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Just like many other parents, I’ve been blessed with a son who has a tendency to turn up his nose at any new food that happened to go past his way – unless it looks like chocolate, then all bets are off.
We’ve already talked about why children become picky eaters (it’s normal!) and why you should avoid rewarding them for eating more, trying something new, eating everything on their plate etc. So, now it’s time to talk about how to teach a child to eat healthy because let’s face it, sometimes getting your toddler to explore new foods is like climbing up a mountain (in the winter, with only a bikini on).
And if they don’t eat healthy, we’ll forever wonder if we’re damaging them or setting back. Or worse, if we’re the absolute worst parents in the world (HINT: unless you’re deliberately starving your child, you’re not the worst parent in the world!).
So, why don’t you take a look at the two lists we have here and see if you can create a strategy on how to teach a child to eat healthy that works well with your family?
The Don’t List
We only have a few things you absolutely need to stop doing (preferably starting now) if you want to raise a child who has a healthy relationship with food.
Stop rewarding your toddler for eating
As we mentioned before (and in greater depth, so you might want to read that post first), praising or rewarding your toddler for eating can be incredibly counterproductive.
You know what we mean, right?
Stickers, stamps, people going on and off a bus (yes, it’s apparently incredibly popular in the UK) and the like, may see your toddler initially try to eat the food on offer.
Who wouldn’t want to be rewarded and praised by their parents?
Unfortunately, studies have shown that rewarding and praising has some unintended and wholly negative consequences. Some of these include:
✦ Reliance on the reward or praise as a motivator – In other words, you need to constantly give an incentive just to get your child to do something (who wants that??).
✦ Shallow and temporary benefits – To earn lots of praise from their parents, the child might do what is asked but her enjoyment of the whatever food on offer is greatly diminished (or her aversion greatly enhanced) in the long run.
✦ Disruption of your child’s inner cues – To get the reward and praise, a child might ignore her own body’s signals (usually that she’s full) and just keep eating.
Leave any sort of emotion or manipulation at the door. Eating, according to renowned author, Sarah Ockwell-Smith, should be emotion-free (in other words, no praise and no rewards) with the end goal being a child who has a healthy relationship with food – who eats when they are hungry and stops when they are full.
Stop pressuring your toddler to eat
When your child listlessly pecks at his food like a sparrow who’s already had too much to eat (and you know, he hasn’t had any food yet), or constantly refuses to try something new, it can be really hard to not prompt them to “have just one more”, “eat up” or “finish your plate because starving kids somewhere in the planet should be so lucky”.
Raising a child to eat healthy means giving your child the chance to feel her own body, follow its own signals and ultimately, to take more control over their eating.
Research suggests that children who are pressured to eat by their parents eat significantly less than those who are not even when the pressure is no longer being applied. They are also more likely to avoid the foods that they are being pressured to eat.
So, even though it might be tempting, resist the tendency and remove any pressure.
Stop forcing your toddler to eat something new
Children’s intense neophobia should ease as they grow so definitely take the opportunity to offer a new food more than once.
That doesn’t mean you now get to be too in your face with your toddler in a try-this-or-face-my-wrath kind of thing.
More on this in the section below.
The Do List
Now that we have that out of the way, here are the things that you definitely should be doing to encourage healthy eating – without too much stress for you, your child or your entire family.
Offer your toddler new (or disliked) food one at a time
Want your child to try something totally new?
Then put this new food in your child’s plate, along with food he is almost guaranteed to eat and another one that he may (or may not) eat.
For example, my 3-year-old always eats rice and a fried egg – without fail.
So, if I want him to eat peas, I’ll include that in this mix – along with ham (which is fairly neutral).
That way, I’m setting him up for success. Because he’s more relaxed, he’s much more likely to try something new (or in this case, something he doesn’t particularly like) without much prompting from my part.
I’m also more relaxed because even if he doesn’t eat peas, I won’t have to resort to making a new meal just to make sure he’s got something in his stomach (a surefire way to grow resentful).
Give your toddler more options
Actually, another simple way to help picky eating toddlers learn healthy eating habits is to empower them by respecting their likes and dislikes and acknowledging their own bodies’ signals of satiety and hunger.
That means, strive to remain aware of the possibility that you’re projecting your own food preferences onto your children.
Comments such as “You can’t be full yet, you’ve just had one bite!” or “How can you be hungry? You just had a meal a few minutes ago!” can quickly become a regular and inextricable part of your daily interaction unless you pay attention.
