I see you, mama. At the end of a long day of juggling work, meetings, errands and countless demands, you’re faced with a battle. Not just any battle: a mealtime struggle, where dinner meets resistance in the face of your child, who flat out refuses to touch the food you’ve prepared.
Many of us have reached the end of our ropes by this point of day. So we succumb to our little ones chicken nugget diet and push them to eat in the only way we know how: we bribe, we coax, we force and find ourselves saying things like, “You need to take one more bite of that before you leave this table.” Despite our best efforts, meal times can be stressful and trigger frustration, tears, and stress.
How can you encourage them to be adventurous eaters who love an array of nutritious foods rather than stick with the handful of foods you know they are guaranteed to eat?
You may have a reserve of your child’s favorite foods on hand for those nights where you just can’t face the fire. You’re tired of repetitively telling your child to eat, and deep down inside, you are worried that they may not be getting adequate nutrition to grow healthy and strong.
Ultimately, isn’t that all we want as mothers? To raise children who are capable and thriving in every aspect of their lives, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially. In the face of overwhelming information today on how to “best raise our kids,” it can feel like an impossible feat. But how can we encourage them to be adventurous eaters who love an array of nutritious foods rather than stick with the handful of foods you know they are guaranteed to eat (freezer stash of chicken nuggets, anyone?).
Not to worry, I have some tried and true tips for you. As a mama of almost an almost five-year-old and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I’ve experienced it all when it comes to feeding my kids. It doesn’t have to be as complicated or overwhelming as it may seem. Check out these easy tips to help you navigate mealtime struggles (and even avoid the chicken nugget diet), make peace at the dinner table, and ultimately, raise a healthy child who can eat (almost) anything:
1. Set mealtime and menu expectations.
When little people begin overtaking your house, their demands and wants can overrun a household. Remember, mama – you are in charge of setting mealtime expectations, including the menu. As parents, we are responsible for determining the when, where and what of mealtimes. This means, we should be setting a predictable routine for your children in terms of when you are eating together, where you are eating, and what is being served. It is up your child to determine what they want to eat from the food that is being served, as well as how much of the food they want to eat. When parents stay true to their mealtime responsibilities and allow children to do the same, meal times can become less stressful and take off the pressure from both parents and kids. Research has shown that children who are allowed to eat more intuitively and according to what their bodies want and need in a low pressure environment are more likely to eat a wider variety of foods and develop a healthier relationship with food.
2. Lay off the food-talk.
As parents, we often feel inclined to comment about our child’s food choices, but again, this can create added pressure to the overall mealtime experience for our kiddos. By maintaining a neutral stance on food and allowing our children to select the foods they want without any outside pressure from us can help them become more adventurous and healthy eaters. If we are dictating and commenting on what is “good” and “bad” or what they should or should not eat, this can push them away from trying new foods. Use mealtimes to have fun conversations as a family and leave the food-talk at the door.
3. Introduce the new with the “tried and true.”
In order to help encourage your child to try different foods, it is important to introduce them alongside their favorite foods that they are already comfortable with. This will increase their openness to exploring a new food and make it feel less intimidating. Remember that children are learning how to eat, so exposing them to new foods is important for helping them expand the types of foods they will accept. By introducing new foods slowly with things they are already comfortable with, you can gradually help encourage them to try food in a way that feels positive for them.
4. Be persistent and consistent.
When it comes to trying new foods, many parents feel discouraged at the first signs of rejection. Seeing your child turn their nose up at something, whether a vegetable, grain, salad, etc. can make any parent feel frustrated and stuck. The best thing to do is to be consistent in offering different foods. Studies have shown that kids need repeated exposure to food (up to 40 times!) before they will consider trying something new. So don’t stop serving your child a variety of foods you and your family might enjoy, simply because you fear they will reject it. The key is to be consistent in offering different foods under a low pressure environment. If they automatically reject something, calmly state that this is what is being served, and they do not have to eat it or even try it if they don’t want to.
5. Lead by example.
Ultimately, your children are watching, observing, and modeling the behaviors of those around them. This is a good opportunity to examine your own eating habits and ask yourself what kind of message your behaviors may be sending to your children. Do you take the time to sit down for meals? Do you aim for a variety of foods? Is there negative talk about food, dieting, and/or your body around the house? Take an honest assessment about where you’re at with your own eating behaviors and adjust as needed to better support your whole family’s health.
As mothers, there is perhaps nothing more important than seeing our children thrive. Helping them nurture healthy eating behaviors as early as possible in their lives can set them up for optimal living in all aspects of their lives. Implementing effective feeding strategies can also make for a more peaceful household, pleasant mealtime experiences, and a healthier family overall.
Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Board Certified Lactation Consultant, and mama of four (almost 5). With an online nutrition practice, Crystal helps mamas and their families nurture a peaceful relationship with food and their bodies to experience the abundance of motherhood and truly thrive in life. Learn more at www.crystalkarges.com or follow Crystal on Twitter/Instagram @crystalkarges. You can also check out her piece about freedom from dieting.