We all know that vegetables are good for us. However, this known fact can be hard to put into practice. This holds true for both adults and children. It’s not surprising that some children push the vegetables away because many adults do the same. How do we encourage vegetable consumption? In the 1980s and 1990s, parents used Ranch or Catalina dressing to add flavor to vegetables. Today, we disguise vegetables in smoothies or casseroles. Is hiding the food the answer? Or, should we bribe children to eat vegetables? For example, eat this and then you will get that. These techniques might help your picky eater toddler get in a single bite of vegetable, but these strategies may cause more harm than good. Mealtime will become a battle and your child may become more resistant to trying different foods. He might even feel a sense of distrust if he finds out that you lied to him.
The 5 Commandments When Dealing with a Picky Eater Toddler
Children are told what to do every second of each day. One thing they can often control is what food they consume. This is especially applicable to the strong-willed child. I know this firsthand. I never thought that I (a dietitian who loves all foods) would have a child who was resistant to textures or foods, but I do. Here are a few lessons and common-sense ideas I’ve learned as a parent and a registered dietitian. Our goal is to make mealtime a place to connect with one another and nourish both the minds and bodies of our children.
1. Don’t expect your child to eat a food if you don’t eat it too.
Have you noticed that your child tends to like the food that’s on your plate rather than his own? Your child wants to imitate you. Show them how to eat a variety of foods and they will be more likely to try them too.
2. Put the foods on their plate at an early age.
Remember, they don’t have to eat all the food that is there. The idea is to expose them to foods of various colors, shapes, and sizes.
3. Do not overwhelm your child with large portions.
Start with a single bite of a new food. If he likes it, he can always have more.
4. Present the food in fun ways.
Try muffins tins, measuring cups, separated plates for kids, or even an adult plate.
5. Always include a food that is familiar and well liked at each meal.
Think of this food as a safety net for your child.
Strategies to Reconsider When Dealing with a Picky Eater Toddler
Now that you have met the main criteria for a balanced eating experience, it’s time to discuss the two most common strategies for vegetable consumption: hiding foods and bribing children.
Disguising vegetables has become a popular tool in the parent toolbox. It can often help the parent provide a nutritionally diverse diet for the child. This technique offers a variety of vegetables with different flavors. The use of dressings or sauces is a great way to serve vegetables. Just be cautious of hidden sugars that can be found in these foods. It is also okay to incorporate vegetables into your child’s favorite foods like smoothies, pasta, or muffins. There are a multitude of cookbooks dedicated to this technique.
However, hiding foods becomes detrimental when the caregiver lies to the child about the ingredients used. And, if the food is always disguised, the child won’t be able to build the positive association between the individual ingredient and eating experience. The key to effectively disguising food is to include the child in the cooking and eating process. This practice assists in incorporating vegetables into the picky eater’s diet.
3 Ways to Include Your Child in the Cooking and Eating Process
- Bring your child to the supermarket or farmer’s market with you. Let him pick an ingredient.
- Cook with your child and show him how the ingredients are used to create meals. Encourage taste testing along the way.
- Utilize child friendly kitchen tools. Cooking accessories for children include knives, spoons, an apron, and a standing stool at counter height.
Bribing, also known as incentives or motivators, is easy to incorporate when you are trying to encourage your child to complete tasks. However, I think that there is a way to encourage healthy eating without presenting a direct ultimatum… “If you eat this then I will give you that.” Instead, I encourage the parent to include at least one preferred food at meal time or give the child a choice of two options. This establishes a “buy in” mentality that will create a positive association or possibly an incentive to try the other less favorable foods included as part of his meal.
Remember, you may not experience a success story even when you implement all of these recommendations. It may take a day, a week, a month, or a year to see behavior change and willingness to try new foods. You’re doing your job by including your child in the process and exposing them to food options. Even a dietitian’s child may not eat the rainbow at every meal. But I know, my son has options at each meal that will help him grow big and strong.
Need a starting point? Here’s a family friendly meal to cook together with your kiddos:
Herbed Chicken Tenders with Honey Dressing
- 1 lb Chicken Breast (skinless, boneless, sliced into strips)
- 2 tbsps Avocado Oil (divided)
- 1/2 cup Oats (quick)
- 1 tbsp Italian Seasoning
- 1/2 tsp Sea Salt
- 6 Carrot (medium, peeled and sliced into fries)
- 1/4 cup Dijon Mustard
- 3 tbsps Raw Honey
- Preheat oven to 400ºF (204ºC) and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Brush chicken strips with half of the avocado oil.
- Combine the oats, Italian seasoning, and sea salt and spread over a small plate. Press both sides of the chicken strips into the oat/spice mixture to coat, then lay on baking sheet.
- Toss the carrot sticks in remaining avocado oil. Spread across the other baking sheet.
- Place both pans in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, flipping the chicken and tossing the carrot fries halfway through.
- Meanwhile, combine the Dijon and raw honey in a small bowl to make the sauce. Mix well and set aside.
- To serve, divide the chicken tenders and carrot fries between plates and serve with honey Dijon dipping sauce. Enjoy!
So what’s the key to navigating a picky eater toddler?
It helps to give your child autonomy when choosing and preparing foods. Be a good role model by eating these foods yourself and including them in the buying and cooking process. Give them options early and regularly – especially various colors, shapes, and sizes of foods. Don’t force large portions – let them make the decision of how much they want to eat. Make food fun however you can! And always include a food safety net (a food that is well-liked) for your child.
If you’re having trouble navigating your picky eater on your own, send me a note and let’s discuss how a pediatric nutritionist can help you.