Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Training Kids to Eat

People frequently comment on how well my children eat.  They love healthy foods.  I am convinced that almost any child can be trained to eat well.

I know there are plenty of naysayers out there.  You don't have to defend yourself to me!  This is for those who are unhappy with what their kids will eat.  I can tell you that not only has this worked on my 5 kids who don't have my genetic preferences-- including one child with sensory integration disorder and two kids trained in early eating by others-- but also with  two little boys I babysat and two originally picky foster kids.

I once read that a child  has to see a food 20 times to eat it.  I followed this advice with our oldest and every child who has crossed my threshold since.  I don't have to threaten or cajole them into eating it;  a dozen or 20 times after it shows up on their plate, they do eat it!  It's miraculous. The key is, don't say anything at all about it unless they ask you a direct question.  In that case, answer the question in a straightforward, non-emotional way:  "Those are peas, darling."  "Spinach is green because of photosynthesis."

Here are few things that have worked in our household:
  • The real trick is to plate small portions.  I don't make them eat new foods and I don't make them eat everything.  If I've done a good job, they are asking for more;  otherwise, plate less next time.
  • I let my kids stop eating when they're full.  A little of each thing is enough for dessert.  New foods have to be touched.  That said, if it's a food I know they eat -- like green beans -- they have to eat it to get dessert. 
  • Consult a chart of "proper" serving sizes for kids of various ages and only put that much on their plate.  For example, a serving of brown rice for a two-year-old is 1/4 cup, so that's all I plate.  If they want more later, they can certainly have it!
  • With a new or disliked food, plate only a tiny bit, like three peas or a teaspoon of spinach.
  • That new food needs to show up every day or even twice a day in order to get them used to seeing it.
  • Consistency is key;  if you want them to eat whole grains, you must stop buying and preparing "white" foods. Whole grains have a nutty flavor and their palates have to become accustomed to it.
  • Try replacing 1/4 to 1/3 of the flour in any recipe with whole wheat flour.  At first, you may want to replace only 1/8th until your family stops noticing; then work your way up.
  • The Thank You Bite.  This brilliant idea came from my niece, Lisa.  Even if you don't like something, you take a thank you bite.  A single bite.  I don't use this at home unless we have company, but my kids know it is the rule in restaurants and other people's homes.
  • Check for food allergies; very young children often eschew foods that they cannot tolerate or to which they are allergic.
  • Sometimes you can trick kids into trying foods by not plating them.  When the child questions why they didn't get it, we say mysteriously, "Oh, this is grown up food.  We're pretty sure you're not old enough to eat it yet."  This is how cherry tomatoes became a 3-year-old foster child's favorite food.  You can't overuse this ploy, of course, but it is very tempting to kids of most ages!
  • Make sure to introduce new or disliked foods with other familiar (but not favorite) foods.  If the new food is a main dish (like veggie lasagna) make sure the next meal has a familiar, accepted main dish.
  • Take the sweets out of snack time.   A litany of sweet snacks just encourages kids to eat lightly at meals and hold out for the next snack.  Yogurt,  fruit, a boiled egg or cheese and crackers all make fine and filling snacks.
  • Take them shopping.  Let them pick out a fruit and a vegetable and serve them both as soon as possible.  It's irresistible.

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