Your child may look just like you but they are their own person. It’s OK for them to like foods that you don’t and dislike foods that you may love.
So, should you give your toddler choices?
One powerful thing we do is involve our child in the meal planning and even preparation.
That means we ask him for his input regarding the kind of food he likes.
He currently hates “green bits” in food (meaning herbs) so we use them sparingly for now, which is hard for a herb-obsessed junkie like myself.
Another idea that we sometimes use is to go all Asian and use serving bowls that our child can serve himself from (instead of plating our meals). This gives your child the satisfaction and feeling of control which comes from being able to select the food they would like in the amount they want.
Finally, remember rule number 2 when you’re eating..
Stop pressuring your toddler to eat.
That means that even if your child only eats a few mouthfuls and then declares that they’re not hungry, resist the temptation to railroad them into eating more and instead, give them the opportunity to self-regulate their eating.
Scientists have found that although food intake at individual mealtimes may be erratic, young children do seem able to eat in a way that meets their bodies’ energy requirements.
Give your toddler the chance to be messy
As we mentioned before, some children don’t like a particular food, not because it’s new or strange, but simply because the texture is wrong, slimy or yucky.
One way to improve your child’s tolerance of such wrongly textured food is by encouraging them to engage in more messy play, focusing on the sensations that they struggle with.
We certainly discovered this with our boy, who doesn’t like anything too messy, squishy, slimy, gooey or yucky on his fingers. He wouldn’t even lick melted chocolate off his fingers (who doesn’t do that!?)
After adding a mini-sandpit in our sitting room (don’t ask hah!), he is now more able to tolerate such textures and, one time, he licked his chocolate-covered fingers and proudly showed me his accomplishment.
I was beaming.
Let your toddler play with their food
Getting your toddler to explore new foods doesn’t have to be as hard as climbing Mt. Everest.
Research has shown that “sensory-based food education activities may promote a willingness to eat vegetables and berries.”
So, see those play kitchens complete with cutlery and food toys?
Yep, they’re not just great for pretend play.
They actually help young children become more familiar and therefore, more likely to eat said foods.
You don’t even have to go so far as getting food toys (although we highly recommend it). Studying pictures of food helps too.
Finally and perhaps our most effective secret weapon to date, is to allow our child to help in meal planning, prepping and cooking.
Aside from our anecdotal-based recommendation, researchers van der Horst, Ferrage and Rytz have found that “involving children in meal preparation can increase vegetable intake”.
Believe it or not, you can start involving your child early in life.
I started making food with my son after we discovered the book, Tickle Fingers, which is designed for cooking with a toddler from 1 to 4 years old.
Side Note: If you’re no Martha Stewart and tend to burn things in the kitchen, I highly recommend this book for you too. Just remember that the oven temperature is for standard ovens and you need to adjust if you’re using a fan-assisted one (a friend told me to remind you after she burnt the quiche to a crisp 😀 ahem).
Let your toddler see you enjoy food
Research has shown that “children are more likely to eat new food if others are eating the same type of food than when others are merely present or eating another kind of food”.
We all know that children are fantastic imitators and learn best by mimicking our behaviour. That includes eating.
So, if you want your child to eat vegetables and you hate it, be aware that you:
1) will need to let your child see you eat vegetables (which means setting aside time to eat together); and
2) need to enjoy it (so watch your body cues because young children are incredibly sensitive and will pick up on every nuance).
If your face turns green at the mere sight or taste of a particular food, guess what?
Your child will very likely develop the same aversion.
So, if you hate greens and can’t stomach even touching it, then don’t even bother pretending you do. You’ll hate the experience just as much as your child.
Go and find a family member or a friend who genuinely enjoys it and invite him over for a meal. Let him model his enjoyment of said food in front of your child.
In our case, Blippi does the job pretty well and our son has actually tried a lot of new foods just because he saw Blippi eating them (so, yay!).
Likewise, if you don’t want your child to become chocolate-obsessed (or some other form of sugar-laden junk), then think carefully about what you convey when you give a chocolate bar as ‘a treat’.
To recap, if you wanted to learn how to teach a child to eat healthy, then remember the following:
✦ reward, praise or otherwise, manipulate or coerce your child in the guise of getting them to eat
✦ pressure him
✦ force him to try something new
✦ offer your toddler new (or disliked) food one at a time
✦ give your toddler more options
✦ give your toddler the chance to be messy
✦ let your toddler play with their food
✦ et your toddler see you enjoy food
What about you? Any top tricks you’d like to share? We’d love to hear more so don’t forget to comment below. 🙂