Whoa! What a loaded question, right? We’ve all fought the battle at some point (unless you only had one child and that child was like our first). It’s not easy parenting little humans and this is one of the top questions people ask. I’ve met kids who only ate hotdogs or macaroni and cheese. There are kids who eat chicken nuggets at every meal. Even I have been disappointed in myself as I tossed a Clif Bar to my son just so he’d have some sort of protein in his body for the day.
While the Clif Bar made my morning routine easy… I hardly had to even open my eyes to get that type of breakfast on the table. It also consistently made my kids cranky about meals and anytime they were hungry they’d grab one for themselves and bring it to me to open (even the 1 year old). If I said “No.” The littlest one would become irate and persistent until either I caved or it was dinner time (or until I lost my mind… and my cool).
“Why don’t these kids just come with a handbook? I’d still have questions and doubts, but probably way less.” – Moms all over the planet.
Tip #1: Ditch the Snacks
This is actually one of the only tips you need to get your kids to comply at dinner and eat their food, including their vegetables. I’ll of course give you a few more tips, but if your kids aren’t hungry at dinner then why would they force vegetables into their own mouths?
Let’s think about why we give our kids snacks. Duh! Because they’re hungry, right?! I’m going to disagree with you here. In my experience these are the reasons I gave my kids snacks:
- Because they asked for them relentlessly and I finally gave in.
- My kiddo didn’t eat a very big lunch, and dinner is still an hour away. I’ll be they’re starving.
- We’re having fish tonight and ‘so and so’ doesn’t like fish, so I’m going to give this little hooligan something so we can have a peaceful dinner.
- When we are headed on an adventure to the park or to the zoo, I don’t want them to throw a fit in public so I had better bring them something to eat.
- This list goes on and on and on.
Your Kids Aren’t Actually Starving!
This little piece of advice made all the difference to me. In fact, it made me realize how much I was “hurting” them by giving into their snack impulses. It is okay for your child(ren) to feel hunger pains. When your stomach growls at you it is only saying, “it’s just about time to eat” and not “you have to eat right this instant.” There’s a difference.
And why did I feel like I was “hurting” my children by giving them snacks? Because as an adult, I have a love for food and a love for instant gratification. Giving into my children’s desire for a snack was also teaching them to give into their own impulses. I wasn’t helping them develop self-control. In fact, one could say, I was encouraging them to have a poor relationship with food.
- If I’m sad, I should have a snack.
- My tummy hurts, I’ll eat a snack.
- We’re going on a trip, did we bring the snacks?
- and so on and so on.
Tip #2: Start Your Kids Young
In raising five children through the eating process we’ve done it all! Our findings are that Baby Led Weaning and/or making your own baby food are the best methods to aid in your child’s food journey. The worst method? Buying baby food from the store. Why? Because real food doesn’t have applesauce or some other sweet fruit in each dish.
In France, it is common for parents to make simple soups for their baby to eat right out of their bottle. This is their way of introducing flavors. So when baby is 5 or 6 months old (check with your doctor, don’t trust me to know when your child is ready) put some watered down homemade broth in your baby’s bottle.
Making baby food doesn’t have to be hard, it was easy for us to just turn whatever vegetable we were having for dinner into mush and adding warm water to get our desired consistency.
Okay, But My Kids are NOT Babies. So What Then?
Tip #3: Train Your Child to Eat Better
The Soup “Idea” is a great place to start for bigger kids who don’t eat their veggies. We had one stubborn little booger who wouldn’t eat anything. This kid would not eat lunch or dinner (and no snacks) because he trained himself to wait until breakfast. He typically always loved breakfast foods. It was excruciatingly tough for Mom and Dad! So What Did We Do? Well, we did two distinct “things” that made a difference in our kid who now eats everything on his plate. He eats it all even though he still doesn’t love vegetables and other foods.
Create a Social Story
The first thing we did was create an environment that encouraged compliance. We needed our son to know he was expected to do as he was told or there would be consequences. We clearly showed him (through pictures) what the consequence was for eating all his food by the time the rest of the family was finished eating and what the consequences were for not eating or taking too long. I forgot to mention this kiddo got to the point where he would drag out dinner for well over an hour.
A social story is used for kids with special needs usually, but it works for young kids as well. Social stories can be pictures, words, drawings, etc. The point is for there to be clear expectations and clear consequences. “If I do _______, then ________ happens. If I don’t do _______, then ________ happens.”
Your kiddo may not be as stubborn as mine and therefore you can most likely skip the Social Story.
So just like with baby food, we made our veggies into purees. We called them “soups” and we ate them as our first course. Each “soup” had a tiny dollop of butter on top that melted and the kids would mix it into their purees. The bowl of soup was probably only 1/4 cup or 1/2 cup of food at most. The goal for this was to eat the same number of bites as you were of age… if not the whole bowl of “soup.”
This was actually more fun than you might think because we sort of turned our dining experience into a fancy feast. “What’s for the first course?” “What’s for dessert?” It was quite a bit of mental effort in the beginning, but for our newly turned 5 year old it took just 2 weeks before he figured out to eat his vegetables without purees and without push back. But again, we also did a social story.
Part of our son’s social story included earning a dessert for eating everything in our desired time limit. So he did receive a reward (as did everyone else). We kept desserts simple. Often just fruit with homemade whipped cream. Even a spoonful of peanut butter would suffice. But we were also very careful not to have to have dessert every single night, so again after about two weeks we tapered off the desserts.
Rewards are great for motivation, but you also have to train your kids not to expect rewards eventually. It’s the same with Potty Training. I’m not still giving my six year old a Cheetoh after she tinkles. That would be weird. So in conclusion, if you can do it without rewards then you should, but if you use rewards, don’t wait too long before you start tapering them off.