1. Declare meal or snack time a no-war-zone. I implore you to put your weapons down and make peace with mealtime. While food fuels our bodies, it also nourishes our minds and souls, and we should therefore eat in a relaxed and positive environment. As parents, we obviously want our children to be healthy and adapted, but turning eating into a battle will only exacerbate the issue and create an unpleasant experience for everyone involved. Instead, approach mealtime with a positive attitude, and before you are getting ready to threaten or blackmail them, think about how you want your children to grow up having a positive association to the foods they eat and to the eating ritual.
In order to create an enjoyable atmosphere:
- Turn off all distracting media and noise.
- Soften the mood with dimmer lights or even candles.
- Model positive behavior by relaxing and lowering your voice.
- Shift the focus away from food and more toward how everyone is doing and how their day was.
2. Don’t get into a power struggle. With the first tip in mind, respect your child’s appetite and preferences, her need to voice her opinion, and her desire to feel in control. You will quickly find yourself in a no-win situation if you and your child argue about what you are offering.
Instead of overwhelming her with a lot of food or too many types of food:
- Serve smaller portions.
- Include options you know she enjoys in addition to one or (sometimes) two new ones.
- Talk up the new foods by chatting about their visual appearance, texture, aroma, and how they benefit us.
- Allow her to choose which food she eats first.
3. Involve your child in his food choices, and make it a fun experience (as well as an educational one).
Include your child in the planning, shopping, and preparation of food and mealtime.
- Show him how you select menus for the week and write your shopping lists.
- If possible, take him to the store with you (at least once in a while), and have him read off the list and pick items with you.
- Allow him to touch and smell the foods, so that he gets a tangible feel for the process.
- Talk about where the food comes from and how it benefits our bodies in developmentally appropriate terms. (Ex: For younger children—brain food, feeds our muscles so you can be strong, provides us with energy to play and run, helps us feel happier. For older children—provides us with carbohydrates so we can have energy to exercise, protein for muscle repair and growth, essential fats for optimal brain functioning.)
- At home, have your child help you put shopping items in their designated place, and involve him in the preparation of food. Depending on age and ability, have your kiddo assist you by washing or cutting produce, placing food in bowls, mixing, reading recipes and getting out needed ingredients, tasting to make sure you have the right flavor profile, setting the table, and just helping you make it a pleasant experience by being creative with his ideas (for example, printing out the menu for dinner, making homemade placemats, selecting appropriate dining music, etc.).
- Have non-traditional meals, such as breakfast for dinner or tapas-style (a few healthy appetizers for a meal), or set out an indoor picnic. The latter is by far my daughters’ favorite way to dine!
- Allow your child to select the menu once or twice a week. Make it a rule that she has to include at least one vegetable (or fruit). With time, as she is starting to make healthier suggestions on her own, add that she now has to include one new food (or a food she previously refused).
4. Make food visually appealing. Take it from me, it doesn’t have to be Pinterest-worthy to be beautiful.
- Offer colorful foods, or make a color theme or pattern.
- Use cookie cutters, mandolin, spiralizer, or cool knife tricks to turn fruit, vegetables, cheese, or deli meat (unprocessed) into fun shapes.
- Allow your kids to turn food into an art piece prior to eating. Let them make faces.
- Use colorful plates, cups, and napkins.
- Offer dips and sauces to make it more attractive and fun!