Q:Since we are cooking more at home than ever, I feel like my kids, 4 and 7, are getting even pickier than before. What are some ways I can encourage them to eat healthier?
During these days of COVID and the distance existence there are so many things with our children that are just not working the way they or we want. Whether it’s sleep behaviors, hygiene practices, work habits, independence or food choices, so much of our kids’ and our lives has changed. It’s just not the same, the way it’s supposed to be.
The irregularity of our lives has become regular. That irregularity creates the feeling of being out of control in some children. What do children do when they feel robbed of their control? The seek it elsewhere. For many it raises its ugly head in the form of defiance, rule breaking, cheekiness and non-cooperation, as these put the child in the driver’s seat. I have the power and I am in control!
Children need to feel in control. It is part of their development toward independence and identity formation. It is up to the parents to allow that to happen in places where it can. And so I say to ask yourself, “Is this a hill I want to die on?” when you and your child are headed for a battle.
One of the things I regularly tell parents is that there are certain areas about which parents should not fight with their children 4 years and older. One of those areas is FOOD.
Above you asked “What are some of the ways I can encourage [my 4 and 7 year olds] to eat healthier?” The problem with this question is your idea that in encouraging your children to eat healthier, they actually will. Truth be told, I believe you will only dig yourself in deeper, causing a control issue that is a big no win for anyone.
Here are my tips for healthy eating with older children (not toddlers):
Do not discuss your plan for your kids to eat healthier. Just start serving healthier food without a fanfare or introduction.
Sit down at your table and do not talk about the meal. Do not talk about the new or particularly healthy item on the plate, what else you are serving, what the kids need to eat, how delicious it is, how it will make their bodies grow, etc … Talk about anything else but the meal. “How about those Dodgers?”
Serve the new food along with the old. Make sure that there is something your child will eat (fruit, salad, pasta, etc. ) along with the octopus.
Serve dinner when your kids are hungry. Research has shown that kids are more likely to try new foods if they are really hungry.
Do not bribe your kids to try the new food. Rather, praise them for trying something new or healthier than usual. “Wow! You sure are becoming an adventurous eater.”
Put only a very small amount of the new food on the plate.
Do not force “just a taste.” Doing so can lead to an escalating control grab between you and your child.
Ignore the complaints. Simply saying, “I hear you” is enough. Do not fuel your child’s refusal by caring too much.
Model healthy eating. But be careful not to go too far, talking or bragging about it. You will likely energize your child’s resolve not to eat it. (Remember the control issue.)
Make the kids your sous-chefs. Kids who have been involved in the making of the food are much more likely to eat it or try it.
Researchers say that it takes repeated exposure (around 15 times) to begin to accept a new (healthy) food. Be patient and keep at it.
Try your best not to “put down” and be critical of the less healthy foods they love. Doing so will likely stimulate their stick-to-it-iveness, as they want to like what they like. Control again.
In my book “Just Tell Me What to Say,” I have a whole chapter on food and eating behaviors, “Food, Glorious Food.” In case you haven’t read it yet, I urge you take a look.
In the meantime, I promise you that as children grow so will their willingness to try new foods. They will also grow to believe the connection between their body health and what they eat. But you may have to wait a while. They need to pass through the power monger stages first!
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.