Children are born liking sweet foods. And as they grow, toddlers are already testing their decision-making abilities and learning to decipher what is and isn’t food. They’re starting to learn that a lint ball from the corner isn’t tasty. As a result, it’s natural, for many children to become picky eaters. So how can we guide our children to broader food horizons? Here are some tips to help you get started:

Make healthy food the easiest to snack on. If opening a bag of chips is easier than cutting up an orange, which one is your child going to choose? There are lots of ways to make sure that the healthy food is easier to access. I love the idea of putting a variety of food in a muffin tin and leaving it in the refrigerator. The tins could contain raisins, snap peas, sunflower seeds, bites of cheese, etc. It’s easy for the kids to grab a snack, and the colorful variety will also help draw them in.

Have your child eat with the rest of the family. Even if they refuse to eat what the rest of the family is eating, have them sit with you and get used to the idea of eating with the family. And who knows? They might even snack on something while there!

Let your child make choices about what they eat. I’m not saying you should become a short-order cook. But if your child wants to eat a yogurt from the fridge instead of the chicken, it might be time to let it go. If your child is eating nutritious food, they are accomplishing the true goal of mealtime.

Remember that a battle doesn’t get you anywhere. It always seems like the more fighting you do about meals, the more your child digs in their heels. Try to keep the mood light. Mealtime should be a pleasant time for every family member.

Make a new foods chart. One of my friends has a son with an extreme gag reflex. He spent most of his babyhood drinking nutrition shakes because he couldn’t keep anything down. She had success getting him to try new foods with a series of reward charts. He had to try a certain number of new foods in order to complete the chart, after which he would receive a prize. On the first chart, all he had to do was lick the new foods. The second he had to just put it in his mouth. The third, he had to sink his teeth into it. The charts gradually worked up until he was actually eating the food. While he still doesn’t try everything, she reported that the number of foods he eats has nearly doubled. Food charts can help your child be self-motivated instead of parent-motivated. The difference will be huge in their view.

Repeatedly expose your children to new foods. As in the example above, it takes a lot of attempts to get a child to eat a new food regularly. Sometimes we forget that our kids aren’t adults, and thus they might need to take child-sized steps on their way to success.

Model Positive Behavior. Serve roasted butternut squash and asparagus spears because you like them. Choose carrot sticks for your afternoon snack. When your children see you eating those foods regularly, they will be more likely to eat them themselves. Get rid of the junk food in your child’s diet. Filling up on junk food, or even food with empty calories, makes children less likely to eat the healthy food when you serve it. Eliminate the sugared cereals for breakfast and the frequent candy snacks. You child’s ability to sit for meals will improve, as will his or her appetite.

Make food fun! Turn your snacks into funny faces on your child’s plate, let your child grow peas in your garden and eat them right off the bush, or make food miniature-sized.

Get your children involved in the cooking and choosing process. They will be more likely to try new foods if eating is an adventure instead of a battle.

Don’t sweat it. One of the best things about picky eating is that just about everyone grows out of it. Do you have any friends that will only eat macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets? We all gradually learn to try and like new foods. If your child is getting a balanced meal, don’t lose sleep over the lack of variety in their diet. Article by Britney Rule, author of Grain Crazy, forthcoming from Familius fall 2013.
Britney is the mother of three little boys, ages four and under. We're sure you can imagine what her house sounds (and looks!) like. As such, when she writes articles for Familius, they usually start in an effort to solve ongoing problems in her own ... Read More