Dealing with younger children is hard work and takes a lot of patience, especially when it comes to getting them to eat their food. When they flat out refuse to eat, you have a bit of a dilemma on your hands – you want them to have all the necessary nutrition so that they can grow and stay healthy, but on the other hand you don’t want force food down their throat if they aren’t hungry. In fact, having them eat a lot of food constantly is a fast lane to obesity and this is definitely not something that you want. You should definitely avoid:

  • Giving your kids sugary snacks in between meals
  • Letting your kids drink a lot of juice/soda right before a meal
  • Using food as a reward or bargaining chip
  • Developing an association between food and emotions
  • Letting your child’s temper tantrums go unpunished

These habits can be detrimental to developing a healthy diet and your child will be stuck eating only junk food. If you are looking to develop some good habits that will make your kids less picky, then read on.

1. Stay firm and dissuade aggressive behavior like temper tantrums

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Temper tantrums and emotional eating should be discouraged and the parents should assert themselves as an authority figure. Keeping a calm demeanor and using a deep and somewhat louder tone of voice coupled with an appropriate punishment – e.g. escorting the child to their room and cutting off TV, phone and computer privileges – can help you out a lot. Children often use emotional outburst to get their way. Don’t issue empty threats and don’t argue with them, but do not allow them to get so worked up that they start breaking things, crying and screaming. Nip it in the bud and escort them to their room the moment they start acting up.

2. Run a tight meal schedule

Three solid meals a day and a couple of small snacks here and there will get the job done, just make sure that both you and the children know that the family eats at a certain time. The kids can run around and play between meals, but don’t give them any food until a set meal time. This way they actually get hungry and are ready to devour almost anything that you offer them. Making your kids less picky is pretty easy when they want to eat something quick.

3. Everyone eats the same thing

Unless you are dealing with babies and very small toddlers you don’t need to put them on a specialized diet. You make the food and the whole family sits down to eat it – equality for all. This includes snacks, so instead of buying a bunch of soda you can make milkshakes or slushies with fresh fruit. You can use different spices to liven up some tasteless foods or to mask tastes that your child might not be so fond of, but make sure that they don’t have a go-to meal that they can grab out of the fridge if they don’t want to eat what you’ve cooked.

4. Keep switching up meals frequently

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If your child has a couple of favorite meals and has a really tough time adjusting to new foods, it means that you offer some foods with higher frequency than other foods. Don’t let your child get used to any particular type of food or a particular meal – offer a different set of meals every day and rotate your weekly schedule. You may have some mashed potatoes, a salad and fried chicken on Monday, but don’t repeat that formula until next week and even then, avoid putting it on the same day so that the kids don’t fall into a pattern. Have them choose between 2-3 predetermined meals for breakfast or dinner a couple of times a week just to give them a little wiggle room now and again.

5. Offer a lot of veggies with every meal

The problem with picky kids is that they have a lot of choice when it comes to food and this gives them a lot of wiggle room to try and bargain with you or even argue. Add to this the fact that a lot of parents don’t really know how to be assertive and end up either succumbing to the child’s pleas or, even worse, arguing with the child as if were an adult, and you can get quite a mess. You can avoid this by having a 60/40 percent vegetable to other foods ratio on the plate, staying calm and sticking to your guns. The child can choose between eating what’s on the table or staying hungry until the next meal. Believe me, a strict but fair parental figure and an empty belly can quickly melt away all the irrational aversions one might have for certain foods.

6. Your kids have to try everything, at least a single bite

Kids are very reluctant to try out new food, even if they see you eating it. It can take well over 10 tries to get them accustomed to a new taste, so start out slow and build up. My grandmother had an excellent strategy to get me to eat new food: she’d explain that it’s seeing and smelling the food that gives it a particular feel and that I had to close my eyes and close my nose with the fingers of my left hand while I took a bite or two of the food. You really don’t taste much this way and once you realize it’s not so bad you can gradually begin eating a few bites of it with your eyes open. During the next few times your child tries the new food, the taste will grow on them.

7. Offer an assortment of fruits and nuts as snacks

Big snacks between meals should generally be avoided so as not to spoil a child’s appetite, but small snacks such as an apple and a handful of walnuts or a couple of oranges and some almonds are a great way of providing your child with carbs, various vitamins and good fats, while keeping the overall calories at a reasonable level. They get a bit of fuel for their busy little bodies, but they still have plenty of room for lunch. Just make sure there are no sugary snacks around and that you eat the same healthy snacks – the simplest way to make your kids less picky about snacks is to give them this choice: they can either have the fruit and nuts or they can wait for the next big meal, no discussion.

8. Combine different foods in one big family meal

If your child is pretty reluctant to eat certain foods – it’s usually things like carrots, garlic, broccoli and spinach – you can chop these foods up into tiny pieces and use them in a more complex dish or make a puree that you can serve with the main course. It’s also good to have several food choices on the table – that way each separate portion is relatively small and the child can combine the ingredients on their plate, choosing a portion size that they feel comfortable with.

9. Let your child help you out in the kitchen

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Making the child feel like an integral part of the family instead of a little dictator is very important. They need to know that you are not there for their amusement and to satisfy their every whim, but that they are expected to contribute as well. This helps in several ways – it can raise your child’s self-respect, tire them out and make them hungry and familiarize them with the cooking process so that they feel less reluctant to try new things.

10. Encourage good dinner table manners

Sit up straight, elbows off the table, no talking with your mouth full, hold your knife and fork properly, be polite when asking for something, wait until everyone sits at the table before you start eating, chew your food slowly and brush your teeth afterwards – these are all great rules that turn eating into somewhat of a ceremony. Simple everyday rules no longer apply and the atmosphere is a bit more formal when the family sits down at the dinner table. This makes it easier to get the kids to behave as they shift into serious mode – well, as serious as they can ever get.

11. Set a good example for your child

Your child looks up to you and will try to emulate everything you do. By making them eat something that you clearly don’t like eating yourself and give them an apple for dessert while you eat doughnuts isn’t really fair. Try to eat a lot of vegetables with your meals, eat fruit instead of snacks and drink mainly water, tea and milk around meals if you want your kids to get into some of these good eating habits.

Follow these tips and you will make your kids less picky and well-behaved at the dinner table in no time. The trick is to be consistent, patient and, above all, to be firm and assertive.

It was Dr. Anthony P. Witham who once said “children spell love…T-I-M-E.” He was definitely onto something. 5 Ways to Spend Time with Your Kids When You Have No Time

Featured photo credit: Angry child screamingvia Shutterstock

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