Parenting 101: happy meals or how can I get my child to eat?

Does mealtime ever feel like a three-ring circus in your house and you’re the one jumping through the hoops? Well, no more. From now on you are the ringmaster. You are in charge of the “show”: finessing wild animals, knowing when to bring in the clowns, and bringing order to the performance. Like any good performance, try not to let the audience see you sweat!

First, de-emphasize food. Trust me here. You know that children go through oppositional periods in normal healthy development. If this happens to be one of those times in your household, food can easily become an arena for power struggles. And you do not want food to become emotionally charged for the rest of your child’s life.

A parent’s job is not to force the child to eat and it’s not your job to hand-feed a preschooler. A parent’s job is to offer healthy food in a stress-free setting. The rest is up to the child. Your pediatrician can give you a list of minimum daily requirements and supplements if you are worried.

Build positive associations. Children love rituals and routines. Use a few tricks to make mealtime more fun: a special placemat with a favorite character or laminated home-made placemats with pictures of favorite foods, tie-dye napkins with different colors for different nights of the week, or let your child paint his own plates. Anything that shifts positive attention onto your child and away from the drudgery of getting another meal on the table will help eliminate food battles.

Always include conversation. Research strongly states the benefits of family mealtimes. Those daily conversations around home-cooked meals give children lifelong advantages over obesity, an edge against peer pressure and drug and alcohol abuse, and possibly even higher academic test scores. Toddlers and preschoolers are gaining incredible social skills and cognitive dexterity when they participate in dinner conversations. Children who are actively engaged will sit at the table longer and just possibly eat more.

Serve a variety of food and small portions. Offer a variety of foods that also include a variety of sensory experiences. Children need foods that are sticky and foods that are slippery, foods that are soft and foods that are sharp, foods that are sour or spicy. If you are stuck in a food rut (and who doesn’t fall into same-old habits), set aside an hour or two to build up your repertoire. Two of my favorite books are: Kids in the Kitchen by Pulleyn & Bracken and The Cooking Book by Laura Colker.

Small portions allow your child to have age-appropriate control of the eating experience. He won’t be overwhelmed by too much food on the plate and he fully participates in asking for “more please”. (Be sure to read How Do Dinosaurs eat Their Food? with your child.)

Go ahead – play with your food. Make eating fun. Children love to “dip” – try yoghurt dips, salsas, guacamole. Put veggies on kebabs. Buy novel cookie cutters to make enticing shapes on sandwiches. Try making salad “people” by adding arms and legs to a vegetable or add “faces” on your pancakes. You can put all kinds of healthy ingredients into a smoothie. Just be sure to let your child push the buttons on the blender!

Keep snacks healthy too. If healthy eating is a problem, eliminate the temptation to fill up your child on anything that he will eat. Watch out for empty calories in juices and cookies. Instead let your child make her own ”trail mix” or stuff celery (quick, name 4 different celery spreads…peanut butter, cream cheese, cottage cheese, hummus).

Include children in preparation and presentation. Give children a participatory role in the mealtime process. Remember, age-appropriate power makes power struggles unnecessary. Let children wash and peel vegetables, make salads, stir batters, flip pancakes, pour milk, set the table, and, best of all, wash the dishes. There’s an indisputable rule in early childhood: if a child makes it, a child will eat it!

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