4 ways to make sure a child’s formative food memories lead to a healthy diet and self-esteem
Meals should be an opportunity to nourish the body and spend quality time together as a family. However, parents sometimes find themselves embroiled in a power struggle with their children instead. Whether it’s a boundary-testing toddler or a long-term picky eater, food refusal can be frustrating and cause concerns about nutrition and future habits.
Will a child develop properly on a diet that consists solely of macaroni and cheese served on a specific princess plate? Probably. But with patience and perseverance, his or her parents won’t have to find out. Create a healthy relationship between your child and food by finding ways to foster positive meal-time experiences.
1. Get kids involved
From meal planning to grocery shopping to food prep, kids will be more interested in experimenting with food if they’re included in the process from start to finish. Look at recipes together or find inspiration from a specific ingredient. Then make a grocery list, take a trip to the store, and let the child take charge of finding the items to prepare the meal.
Once you get home, deputize the child to wash, chop, stir, read the recipe, or help however possible. Not only does this experience emphasize good nutrition, but it also teaches important life skills. Helping your child learn to shop and cook from an early age is more likely to result in healthy eating habits later in life.
2. Make food an adventure
There are many opportunities to highlight the more interesting side of food, and pursuing those experiences will encourage a child to expand his or her palate. Visit a u-pick farm, take a cooking class together, explore different cultural cuisine, check out a farmer’s market, watch cooking competition shows, or start a garden in your own backyard.
Show your child that food can be fun by seeking out activities that provide unique perspectives on the act of eating.
3. Act as a good role model
Kids emulate the habits of the adults in their lives, for better or for worse. Make sure your child witnesses you eating a wide variety of foods, trying new things, and using nutrition as fuel for your body.
At the same time, keep negative talk about food out of the conversation. Speak about healthy food and how it helps your body instead of discussing weight loss, dieting, or labeling foods as “bad” — which may evoke feelings of guilt or shame.
4. Give kids some control
There are some battles you simply won’t win, but you must not give up entirely. If the child is intractable, don’t engage in a prolonged power struggle. Instead, find an acceptable middle ground. Try to establish the policy of taking a “no thank you” bite or two of each item served, even if he or she won’t eat a full serving.
You also may be able to make food more enticing by offering it on a special plate, fancy china, serving it breaded or fried, or by allowing your child to choose a dip, such as ketchup, ranch, Greek yogurt, honey mustard, or barbecue sauce.
The most important thing to remember is that your child probably won’t be eating a diet that exclusively consists of dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets in college. Be patient, be persistent, be creative, and keep offering a variety of foods and dining options that emphasize the joy of eating and spending time together as a family.
Lumiere Children's Therapy is a full-service, multidisciplinary pediatric therapy practice located in Chicago that serves the developmental needs of children from birth to 18 years of age. Learn more about how our team of clinicians works to build healthy eating and social habits for children and their families.