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6 Tips to Start Your Kids Off Eating Right

If the only veggies that you serve to your kids are hidden, then you're teaching them that one only needs to eat mac and cheese and chocolate cake.
David Malan via Getty Images

It's Kids Eat Right Month! Unfortunately, feeding kids is sometimes more trouble than you ever imagined it would be. Yay for parenthood!

We all know that a healthy diet is important to start kids off on the right track. As parents and caregivers, we have the honor of shaping our kids' attitudes about food and eating, so we need to take that seriously. I see a lot of parents and kids in my practice, and many parents can benefit from the following suggestions about feeding their kids:

Don't use the term "picky eater," at least around your child.

I don't allow parents to use the term "picky eater" around their kids, because I find that it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a kid hears that they're a picky eater, it validates for them that shunning certain foods is a part of who they are. It doesn't have to be this way. I'm not saying that some kids don't have texture issues or other valid eating problems, but many "picky eaters" have parents who play into that label, and I've seen it continue into adulthood for the child. Having a 40-year-old tell me that they're a "picky eater" and actually believe that they can't try any new foods because of it is a bit disturbing.

No game-playing.

I'm not a huge fan of hiding vegetables in dishes, or playing the "two more bites" game. If a child doesn't want to eat certain foods, what are you teaching them by hiding the food in a pile of spaghetti sauce? My colleague Kristen Yarker RD, a dietitian and child feeding expert who blogs here, has this to say about hiding food:

When it comes to hiding vegetables, to me, it's all about intention. Let me explain: I'm all for trying new, delicious recipes that incorporate healthy foods. And, most of us can use to eat more veggies. So go ahead and try a mac and cheese recipe that includes cauliflower and/or squash.

But, if you're denying that certain foods are ingredients or you're waking up in the middle of the night to puree vegetables, I recommend stopping.

Here's why. Many of the picky eaters whom I've worked with over the past six years are little budding conspiracy theorists. They're already suspicious of food. When they find out that you've been hiding ingredients (and trust me, kids are smart -- they'll find out), they'll wonder what you've been hiding in other dishes. This takes them further away from building the trust and confidence that they need to try new foods.

Also, if the only veggies that you serve to your kids are hidden, then you're teaching them that one only needs to eat mac and cheese and chocolate cake.

So, go ahead and explore recipes that include more veggies. But be sure to always serve "obvious" vegetables too. Even if they don't eat them today, they're learning to choose vegetables."

Start from the start with normalizing fresh foods.

We really need to stop talking so much about healthy eating and just eat healthy. Pressuring kids to eat 'healthy' foods is sort of like telling them to brush their hair or do their homework. When it's your idea, it makes them really not want to do it. Back off, stop talking about how healthy a food is and just eat it.

We need to model healthy eating for our kids. I can't tell you how many times I've had clients say to me that they don't cook a certain food (like fish or broccoli for example) because they themselves don't like it. They don't cook it, and therefore the entire family doesn't get this food. That's so wrong! When you do this, you're not even giving your kids a chance to make up their mind about a food they might end up liking. Or, when parents declare that they "hate" a certain food, right in front of their kids. Do think your kid is going to want to eat asparagus after you say how much you hate it? Think about the impact of your words and actions, and remember that kids are impressionable. They need time and exposure -- sometimes up to 20 tries -- to decide whether or not they like a food. Please allow them that.

Kids are sort of like dogs.

I see a lot of parents who become very distressed when their kid refuses to eat dinner, but is begging for candy or treats instead. I know it's hard to imagine that the kid is not going to starve to death, but they're not. Do not give in and give them candy or junk food "just so they have something in their stomach."

We once had a trainer come in to train our dog, and she told us that dogs will always remember the one time you gave in and fed them from the table. They will continue to beg for table scraps forever more if you do it just once.

Kids are sort of like dogs in this way. Once you give in to them, they will know you're a pushover and will likely continue to whine every night for junk instead of dinner. You can break them of this habit, but why set yourself up for problems in the first place? As I always say, no kid ever died from crying, so even though the whining might drive you nuts, do not give in. They will eat when they're hungry. If you want to give your kid an alternative, a yogurt and some fruit or a simple sandwich will do the trick. This isn't a restaurant, and you're not a short-order cook. Do not teach your child that you are so desperate for them to eat, that you'll make or give them anything.

Involve your kids and teach them how to cook.

Take your kids shopping and give them the opportunity to choose fresh whole foods that they want to try. Then, cook with them. The more invested a child feels in the meal, the more likely they are to eat it.

Don't freak out.

Nothing bad is going to happen to your child if they refuse to eat vegetables for a few months. Just don't make a big deal about it because if you do, it's going to become a big deal.

I tell parents to always remember Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility: the parent is responsible for what, when, and where, and the child is responsible for how much and whether.

Force feeding a child, cajoling, persuading, bribing, game playing, making them sit at the table for three hours or getting angry will not further your cause, parents. Just relax and take a step back. Remember to honor and respect your child's hunger and satiety cues, and always remember the impact your words and actions have on your child.

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