You've just spent the better part of your evening chopping, mixing and roasting only to be met with, "Mom, can I have a grilled cheese sandwich instead?" When your kids consistently refuse to eat anything that doesn't come in a box, even the most patient parent can start to lose her cool.
Getting our children to eat food that's actually good for them is one of parenting's ongoing challenges. As kids get older and start to demand some control over what goes in their mouths, their unwillingness to eat what and when we want them to can lead to endless mealtime battles.
But there are ways we can encourage our kids to eat healthier, sometimes without them even knowing it. All it takes is an understanding of what they really need.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make when it comes to feeding our kids is expecting them to eat what we do when we do. In truth, children's stomachs are about the size of their fist. Because their stomachs are smaller, children need to eat more frequently than adults do. They simply cannot get the necessary number of calories they need from just three meals.
That's why snacks are a must. As Dr. William Sears says in his book, The Family Nutrition Book (Little, Brown), toddlers "don't sit still for anything, even food. Snacking their way through the day is more compatible with these busy explorers' lifestyle than sitting down to a full-fledged feast." His advice? Let your kids graze. Sears suggests having a variety of foods available throughout the day, so that when children are hungry, they can serve themselves. Sears recommends using an ice-cube tray, muffin tin, or a plate with different compartments. "Place the food on an easy-to-reach table. As your toddler makes his rounds through the house, he can stop, sit down, nibble a bit, and when he's done, continue on his way."
The same approach can work for older kids. Keep raisins, crackers, chunks of cheese, sliced fruit and veggies in the fridge and let your kids grab a bite whenever they want one. Don't worry about them ruining their meals. Most kids are hungry every two or three hours.
It's also important to keep serving size in mind. You've probably noticed that the old Basic Four Food Groups we were taught as kids has been replaced with the new Food Guide Pyramid. While this is a great resource for knowing what kinds of foods your kids need, it doesn't tell you how much they need. In her book, Childhood and Adolescent Nutrition (Nutrition Dimension), dietician Susan Radford Keagy suggests that each meal include a tablespoon from each food group per year of your child's age. For instance, a 2-year-old would get two tablespoons of a protein, two tablespoons of vegetables or fruit, two tablespoons of dairy, and two tablespoons of bread or cereal. It may not sound like much food to you, but it will fill the tummy of your toddler.
The Good Stuff
One of the biggest complaints parents have is that their kids prefer pre-packaged junk to anything resembling a healthy option. Keagy reminds parents that they are the gatekeepers of their home. "When a mother says, 'My 3-year-old will only eat potato chips, cookies and candy,' I ask, 'Does he go to the market and buy those himself?'" As obvious as it sounds, a child can't eat what isn't there. Keep healthy snacks on hand and your child will eat them. If you've got a sugar addict in your house, you can slowly wean him by substituting dried fruit for candy and peanut butter on whole wheat toast for cookies.
It's also important to remember that you cannot force your child to eat, and it may make matters worse if you try. "Accept the fact," says Dr. William Wilkoff, author of Coping with a Picky Eater (Simon & Schuster), "that your child's eating habits ? annoying as they may be ? are perfectly normal, and that it's not your job to get your child to eat." The best you can do is provide healthy foods and let children get used to the idea that what they see is what they get.
Parents also need to be good role models of desired eating habits. If you like to munch on chips while you watch TV, you're child will undoubtedly want to do the same. Make sure your child sees you eating fruits and vegetables during the day. Let your child know when you're trying something new and encourage her to do the same. She might not become an adventuresome eater overnight, but she'll see that trying new things can be fun.
Speaking of trying new foods, don't give up on your child just because he consistently refuses to try green beans. Wilkoff notes that it usually takes up to 25 exposures before a child will even try a new food. Again, the key is to keep the pressure off and the options available. Your child will try something when he's ready and not a moment sooner. "Children are wary of new foods," says Wilkoff, "but you can help your child by avoiding too many strange things in a short period of time."
Finally, keep in mind that not everyone likes to eat. Some kids aren't picky, they just don't get a big thrill out of eating. For these kids, eating is strictly for survival. And just like adults, kids do have foods they truly hate. Do your best to respect your child's food preferences. You'll all be happier.
