We’ve all heard the outburst “I’m not hungry!” when a healthy meal is placed in front of an obviously low-fueled child. [And why, oh why, does this particularly happen after ordering an expensive dish or preparing a labor-intensive meal followed by said child eating half a loaf of bread?] Children certainly can be poor eaters, no doubt. With patience and creativity, parents can turn that into “Peas please, Mom!”
It all starts in infancy when the innate taste preference for sweet flavor (bitter foods were toxic in human history) is met with a bounty of fruity baby food; followed by edible treats from Grandma’s kitchen making their way into toddler hands. No wonder getting little ones to eat decent solid food can be challenging. It’s said that it may take 15 times of introducing a new food item before a child will eat it!
If your kiddo seems to eat the same thing day in and out, you may not need to worry. Food jags are generally okay lasting anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. Continue to offer nutritious choices and a child will eventually eat when they are hungry enough. Remember, feeding your child is about nourishment. If you engage in a battle of the wills, your child’s attitude toward food in general may lean toward the negative and his or her long-term nutrition may lose out.
Broccoli Battles and Other Vegetable Nightmares
Let’s talk about the elephant in the kitchen – vegetables. Children are known for eschewing them from their plates and failing to consume the recommended number of servings (see highlight/box below). Only a handful of veggies satisfy children’s preference for sweet, namely: carrot, corn, sweet potato/yam, tomato and acorn squash. We could write an entire blog just addressing ways to get your kid to eat more vegetables, but here we’ll name a few.
It may be the look. Who said they had to be served in leafy salad or in a naked cooked pile on the plate? Make it fun and appealing! Shred or spiralize vegetables to serve as a topping for sandwiches, burgers, pasta and more. Combine diced vegetables as ‘confetti’ with rice, quinoa or couscous.
Texture aversions present an opportunity to find ways of preparing foods in another manner with an acceptable mouthfeel. Slimy hot okra might be replaced by breaded okra bites. Stringy or leafy vegetables may be pureed into smoothies, soups or sauces. Freeze dried or lightly fried vegetable chips work well in lunch boxes.
Don’t forget about between meal eating. Snacks are necessary for continued energy and offer a valuable time for additional nutrients, especially for small bellies that can only get so much at mealtime. Serve beet-blended pink hummus with crackers or pita bread.
Increasing Interest in Healthy Foods
Involve Kids in Food Prep
To increase interest in food, try to get kids involved in cooking or at least preparing a few meals here and there. Children are more likely to try the fruits of their labor than if food is just presented to them. A four–year–old can scoop and stir, a six year old can pour and peel, an eight year old can measure and assemble, while a ten year old can cut and become more confident in advanced tasks. Children like to feed themselves, so finger-friendly foods assure independence at mealtime. To help promote a desire to eat, make sure kids aren’t full of empty calorie foods before meals — keep sweets and treats at a minimum.
Model Smart Food Choices
Older children often make their own food decisions about what to buy from the school cafeteria or buy from vending machines and drive-through. There’s a reason why teens are stereotyped for their greasy fast food choices, soda and pizza consumption. In a way, adolescents are exerting their freedom from rules and parental control.
On the flip side, too much attention and focus on healthfulness of food can lead to dieting and an unhealthful preoccupation with nutrition among teenagers. Set clear expectations on how spending cash is to be used. It’s best to be a good role model, following habits and behaviors that demonstrate healthy choices, starting early when children are young.
At any stage of childhood, parents should consult with a healthcare professional if their child’s growth is no longer on trend for them individually. For specific eating behaviors and nutritional concerns, look for a Registered Dietitian who is a board–certified specialist in pediatric nutrition, designated by the CSP credential.
Recommended daily vegetable servings*
|Children||2-3 years old||1 cup|
|Children||4-8 years old||1-1.5 cups|
|Girls||9-13 years old||2 cups|
|Boys||9-13 years old||2.5 cups|
|Girls||14-18 years old||2.5 cups|
|Boys||14-18 years old||3 cups|
Cup vegetable equivalents (1 cup = 1 baseball or fist of an average adult)
|1 cup||Tomato and other vegetable juices|
|1 cup||Broccoli, Carrots, Green beans and other cooked chopped vegetables|
|1 cup||Pumpkin and other winter squash|
|1 cup||Peas, Corn and other starchy vegetables|
|1 cup||Celery, Peppers, Cucumber and other raw crunchy vegetables|
|2 cups||Spinach and other raw leafy greens|
*Reference: Daily Vegetable Table. USDA. www.choosemyplate.gov/vegetables July 18, 2019. Accessed 9.6.2019