If I had a dime for every time I have heard that question, I’d have a few Tahoe lakefront properties. The short answer is: you don’t “make” your child like healthy food, or anything for that matter. You must INSPIRE them to want nourishing foods. But even more important is to just enjoy food, in general. Meal time should not be stressful, and when you feel it’s your job to “make” your child enjoy food, that can turn meal time into one of the most stressful times of day for both you AND your child.
So, before I get into some ideas on how to create excitement around healthy foods, the most important advice I can share with you is: RELEASE yourself from the perceived duty of being in charge of what you child likes. Your job is to provide them with balanced and nourishing meals, and they choose whether and how much to eat. There are ways to make it fun and engaging, which is what I’ll get into below, but only your child can decide what he/she likes. Start by honoring that, and you may be shocked that your stubborn little mini suddenly feels free to admit that he/she, on their own, decided they like salmon and Brussels sprouts (or whatever food it is that you have been pressuring them to try/like).
Here are some ideas for fostering a love for healthy foods:
- Talk about the flavors in the food. Instead of only saying “This is yummy”, try “This cold cucumber is so refreshing” or “I love how crunchy this roasted broccoli came out” or “These strawberries are so juicy and sweet!” It helps your child develop an awareness of flavors and may get them excited to try something they never have.
- Play with your food! (Or, I could say “allow kids to play with their food, but where’s the fun if you don’t participate?!). I recently had a blast with my four year old designing letters out of our piles of stirfry at lunch. It was fun with food AND educational 😉 Allowing kids to play with their food gives them an opportunity to experience the food in new ways. It can often warm them up to eating the food on their plate, and, believe it or not, it can help lead to acquiring a liking for a food that they previously didn’t like. It can take upwards of 20 “experiences” with a food for a kid to like it (or, in my kids’ lives, over 100 in some cases!), and guess what: playing with the food counts as one of those “experiences”!
- Involve them in the cooking process. Studies show children are more likely to try new foods and eat whatever you feed them when they take part in the menu selection and food preparation. Give your kiddo a job in the kitchen! Practicing kitchen skills at a young age can get a little messy, but that’s a small price to pay for building an early foundation of preparing and enjoying healthy meals.
- Talk about how you feel after eating a well-balanced meal: the energy you feel, how well you slept, how well you were able to focus on all the tasks later in the day, etc. NEVER talk about how eating or avoiding certain foods make you LOOK on the outside. This can turn into a harmful relationship with food. If you find you consistently do that, you may need to work on your own relationship with food. This is something I work with adults and children on, so please feel free to email me if you think you need help.
- Allow them to choose the meal, or components of the meal. Provide a framework around their choice, but let them choose. For example, ask “Do you want mushrooms or squash with the chicken tonight?” or “Do you want tacos or rice bowls for lunch?”. Bring them grocery shopping and allow them to choose some vegetables and fruits that they want for the week.
- MODEL the eating you want to see in your kids!!!!! YOU try new things in front of them. YOU eat balanced meals. YOU avoid making “yuk” faces around foods.
Remember: Take your time, take deep breaths at meal time, and experiment with one new healthy dish or food per week. If your child has said they don’t like a healthy food, don’t give up on it! Prepare it in different ways, put it on their plate, allow them to play with it, and don’t pressure them to try it. Keep it casual and fun, and they’ll come around…or maybe they won’t for some foods, and that’s ok too. But at least you’ve taken the pressure out of meal time.
Dana Dose, RDN, LD, CDE is a Registered Dietitian in Truckee/North Tahoe. She works with families and people of all ages through one on one nutrition counseling. She also teaches classes on introducing solids to infants using a baby led approach. Follow her on Instagram @raisinghealthyeaters, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more about how she can help you and your family.