It’s dinner time again. I’m at the table with the easy-going 8-year-old on one side and the feisty, opinionated 5-year-old on the other side, readying for battle.
My ally is the adventurous 8 year old. He tries and eats just about anything I put in front of him. The new, different and strange in the world of food excites him. He wasn’t always this easy.
My enemy is the fiery 5-year-old. Her immediate response to every food placed before her that is NOT a fruit or a pasta is “I don’t like it.” This is closely followed by, “I’m not gonna eat dinner tonight.” About an hour later, there will be relentless, whining requests for some type of fruit until I am forced to give in to save my sanity.
If this sounds like dinner at your house, you are not alone. Food battles can be a nightmare and every parent deals with them at one age or another. The key is to pick your battles, win some and lose some but WIN the war.
- You have a healthy, growing child.
- You are NOT a short order cook and your kitchen is not a restaurant
- Your children can sit for a family meal, whether it be at home or at a restaurant
- You keep your sanity
Infant battle tactics
- Perseverance: Studies have shown that infants need to try a food up to 20 times before they like it or don’t like it. So don’t give up if your giggly darling spits peas at you the first few times you try it. Don’t make a big deal out of a refusal and don’t force-feed. Just relax and try, try again!
- Patience: Many infants are ready to try solid foods (pureed or mashed) between 4-6 months of age but others are not. If you try pureed sweet potatoes on your infant’s 6 month birthday and she pushes the spoon out of her mouth every time you try to “fly the airplane” into her mouth, then stop. Wait a week and then try again. Every baby’s development is unique.
- Let them get messy: Many older infants and some younger infants refuse pureed baby foods served to them on a spoon. If this is your baby, try offering soft finger foods instead. Allow your infant to explore with his hands and feed himself with your supervision. Yes, it is much messier to let your infant feed himself a soft banana than it would be for you to mash it up and use a spoon to carefully place it in his mouth. But messes can be cleaned up and are a small price to pay for a happy, eager eater.
Toddler battle tactics
- Grazing: Toddlers are on the move all the time. They have short attention spans and loathe being restrained. Their tummies are small, making it hard for them to eat large meals. The natural fit for your toddler is to eat a small meal every 2-3 hours. Don’t fight this-get creative and use it! Try using the “Muffin tray” for your little mover. Fill up the cups in a muffin tray with healthy and safe finger foods. Leave the tray out for your instinctive snacker to eat on the move. Examples might be cut up avocado, hardboiled egg slices, whole grain cereal, veggies, peanut butter sandwiches cut into cubes and cooked beans.
- Family meal: Make a rule that your toddler always sits at the table for the beginning of the meal with everyone else. Expect about 10-15 minutes. Give your toddler a plate of the SAME food you are serving the rest of the family, but cut or softened to be safe for the little guy. Don’t avoid foods that your toddler has decided he is not going to eat on this particular day. You are the parent, a.k.a. the boss. Remember that.
Allow your toddler to eat what he chooses from the plate. The point here is teaching the habit of sitting for meals. After 15 minutes, set your toddler free (if you are at home) and allow his natural grazing pattern to take over.
- Keep portions small and refill: Toddlers eat less after the rapid growth of the 1st year has slowed down. Portion sizes are 1 tablespoon per year of age. Offer 2-3 dishes at a meal. Remember there is no “clean plate” club!
- Give water, not juice: Start this habit early and you won’t be fighting with your teenager to drink more water!
- Get creative for the nutrients: Many toddlers are very picky and very inconsistent. One day they might eat spaghetti with sauce and the next day refuse to touch it ever again. Don’t worry- your toddler will change his mind again… and again. So don’t stop giving a food just because you get a refusal. Vegetables and proteins are often absent on the typical toddler list of favorite foods. So you’ll have to find ways to sneak them in if they don’t eat them when you present them in their natural form. Refusing meats of all kinds? Try beans, hummus, cheese, yogurt. Throwing green veggies on the floor? Chop them up and put them in a smoothie with fruit and yogurt, mince them into pizza sauce or mac ‘n cheese or grab some tasty fruit and veggie pouches,
Battle tactics for the 4-to-6-year-old
- It’s all about carbohydrates! This age group loves breads, pastas, rice, cereals and snack foods. Many LOATHE veggies and turn their noses up at fish, chicken and steak. Keep grains to about ¼ of the plate (choosemyplate.gov). Try out whole grains breads, cereals and pastas. Use quinoa instead of white rice. Substitute spiraled veggies for pasta- “zoodles” are a yummy favorite!
- Make it fun! Give new recipes a funny name. Sausage, green beans and potatoes become “Batman and Robin Surprise”.
- Polite bite. Encourage kids to try new foods or retry foods they don’t like with the “polite bite” a.k.a. the “no thank you bite.” My kids have to take ONE bite of everything they are given and if they don’t like it, they don’t have to take another.
- Make deals. Bargain with your child to get to an agreed upon number of bites he has to eat. You could suggest he eat the number of bites that is equal to his age. Kids like to make deals- ask them to eat a high number of bites and watch them bargain with you down to a lower number that still gets them eating most of the portion!
Battle tactics for the 7-10 yo
- Get them involved: Getting kids involved in choosing and preparing foods is a great way to get picky kids to try new foods. My favorite technique is the “one new food a week.”
Take your picky child to the grocery store once a week and ask them to pick out ONE food that is new or disliked. The child then is given the task of choosing how that special food item is prepared and cooked. Knowing they only have to do this once a week makes this a less daunting task for most kids. Giving them the power to choose the food and how it is prepared is a great way to tap into their desire for some control.
- Healthy snacks: Keep lots of healthy snacks on hand and keep junk foods out of the house. Choose snacks that have a protein/healthy fat and a carbohydrate rather than a carbohydrate alone as these snacks will keep kids feeling full longer. Apple slices with peanut butter are a great example of a healthy, filling snack.
- Make sodas, lemonades, fruit drinks a treat. Only serve these sugary drinks on special occasions and keep them out of the house. Make it a habit for your kids to drink water. Let them know from a young age that sugary drinks are a “treat.” You may let them have when you are out for a special meal but not at home.
Remember: You are the parent, which means you are the “General.” You make the rules, but you still have to get buy-in from your troops to win the war!