12 Practical Habits for Raising Better Eaters

There are plenty of books out there on helping kids develop a healthy relationship with food. I’ve loved reading many of them because it’s just part of my job. However, I realize as a busy parent, you might not have the time to pore through book after book figuring out how to manage your kid’s picky eating.

This is why I’ve boiled down everything I’ve read into these 12 practical habits that you can adopt to help your kid become the best eater he / she can be! I’ve also included how I’m trying to build these habits with my daughter (14 months old at time of post).

1. Create a vast food memory bank as early as possible

Fear of new foods can occur as early as 12 months, so the period between 4 and 12 months is crucial for exposing infants to a variety of tastes and textures. Even if your child refuses a particular food, continue offering it to them because it can take many exposures before they can truly get over that initial fear.

We started offering my daughter little bits of what we were eating when she was ~5 months and started giving her solid food regularly at 6 months. Running a meal plan service means we eat a wide variety of meals, so she’s naturally been exposed to a lot of foods (doesn’t mean she loves all of it though). Here’s a spreadsheet of what she’s eaten in her 14 months of life.

2. Don’t use unhealthy foods as rewards

Bribery is often a survival tool for parents, but avoid doing it with food. It really sets up a framework for kids to think of some foods as ‘work’ that needs to be done in order to be rewarded with fun. Plus, it can set up a habit well into adulthood to use bad foods as a form of reward.

We’ve never been in the habit of having, preparing or keeping desserts in the house. My daughter loves fruit and cheese more than anything and we just offer that up with everything else and don’t make it something she gets only after she’s eaten everything else.

3. Ditch the concept of ‘kids food’

Kids — unless they have allergies or are still in the pureed food stage — can eat what adults eat. Even if your baby or toddler doesn’t have a full set of teeth, they can actually break down a wide variety of foods by gumming them. By establishing that kids eat what adults eat, you will increase the amount of food they’ll be exposed to and you’re much less likely to become a short order cook creating separate meals for kids and adults.

While she doesn’t understand what ‘kids food’ is, she eats exactly what we’re eating, just cut up into smaller pieces.

4. Help your kids understand the sensation of hunger and fullness

Most parents hate the thought (or consequences) of a hungry kid, which has led to a culture of over snacking. Allowing your kids to be hungry come dinner time is a good thing, because it means they’re more likely to eat what’s offered. It’s also important to let kids develop their own sense of fullness. Forcing kids to clean their plate overrides their physical intuitions and can actually lead to a habit of overeating.

We respect when she’s done, even during meals where we feel she hasn’t eaten much. Our feeling is she’ll eat if she’s hungry and not eat when she’s not hungry.

5. Redefine your meal framework

We often get stuck thinking that certain foods can only be served out of certain meals, but the broader we go, the more options we have at each meal. Snacks don’t have to come out of a box or a bag. Breakfast can be more than just eggs, toast or muffins. Dessert can just be fruit. It also makes coming up with meal ideas a lot easier if you have a larger toolbox of ingredients to draw from!

Sauteed spinach and whole wheat pita bread with hummus is a common breakfast in our household. Our daughter doesn’t know that this isn’t traditional breakfast food and (usually) eats it.

6. Don’t forbid junk food

Just because you won’t serve junk food doesn’t mean that your kids won’t encounter it elsewhere. As important as it is to foster a good relationship with healthy foods, it’s equally important to teach kids how to self-regulate around bad foods too. Instead of forbidding your kids from eating junk, teach them why it’s junk and why it should be eaten very rarely.

Our daughter is a bit too young for this, so I’ll have to get back to you on this one!

7. Give them some of the control they crave

Often times, kids aren’t picky because of an actual distaste for a certain food but because they’re trying to assert control. Find ways to give them power during the process. From giving them a say in meal planning to letting them eat dessert first, you’ll be reducing the battles for control at the table.

We’ve found that if we let our daughter break some of our table manner rules, like not necessarily eating in a chair or eating right off her plate, she is willing to try more things. I’m happy to lose those battles for now to get her to eat a wider variety of things.

8. Employ Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility

Ellyn Satter, a registered dietician and family therapist, is a pioneer in the domain of feeding dynamics, with the Division of Responsibility being her most well-known concept. The division is defined as: “Parents are responsible for the what, when, and where of feeding, and children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating.” That means no forcing them to clean their plates!

We do our best to provide a regular feeding schedule of 3 meals and 2 snacks a day and don’t offer filler in between. During meals, we allow our daughter to eat as much or as little as she wants of anything we offer.

9. Make the eating adventure less scary

Most kids are naturally neophobic (especially as they hit toddlerdom). Try to pair something new with something old to create more familiarity or make new food fun by dressing it up bento box-style (more on this next week). Ask your kids to take only one bite and be okay when they only want to take one bite. As with many things in life, progress with baby steps!

For foods she hasn’t loved or new foods, we only put one to two bites worth on her plate, so she doesn’t feel overwhelmed by it.

10. Invite them to be your best sous chefs!

Kids are naturally curious creatures and would love to help you with tasting, prepping and cooking. Deepen their senses by letting them smell and identify shapes and colors of foods. We have more ideas for kids of all ages to be included in the kitchen here. Kids are more likely to be interested in eating meals they’ve helped cook (or even grow!).

We’ve hit the stage of, “I know you’re cooking and need both your hands, but pick me up, pick me up!” so I just purchased this. I do plan on using it with extreme caution because she is still quite small but we’ll see if she enjoys her new perch at the countertops.

11. Don’t make food the center of attention

Dinnertime isn’t just about eating good food; it’s about being together as a family. Have questions that you can ask your kid(s) and they can ask you at the ready. It’ll ease the tension of food struggles and make dinnertime something memorable every night!

The way we shifted the focus away from food is just to eat together and make it a social activity. Before it was very much about me feeding her, which was a one way relationship, but now we’re just enjoying a meal together, and she is so much happier. It’s been amazing how much more she’s willing to eat now that I’ve moved my dinnertime to be the same time as hers.

12. Don’t stress, stay strong and be patient

This is so hard because it seems like a parent’s biggest job is to stress over their child. Our kids can sense our stress and it makes the act of eating unpleasant for everyone. If you’re doing many of the habits above, you’re doing the best you can. Be patient with yourself and with your children.

This has been hard for me too, but I know that I’m doing all the right things to build the right long-term foundation and that’s all that can be expected of any parent. My role is to help my child become the best eater she can be while being respectful of her limitations. I’m excited to do this with you, and I’m cheering you on!

For More Tips:

  • For a common-sense, no-gimmick approach to feeding your child, check out Child of Mine by Ellyn Satter (it includes suggestions from as early as breastfeeding).
  • For more of a plan on tackling picky eating, check out It’s Not About the Broccoli by Dina Rose.
  • For fun eating game ideas, check out Getting to Yum by Karen LeBillon.
  • For an evolution on the way we eat, check out First Bite by Bee Wilson.
  • For a different cultural perspective on eating and childcare, check out Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman.
  • To understand how our food system has harmed so many kids, check out the documentary Fed Up (streaming on Netflix as of this post’s publish date).

If you haven’t already, check out how our new wall calendar can help kids eat better and broaden their food and cooking knowledge here. We’ve got more great tips and fun resources for our #KidsWhoEat series coming your way, so stick around by signing up for our newsletter below! We’ll send all this helpful info directly to your inbox, so that you and your family can cook smarter and eat healthier and happier.


Originally published at www.cooksmarts.com on October 10, 2016.

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