How to Get a Picky Child to Eat Healthier
Six strategies to get kids excited and willing to eat veggies
Most parents struggle to get kids to eat enough veggies. Most parents worry if their kids are eating well. These are normal concerns at the family table. Interestingly so, many first foods given to an infant are veggies, precisely because parents want their kids to naturally choose healthy foods. And yet most toddlers, picky or not, turn down veggies at meals. How we tackle this common issue can make a big difference in the eating habits of our children. But yes, it takes effort and creativity to be successful on this task.
Here are six strategies that parents can use to help their children not only be willing to eat veggies but also enjoy them and choose them on a daily basis:
1. Shift the focus from veggie maniac to DOR
DOR or Division of Responsibility is a researched method of feeding a child. It outlines the responsibilities of parent and child in the feeding relationship from infant to adulthood. The general premise is that a parent needs to decide WHEN, WHERE and WHAT to provide at a meal and a child decides IF THEY WILL EAT and HOW MUCH of what is provided. Of course as a child progresses from infant, to toddler, to preschooler, to pre-teen, to teen, to young adult the DOR takes a distinct tone, but the premise is the same: there is a shared dynamic of responsibility that aims at shaping the feeding relationship within a child to nurture trust, confidence and autonomy.
When we put DOR in the context of increasing veggie intake in children, we, as parents, have to move away from “enforcing” eating vegetables –through ineffective trickery, threats, and power struggles– into allowing the child to explore the unpressured possibility of trying, liking (and also disliking) vegetables. The approach does in fact require more patience, but this modality focuses on the long-term goal of helping the child develop a solid, self-defining relationship with food.
As Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist, Ellyn Satter, who developed DOR, states “The goal is not getting-vegetables-into-your-child-right-now. It is supporting your child so she learns to enjoy vegetables for her lifetime. She will learn to eat vegetables and other nutritious food when you follow the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding (sDOR) and matter-of-factly eat and enjoy vegetables and other nutritious foods, yourself.”
This last part “matter-of-factly eat and enjoy vegetables and other nutritious foods yourself” leads us to our number 2 strategy.
2. Lead by Example
When it comes to parenting, example is everything. One worthwhile step to improving our kids’ eating habits is to reflect a little on our own: Do I regularly eat vegetables and do I make a point to show delight when eating them?
Here is where creativity and regular eating together really pays off. If you are one to serve meals for your children but not sit down and eat with them, you are missing a key opportunity to let them acquire good eating habits by mere modelling of your own eating. When you sit and eat exactly what you are providing your children, you will add more zest to the meal. Suddenly you might realize that boring broccoli does taste better with a garlic-dill dip, or that simple salad does perk up with a delicious homemade honey-garlic dressing.
Many parents cater to children’s food preferences because it’s just too tiring to help them try new foods, and they themselves prefer a different meal altogether. While in the short term this may remove the power struggle within a meal, in the long run, it will be more labor intensive to have to match meals for everyone’s preference (add more than one child to the equation and any parent would go crazy!) Kids learn to eat what parents eat, but they need the regularity of the exposure.
3. Variety is the spice of life
Variety at the table is one way to tackle eating together as a family while not giving in to making separate meals. It is very advantageous to place food items that you know will be enjoyed by your children. Don’t be afraid to put more than one option per food group, for example, crackers and bread or eggs and peanut butter. The more choice you allow at the table, the more you can stop being the food police. This is especially true for vegetables. Try to have more than one veggie option at every meal, so that if they turn one down, they can maybe try the other. For example, offer salad with dressing and some side celery sticks.
Adding things they recognize and enjoy to vegetables is another way to add attention and increase variety. For example, melt cheese over cauliflower or stagger fruit wedges in between veggie sticks. If you want your kids to eat veggies, then you got to showcase the rainbow at the meal– color means variety. Daunting perhaps, but a great health investment. For a great place to get ideas, I like Jaime Oliver. Have a look at his veggie creations, super family friendly.
