Any parent knows that children can be strong-willed—sometimes even a bit stubborn—about what they will or won’t eat. Mealtime can turn into a battle of wills as kids fret about some new and seemingly menacing food offering, ask for a specially prepared meal, or just flat out refuse to eat. Your concerns about adequate nutrition can turn into a fight over who is in control.
To avoid food fights, it’s important for parents to remain flexible and patient. Serve whatever nutritious foods your child will eat. If your child refuses to eat something, don’t insist they must. Instead, avoid making a fuss and let them eat when they are hungry.
Meals should be relaxed times when families gather to share nutritious foods. Remember that nearly every phase passes—and most kids and parents look back on this time with wonder and amusement.
Step 1: Ways to Help Your Child Eat Healthfully
During the toddler years, children experiment with tastes and textures. They learn how to handle food and get it into their mouths (or most of it, at least). They also begin to form strong opinions about food. There is no obvious rhyme or reason to these opinions, which can make providing a nutritious, balanced meal a real challenge. But parents can avoid food fights and still keep their kids eating healthful foods.
These tips may help:
- Children learn by example. Eat the same healthful foods that you serve your child. If fruits, vegetables, and vegetarian meals are on your plate, your children will embrace them, too. They are healthy for both adults and children.
- If your child refuses a food the first time it is offered, don’t push, but don’t give up hope. Sometimes it takes several tries for kids to accept a new food. Offering a small amount of the new food with a dish that’s familiar—and well-liked by the child—may help.
- If a food isn’t accepted in one form, try another. For example, a child who doesn’t like cooked spinach may like fresh spinach as part of a salad. If a child doesn’t like chunks of tofu, try making the tofu into a dip and serving it with steamed vegetable strips.
- If your child dislikes plain soy or rice milk, try various flavors; mix it with hot or cold cereal; use it in pancakes or muffins; or blend the soymilk with fruit to make a delicious shake.
- Keep the dishes simple and don’t pile on the food. A complicated, unfamiliar dish that covers the plate may seem daunting. Simple finger foods—steamed vegetables strips, crackers, or chunks of cooked tofu—make eating easy and fun for a child.
- Include favorite or familiar foods in a variety of recipes. Cook rice in a mixture of fruit juice and water, or thin nut butter with some soymilk to make a pasta sauce.
- If a child refuses vegetables, try shredding dark green leafy vegetables or carrots and adding them to soups, salads, tomato sauce, or a loaf mix. Mix vegetables with grains and wrap in a tortilla. Or, if your child likes mashed potatoes, add in some finely shredded vegetables, such as zucchini or squash.
Step 2: Involve Children in the Food-Making Process.
As children enter grade school, their food choices broaden and they often become curious about cooking and where their food comes from. You can put that curiosity to good use by including your kids in the process of purchasing, preparing, and serving food. When children are involved in these activities, they are much more likely to try new foods and develop new tastes.
Try these food-related activities with kids:
- Involve your child in meal preparation. Even your toddler can mash a banana or add some dried raisins to a recipe. Explain what you are preparing, and if you can be flexible about the ingredients, let your child choose.
- Where does food come from? Children of all ages delight in going berry- or apple-picking, helping out in a garden, and visiting farms or farmers markets.
- Do a taste-test in which you ask your child to distinguish between fresh vegetables picked right from the garden and produce that has traveled many miles and waited weeks before making it to the table.
- Make a basic dish your child enjoys, such as oatmeal, and gather a few ingredients that you can mix in, such as fruits, nuts, and spices. Then the two of you can work together to make small batches of different flavor combinations. Taste each one, rank them from favorite to least favorite, and compare your preferences.
- Teach your child all the steps necessary to make one or more favorite dishes, such as a salad, bean burrito, or fruit smoothie. Many children delight in mastering a recipe or two. You might encourage them to write these recipes down in a notebook.
Step 3: Help Build Healthful Food Choices
Children have lots of opportunities to make decisions about the foods they eat. You can help prepare your child to make healthful decisions and help them build eating skills to use for a lifetime.
Start by talking about the advantages and disadvantages of different types of foods. Compare a hamburger made of high–fat beef to a low–fat veggie burger.
Teach kids how to politely ask for healthy foods or decline others. Educate your children about food and cooking and the benefits of a healthy plant–based diet.
School–aged children eat many meals away from home. During this time, your children may realize that some friends do not eat quite so healthfully as they do. Talk to your kids about why your family eats as it does and encourage them to value these healthy practices.