Tips for raising a food happy kid
Picky toddlers? The struggle is real. In my home this is only amplified by my son's sensory sensitivities and my personal conflicted relationship with food.
So I've learned a few things about how to raise a child who not only enjoys all types of food, but who has a healthy relationship with mealtimes. Some of these things have already shown benefits. I have gathered these ideas from an article on cooking with autistic children to help them try new food, and from a book on intuitive eating. But because I'm lazy and don't want to find them right now I'm not going to cite them. However, if you're interested in my sources I'd be happy to get off my butt and look them up! Hehe.
So here are 5 quick tips to a food happy kid:
1. Offer food, don't force it
The "clean your plate" rule is outdated and frankly never had a place in the kitchen in the first place. Children will eat when they're hungry. As long as you offer options for every meal and a couple snacks a day, they aren't going to go hungry. If they don't want to finish their plate, it's probably because they're full. Forcing a child to overeat can cause major issues in the future, damaging their ability to respond to their body's hunger and fullness cues. If they don't finish because they want something else that you didn't prepare, offer the choices you're willing to offer, and allow them to choose to take it or leave it. When they're hungry, they'll eat.
2. Let your child prepare meals with you
We started a weekly family bake to help introduce my son to ingredients with new textures, colors, and tastes. Allowing him to participate in the creation of food items has helped him become more willing to try new things. Since we've started doing this, he is eating twice to three times as many foods as he used too. For a kid who was originally only eating 3-4 kinds of meals, this was huge for us.
If your child is old enough, they could also help pick out different recipes to try. Allowing them to help in meal planning will avoid some of the "I don't want what you made" drama. It can also help them expand their food world and encourage trying new things.
3. Let them pick out fruits and vegetables
Taking your kids to the store with you is exhausting. But what if it could serve a duel purpose? Letting your child pick their own produce can get them excited about trying it. Instead of hoping they feel like trying what you picked, you can allow them to make their own choices in the supermarket. If they don't like it, they can pick something new next time. But at least they're trying new things. Some kids may not be interested in picking anything. In those cases, just keep offering them the option to choose something. Make sure they know they have a choice. One day they may surprise you and go for that pretty purple plum they originally turned their nose up at.
4. Never use food as a reward or consequence
"No dessert if you don't finish your peas." This seems like a totally reasonable condition, right? But using dessert or other sweet foods as a reward actually teaches your child that those foods are inherently special and limited. This phycology is what leads to seeking out sweet foods and over eating them when they're available, because as a "limited" food, they've got to fill up on it while they can! Society is already doing its damage in this area, so you can do what you can in the home to combat the food reward system.
5. Don't assign morality to food
Similar to number 4, don't label food as "good" or "bad."* Instead try talking about how different foods make you feel. Like "this cake tastes yummy, I'm going to have a little bit. Once I ate a lot and I got a tummy ache." Or "this stir fry is so good, and I have so much energy after eating all those yummy veggitables!" Kids will learn which foods make their bodies feel good, and hearing you make non judgemental observations about how food makes you feel can help them to pay attention to how their own bodies feel. Offer ALL kinds of foods. Something we do in our own household is offering the sweet option with the rest of the meal. Usually, our son will go back and forth between the sweet and the savory. Then when he wants a snack and is given options, he hardly ever chooses or begs for sweet things over healthier snack options. This is because he knows he can have the sweet things whenever he likes, so if that's not what his body is asking for, that's not what he asks for.
*there are some truly "bad" foods. Things that you do not want your family to ever ingest (high fructose corn syrup…) can be avoided at the grocery store, and better alternatives can be purchased instead (like 100% juice, or even better, make your own juice). In our house we prefer home baked goods to store bought cookies, and homemade juice to anything with high fructose corn syrup.
Some of these tips may controversial. All I can say is this is what helps me, and my own family, have a happy and healthy relationship with food. I have been around the block with my food struggles, and I've put a lot of time and effort into making sure my son is raised with the healthiest relationship with food that I can give him. I find these low stress, non forceful, and food accepting strategies to be working. If you have a different way that works for you, thats wonderful, and I would love to hear about it!