4. Start early, but if you started late, start now.
The best time to introduce DOR is when you introduce solids to an infant. This allows you to very slowly over time help the infant acquire the right feeding skills and mindset. The point here is not to fret or get stuck in perfectionism, but to give options and let the child choose from those options. The good news is that even if you start later– closer to the terrible twos or the busy threes– children are very malleable and agreeable to learn if you are patient, aim for a sense of connectedness and respect the possibility they may not eat at all.
Many clients we see, although frightened of DOR at first, always share how effective it is if you just buy into it.
When it comes to vegetables specifically, offering options at an early age but letting go of enforcing “veggie completion” at all costs, will result in the trust your child needs to explore freely.
5. From comfort to newness, back into comfort
Research shows that it may take 15+ times before the child may try a food. This is extremely important when it comes to increasing veggie intake. The goal of the parent is to ensure every meal has veggies so that the exposure takes its course. Like the farmer who waits for the harvest, so the parent waits for the child to casually grab a veggie and give it a bite.
While “yuck” may be the initial reaction (or the very irritating toddler who throws the undesired veggie on the floor…sigh!), keep calm, breathe deeply and carry on. You have offered several other food groups at the meal, so the child will eat enough of other things. If you are consistent with meal patterns and offer a variety of foods, before you know it the child chooses, eats and (yes!) finds comfort in the veggie choice. Hooray!
The mastery here is not placing veggies on a pedestal of nutrition supremacy, this will result in a power struggle. It is best to keep a neutral approach to food and say, “It is good we eat a little bit of everything.” For this, it is always important to couple comfort foods with new foods. For instance, offer pasta pomodoro with beet salad, a glass of milk and apple wedges. Here you know, the child will surely enjoy the pasta, milk and apple, and may pass on the beet salad. If you know carrots are sometimes a winner, then ALSO place pre-washed carrot sticks too, and truly, that is really a balanced meal!
6. Instill autonomy and allow leftovers
Whenever possible, find ways to involve children in meal planning, prepping, cooking, serving and clean-up! This allows children to experience a sense of importance to the family and to feel nurtured above and beyond the meal. I am always amazed how for the most picky toddler, a sometimes overlooked strategy is just letting him serve his own plate, or for the stubborn school-kid is just brainstorming yummy bentobox lunches. As for the teenagers, you can see them come to life by cooking together or riding a tandem bike to the closest farmer’s market (mmm… maybe not…).
I have to be frank that DOR means leftovers or wasted food. For some families, this is a point of contention in trusting DOR; food prices are ridiculously high. It does pay off to think that you are investing in your family’s healthy relationship to food, which has enormous implications in preventative physical and mental health. You can of course get creative with leftovers by using them for lunch the next day, ensuring people just serve what they think they are going to eat, making good compost or (if you are lucky) offering scraps to your pet or backyard chickens!
For the next month, set a SMART goal for one of the six strategies outlined above. Here are some ways you may do this:
- Shift the focus from veggie maniac to DOR: “Every day at dinner time for the next month, I will refrain from using a threat to force the kids to eat their veggies.”
- Lead by example: “I will sit for dinner with the children 3 days a week, for the next month.
- Variety is the spice of life: “I will provide 2 different choices of veggies for 4 dinners a week, for the next month.”
- Start early, but if you started late, start now: “I will decide what, where, when of the meals and let the kids decide what to eat from that and whether they eat, every lunch for the next month.”
- From comfort to newness, back to comfort: “Once a week for the next month, I will make a new recipe using vegetables, while providing the comfort of crackers, cheese and fruit in case it’s poorly received.”
- Instill autonomy and allow leftovers: “I will let my children serve their own portions every dinner for the next month.”
Assess your goal after a month, see if you developed a new mealtime habit. Don’t forget to reach out to a registered dietitian if you just can’t get started! We are here for you!
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Daniela O’Brien is known for her contagious smile, warm approachability and collaborative approach to nutrition counselling for individuals and families. Her non-judgemental, calm demeaner mixed with confidence and clear direction is especially helpful when families are struggling with meal planning challenges, picky eating, health issues and complex eating disorders. Daniela specializes in Disordered Eating, Emotional Eating, Weight Concerns, Pre/Post-natal, Infant/Kids/Family Nutrition and offers services in both English and Spanish.