Never underestimate the power of atmosphere. Just as soft, relaxing music can calm adult-size nerves, it can do the same to children's. Add a candle (out of reach of little hands, of course), and you've set a mood few kids could resist. Even if you can't get everyone together for a family dinner, do what you can to make mealtimes feel special. So what if it's just you and your 4-year-old? Sometimes just sitting at the table for some one-on-one time with mom can be enough to entice a finicky eater to dig in.
When you do have the whole family together, make meals more eventful with a few simple tricks. Try different international theme dinners?Chinese, Mexican, Italian. You can let the kids make decorations while you cook or get them involved in the planning and preparation. Serving dinner buffet-style or offering a smorgasbord (a great way to use up leftovers) can be a nice change in your mealtime routine. Once a week we have breakfast for supper and the kids love it. Make homefries, pancakes, fruit salad, or omelets?things you might not normally have time for in the morning. Break out the good china, tablecloths, and napkins for a formal dinner in the dining room?older kids love the chance to feel grown-up. If you really want to have some fun, play restaurant and let the kids order from a menu of foods you've got on hand while you and your spouse act as waiters.
When it comes to kids and nutrition, there really is more at stake than just your sanity. Dietician Connie Liakos Evers, author of How to Teach Nutrition to Kids (24 Carrot Press), reports that "an estimated 40 percent of school-aged children already possess at least one risk factor for heart disease, including obesity, high blood pressure, or high blood cholesterol." Helping our children learn how to eat right is part of teaching them to care for their bodies. To help your kids understand how important it is to take care of themselves, show them passages of Scripture on how God created the plants and animals for us to eat (Genesis 1:11-12; 2: 9; 9:5). Emphasize that God formed our bodies carefully (Psalm 139:13-14) and wants us to take good care of ourselves (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19-20).
While there's probably no such thing as a child who will eat anything at anytime, we can take heart in knowing that most kids grow out of their pickiness eventually (just ask the parents of teenage boys!). In the meantime, remember that with a little patience, perseverance and prayer, your child will learn to enjoy God's bounty ? broccoli and all!
Carrie Myers Smith is a writer and health education specialist. She lives with her husband and four veggie-loving kids in New Hampshire.
Don't panic! With a little planning, you can get your veggie-phobe to balance out his mac and cheese diet with a few vitamin-rich vegetables.
? Offer a couple of vegetable choices at mealtime. Kids may be more apt to eat something if they've had a part in the decision-making process.
? Cook mealtime vegetables in the same pot as the meat. This works especially well with roasts?the veggies take on some of the flavor of the meat, making them tastier.
? Try sneaking veggies in where kids least expect them. Shred potatoes and carrots and mix into meatloaf. Add shredded carrots or sweet potatoes to mashed potatoes, shredded zucchini to muffins, and chopped broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, and cheese to scrambled eggs.
? Some kids love frozen veggies?still frozen. When my son was teething, I gave him frozen peas to chew on, and it's stuck. Now we've graduated to frozen mixed veggies, green beans, and corn.
? Allow your kids to help plant and tend to the garden. When it's time to harvest the veggies, encourage them to nibble on the "fruits of their labor" while they pick.
? Start your infant on vegetables before you introduce fruits. This way, he won't grow accustomed to the sweet stuff first.
? When all else fails, the experts say it's okay to substitute fruits and fruit juices for vegetables to ensure adequate amounts of vitamins A and C in your child's diet. For in stance, cantaloupe, nectarines, and peaches offer similar nutrients as broccoli, spinach, and carrots; oranges, grapefruit, and strawberries can fill in for peas, peppers, and cauliflower; banana, kiwi, and cherries can replace potatoes and squash in a child's diet.
If you're concerned about your child's nutritional status, talk to your pediatrician about a vitamin and mineral supplement. Also be sure your child eats whole grain products rather than those made with refined white flour. Not only are they more nutritious, but they'll also help make up for the lack of fiber in your little vegetable shunner's diet.
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