Parents often bribe, plead and even threaten their kids to get them to eat their veggies. And while this feeding strategy may get kids to reluctantly ingest their greens, studies show it makes healthful foods less attractive to children over the long haul. It's like kids take that pressure and translate it to mean "that food can't possibly taste good."
So what’s a parent to do?
There's another way but the results won't become evident today, tomorrow or even next week. But if used consistently, the action plan below has a huge pay off. That's because it will not only get your kids to eat more healthy foods while they are young, it will increase the likelihood they'll become adults who prefer nutritious fare. Let's take a look...
Early in her career, internationally recognized feeding expert and dietitian, Ellyn Satter, was counseling a mother distraught about her ultra-picky-eating child. In that moment Satter realized that parents can’t possibly be responsible for what their children eat. Their only responsibility, she explained to the mom, is to provide children with a variety of food.
Ever since her revelation, Ellyn Satter has refined what she calls the Division of Responsibility, a simple and ingenious feeding strategy. Basically parents decide the “when,” “what,” and “where” of feeding and children decide the “whether” and “how much” of eating.
So let your child know that you are in charge of what is served but that it’s up to them whether or not to eat. This no-pressure atmosphere increases the likelihood that kids will eat a wider variety of foods.
Once parents stop pouring all their energy into trying to get their kids to eat, they can focus on providing balanced meals and snacks.
Providing structure for meals and snacks has a number of advantages. First, it gives children plenty of opportunities to eat and be exposed to different foods. It also helps them to manage their hunger so they show up to the next meal hungry but not famished. And lastly, it keeps them from grazing on food between meals which can cause a low desire to eat at meal time.
So provide structured meals including 3 meals and 2-3 in-between-meal snacks in a designated area like the kitchen table.
According to a 2007 review published in Current Nutrition Food Science, a good way to encourage children to try new foods is repeated exposure and role modeling. That means the more often kids see a food, the more likely it is they’ll eventually eat it. And when they see a parent eating it, the odds they’ll eat it go up even more.
The review also reveals that kids are more willing to try new foods when they are paired with other liked items. So at mealtime include your kid’s favorites along with plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish and nuts and seeds. And eat together as a family as often as you can.
You’ve probably heard that having children help prepare meals is a good way to encourage eating. But there's one caveat. Don't make it all about getting them to eat. Why? Kids can smell an agenda from a mile away.
Instead, have them help with meals to teach them something incredibly valuable: how to cook. When 18-year olds leave the house they should know how to prepare meals for themselves. If they can learn to make feeding themselves a priority, it will be easier for them to manage their weight and health.
So have them help you pick out produce, get involved with food preparation and talk about how the food tastes. Older kids can even help plan weekly menus. And who knows? They could eventually end up making you dinner!
Getting your kids to try and accept a wide variety of foods does not happen overnight. But when you give children time and plenty of opportunities to learn (the same way you do with reading and writing) there will come a day when it all clicks. And everyone will ask you how your kid got to be such an adventurous eater.
But the answer is never what parents think it will be. Structure, no pressure, repeated exposure, family meals, time and most of all trust.
Tanofsky-Kraff M, Haynos AF, Kottler LA, Yanovski SZ, Yanovski JA. Laboratory-based studies of eating among children and adolescents. Curr Nutr Food Sci. 2007;3(1):55-74.
Written on 1/31/2010 by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen. Maryann is a registered dietitian, mother of two and creator of www.RaiseHealthyEaters.com, a blog dedicated to providing parents with the most credible nutrition advice.