There is nothing that causes moms more frustration than preparing food for the kiddos that gets rejected. Oh, and by “rejected” I mean: spit out, scrunched up nose, plate pushed away, yelling, screaming, tears. And I have gotten all of these reactions from my (most-of-the-time) adorable little munchkins. I know you’re feeling me here.
I cannot offer you fool-proof advice for getting your kids to eat how you would want them to eat. There are as many different “get your kids to eat healthy” philosophies as there are parents: hiding veggies so kids eat them accidentally, making dessert a reward for eating well, serve and let them opt-in, don’t leave the table until you finish “x”…. the list goes on. All I can do is tell you what has worked for me. I’m going to start with a little bit of background about my journey with my kids’ eating. Let’s see if you can relate…
When my kids were babies (like up until 18 months or so), they ate everything I fed them. Yay me! I thought naively, I’m the best mom ever! Well of course that didn’t last for long. Once they hit two years old they started exercising their will at dinner time. The list of things they would actually eat kept getting smaller and smaller—and my patience for them at mealtime kept decreasing proportionally.
Moms are experts at work-arounds, so I began to implement solutions that I thought would cause me less stress at mealtime. This basically meant that I became a short-order cook. I decided to avoid the inevitable rejection of my delicious meals by just cooking them what I knew they would eat: white rice and chicken, pizza on a store-bought crust, homemade chicken fingers (recipe below). I put them at a little table in front of the TV to distract them into eating. I followed them around with food as they played.
Any of this sounding familiar?
This is crazy behavior. It is not less stressful; it is more stressful!!!
I am not judging you. Truthfully I’m not. (I did all of those things, remember?) I know that you are worried that your kid might not be getting enough food. I get it. But I want you to think about you, and how you could use that same amount of energy that you are putting into dinner work-arounds to make dinner the way you want it to be.
Here’s how I want dinner to be (again, tell me in the comments if you relate):
-everyone sits at the table
-everyone serves themselves from what is on the table
-everyone eats enough so that they don’t say “I’m hungry” 10 minutes later
-no one cries (OK maybe I’m dreaming)
This is how I finally accomplished that, and my advice for you to do the same.
#1 Put one thing on the table that you know they will eat.
For years I made separate meals for adults and kids. Sometimes I even made separate meals for separate kids. My bigger kids (currently age 9 and 6) have a relationship like Jack Sprat and his wife. You know the old nursery rhyme “Jack Sprat would eat no fat/his wife would eat no lean. /And so between the both of them/they licked the platter clean.”? That’s them. One eats spaghetti, the other meatballs. One eats the chicken, the other eats the potatoes.
So you can see how quickly things can get out of hand, and you can become a short order cook. Try replacing short-order cooking with clever meal planning. Here’s how it works.
Dinner should strive to include protein, carbs, and veggies. (Veggies are technically carbs too but you know what I mean.) So when you plan your meals, just be sure that each person eats one of the things you have planned. Here are some ideas:
Turkey burgers with sweet potato fries and a salad. The adults can eat everything. In our house the adults will eat the burgers bun-less and just stack preferred burger toppings on top. Kid #1 eats the sweet potatoes. Kid #2 eats the burger on a bun.
Homemade crispy chicken tenders on a bed of greens. You cook the crispy chicken (my recipe: roll chicken tenders in salted Panko breadcrumbs and fry in about a half an inch of olive oil. My son is allergic to eggs so the only thing holding the breadcrumbs on is the moisture of the tenders.) Adults eat the chicken on a bed of greens dressed with their favorite dressing. Kids eat the tenders. Sometimes I’ll make white rice in the microwave but not all the time.
If you haven’t noticed, parenting is a constant battle for control. One way that kids win is to control what goes into their mouths. That’s why it’s important to have kids serve themselves. These are teachable moments where you can stress that they should only put the amount on their plates that they think they’ll eat. They control both amount and what they eat from a limited number of choices that you control. Win-win.
#2: Limit juice and snacks before dinner.
Juice is like crack for kids, right?! If my kids have access to juice they will drink it all day and never be hungry. The same for Goldfish Crackers. They’ll just keep eating a constant flow of those suckers and never eat any nutritious food.
Kids start to swarm the kitchen about thirty minutes before dinner is ready, begging for all kinds of snacks. It is tempting to just let them have something because then they’ll leave. But resist, mama!! You want those kids to sit down at the table hungry.
#3: Model eating how you want them to eat.
This is the key to peace of mind. Again, there are lots of opinions about this and in the end you have to do what works for you and your family. I personally do not want to force my kids to eat anything. My parents didn’t, and I developed a taste for all kinds of foods as I grew older. I don’t want to be the forcer, and I don’t want the battle of wills.
Instead, I’ve opted to model balanced eating. Veggies are always on the table and available, and I always ask if they will try. If they say yes, I do cartwheels of happiness, even if they don’t like it. I positively reinforce the fact that they tried.
#4: Don’t freak out.
It is easy to look at the amount of food that your kid eats in one day and panic: how will they survive?!? Barring medical conditions that affect their eating, though, they will be OK. Have you ever noticed that some days they eat like crazy, and others they hardly touch food? Instead of dwelling on those days when they seem like they don’t eat anything, look at their week of eating as a whole. They are much more likely to be balanced eaters when your vision of what they have eaten lasts a week rather than just one meal, or just one day.
Keep calm, mama, you got this. It has taken me a long time to be calm at mealtimes, but I’m finally there. I hope that you find a system that works for you. Emphasis on you. Because running around with a spoonful of food waiting for a break in play to shove it in the kid’s mouth is working for your kids. You being a short order cook is working for them, too. Now think about a system that works for you.
Oh, and don’t forget to pick up your Back-to-school Routine Builder, because if your kids know when “eating” is supposed to happen in their routine, they’ll be much more likely to cooperate!
What have your food struggles been? How have you tried to resolve them? Tell us in the comments!!