5 Little Things to Do to Foster Better Eating Habits in Kids
Building a healthy relationship to food is a lifelong journey that begins at the dinner table as a child. No matter what's on the menu, every parent seems to worry about whether their kid's picky eating habits will harm them as they mature. While this developmental phase is normal, practicing patience with a child growing into their taste buds can be a challenge. To foster a positive mindset in a little one's eating habits, here are a few tips to bring to mealtimes and beyond.
1. Ditch the Pressure
Most parents can relate to the struggle of the picky eater phase. While getting a young child to eat their greens is often an uphill battle, many experts suggest taking a neutral approach at mealtimes to help kids come to their own conclusions about the food they're eating.
"Keep a positive environment around food, and try to ditch the pressure or punishment, reward, and negotiation tactics that a lot of parents do," explains Jill Castle, MS, RDN, a pediatric dietician based in New Canaan, Connecticut. Coercive strategies like "the clean plate club," or eating everything on the plate for example, tend to stifle a child's ability to learn to like food and grow their palate because they're not allowed to explore and navigate what they naturally like and don't like.
Toddlers are particularly inclined to be choosy about food, but Castle says it's essential for parents to acknowledge that this is a phase of development for most kids. "Understanding that helps parents respond to their child positively and with patience," she says. "In turn, it helps them get through that stage and get on to the next stage."
Many parents may be concerned that picky eating can result in health issues or deficiencies long term. But research shows the average picky eater likely won't have concerning micronutrient deficiency. They might also be less likely to be obese or overweight.
Megan Pesch, M.D., assistant professor of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, a senior author of one of these studies at the University of Michigan, notes that avoiding coercion with mealtimes helps kids come to their own conclusion about the food they eat. "If my daughters are feeling disgusted by the food that I'm presenting, I want to respect that," says Dr. Pesch, a mom of three under age 5. "I still continue to challenge them, but also respect what their bodies are telling them."
2. Have Conversations About Food
In place of negotiations or outright battles at the dinner table over healthy foods, parents need to open a line of communication early on with their children to establish a positive dynamic surrounding food.
Castle believes in fostering a child's intuition regarding hunger as early as infancy. For example, breastfed babies will cry when they're hungry, they'll latch to feed, and they'll stop when they feel full. Formula babies will similarly signal when they need to be fed, but parents will often force them to finish the bottle even after they've stopped wanting it because there may be an ounce or two leftover.
"That's how we disengage children from their intuitiveness," says Castle. "Even with older children, who may have eaten a little dinner but not enough to satisfy the parent, pressuring or rewarding kids to finish their plate disengage children from their intuitiveness."
When a "clean plate club" mentality reaches the dinner table, some kids will resist, but others will comply to please their parents. In doing so, they can actually teach their bodies to require more food or rely on external indicators for how much or when to eat. These forming habits can deny a child of listening to their internal signals that tell them when they're full, which can complicate their relationship with food.
Castle suggests for parents to help kids recognize hunger and fullness by naming them at an early age and encouraging dialogue that discusses these feelings. "Conversations about how you feel after you eat, did you enjoy the food, what was it that you enjoyed, how does your body feel when you eat crackers for a snack versus yogurt with granola or cereal with milk—those kind of conversations help children stay in tune to their bodies signals around appetite," she says.
3. Give a Variety of Options Throughout the Week
When a toddler is in the chicken nuggets and butter noodles phase of their palate, it can feel like a risk introducing something new to the dinner table. However, variety is the champion of an expanding appetite.
"Children are pretty good at eating on their own when presented with a lot of variety and a pleasant environment," notes Castle. "They learn to experiment and enjoy food and grow a broader diet over time."
Embrace the challenge of feeding picky eaters by putting an array of different foods, flavors, and textures on the table at every mealtime. While it's realistic to have at least one element be a food a parent knows their child likes, offer a variety of options and let the child's curiosity slowly fill their plate over time.
Repeat exposure is a key element of getting these new foods from the table to their plate. The more they see a certain vegetable or meat on the table, the more familiar and curious a child becomes with that item. While for some the magic number may be seven to eight meals, for others it can take a lot longer to spark that interest. When they finally decide to put it on their plate, let them decide how much they're going to eat—if any at all.
"Having food on the table close to them or even tolerating having the food on their plate—even if they don't eat it—is a victory," says Dr. Pesch. "I like to think of a positive relationship with food as the long-term goal and not having your kid eat their brussels sprouts."
It's also a good idea to try and get creative if you have the time. "It's not just steamed broccoli showing up eight times," says Castle. "It's broccoli soup, broccoli with a dip, roasted broccoli, stir fry—broccoli showing up in lots of different ways and shapes and forms and flavors."
4. Bring Kids Into the Kitchen
As children reach school age, many typically like to participate in cooking and baking as their curiosity about food grows. Having kids join in making a meal—even if it's as simple as stirring a mixture or throwing in an ingredient—can place a new light on foods they find unpalatable at the dinner table.
"If you're a child and you're faced with a green bean casserole, many will say it looks weird and it's kind of gross. But if the child is involved with the preparation of the food, it does kind of dispel the myth of where it came from and what they're eating," says Dr. Pesch.
Cooking can be an excellent exploration tool with food because it allows children to take ownership of an aspect of the meal. This shared experience, in turn, can create a positive relationship with food as a sense of pride and accomplishment becomes associated with mealtimes. Even with Dr. Pesch's young daughters, this connection to food was established early.
"With my girls [before the pandemic], they would go to the grocery store with me and pick out their own special vegetable. And they'd be like, 'Yes! These are my carrots!' and they'd help me prepare them," she says.
While cooking isn't for every kid, for those that show interest and want to get their hands dirty in the kitchen, this shared experience can make cooking for one's self and for others a core value long term.
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5. Set the Example
Like with any aspect of parenting, setting an example can be the most crucial component of instilling a positive relationship with food. Parents should take some time to reflect on their own relationship with food as well as past or present concerns in their eating habits.
"If parents are embattled with food all the time—whether dieting or binge eating, overeating, or extremely picky about food—any of their own food struggles will reflect onto their children," says Castle. "It's important for parents to have a positive relationship with food themselves, or at least fake it till they make it, and try to be a positive role model around food."
Unhealthy eating habits in adults can make it difficult for children to accept a positive relationship with food—even if the parent is not placing those same pressures directly on them as a result. Parents should act as an influence at meal times, being adventurous with food items they want their child to eat, enjoying their meals, and choosing a balanced diet. Avoiding the mentality of good versus bad foods can also be an important step in a child's food journey.
As a parent and a researcher, Dr. Pesch has tried to go by the book when it comes to fostering her daughters' eating habits. Her family tries to stick to lean meats, veggies, and whole grains, and they avoid processed foods as much as possible. But ultimately, her toddlers still ask for chicken nuggets and mac and cheese—the same foods most young kids want.
"I think there's a lot of societal pressure to say that you're a good parent because your child eats vegetables and lean meats. I don't entirely think it's the parents' doing," she says. While some restriction is ultimately necessary in a kid's diet, Dr. Pesch notes, there are more positive ways to approach healthier choices. "It's part of teaching your child that some foods are better for you than others, and as a family finding your own balance when it comes to unhealthier choices," she adds.