unless it has been cut into triangles, NOT squares…. We’ve all been there, and many of us are “there” all day, every day. But here’s the thing: kids only have these options because we (or grandparents . . . ha!), at some point, have offered them.
By giving in, I realised that I was teaching my daughter that these preferences were acceptable and that her requests (like a new sandwich cut into the preferred shape of the moment) are reasonable to make. I was able to improve the situation by being less consistent. I began cooking with a variety of pasta shapes, purchasing different brands of milk (and bread, cereal, yoghurt, etc.), and by all means, never picking the pith off of an orange.
5. Play the long game
In addition to not indulging my kids with their favourite foods, I also make a point of feeding them foods they claimed not to like the first time around. When my baby son gagged and violently spit out the first (sliced) cherry tomatoes I had served him (see pic above!), I didn’t conclude that he wasn’t a tomato fan. Instead, I concluded that he would need to try them a few more times before understanding the flavours and textures. In the end, it took between five and ten more tries (over the span of about four months) to get him to eat and enjoy a cherry tomato, but we got there eventually! Now he LOVES tomatoes. No joke.
6. Avoid “kid food”
Our kids eat what my husband and I eat. This is important to us because we want our kids to develop a palate for flavourful, varied, and interesting food. I understand that it isn’t always possible for parents to have time to prepare dinner for the kids between getting home from work and bedtime, but where there’s a will there’s a way: during particularly busy times, I’ll prepare something in the slow cooker, or batch cook on the weekend, or purchase pre-made meals that we can all enjoy. Just because it needs to be quickly prepared doesn’t mean that it has to be “kid food”.
7. Let them help
My daughter loves helping me plan our meals for the week (here’s how). She often requests pasta (no surprise there) but instead of doing a simple pasta with red sauce, we do salmon curry pasta, gruyere mac and cheese with spinach, or some other variation. She is happy to have gotten her beloved pasta on the menu, and I’m happy to have new flavours, textures, and foods for her to try.
8. Stand your ground
The most effective (perhaps tied with cutting out snacks) way I found to get my kids to eat is to tell them there is no food until the next meal if they don’t eat what they’re served. It took my daughter going to bed without dinner two times before she figured out how serious I was about this. There is no big glass of milk before bed, no piece of fruit, no yoghurt . . . nothing. If you don’t eat your dinner, there is no food until breakfast. Final answer. It may take a few rough nights before they understand, but I promise the effort will be worth it in the end!
The best part of all of this is that my kids have a positive, happy relationship with food that I hope will benefit them throughout their lives. Yes, it took some work to get here, but for us, it was definitely a battle worth choosing!