A couple of years ago, due to several food sensitivities, I knew I needed to switch my son over to a cleaner diet. I had read many books that discussed the types of foods he should eat, but few really discussed in-depth how to get him to eat those foods. I think this is a common frustration for parents, even those whose children don’t have any specific allergies. We want our children to eat well, but how? With some fortitude and a lot of patience, it is possible. I won’t pretend it was a quick or an easy transition. It took us about a year to fully achieve our goal. But knowing that our children are eating well is such a satisfying feeling.
Here are a few things that worked for us.
1. Change one food out at a time
Don’t take away your child’s preferred foods all at once. Start slowly by switching out one food at a time. For example, my son used to love his morning waffle, but given that we were going gluten and dairy free and eliminating processed foods, we needed to replace that waffle with something better. We also knew that he would have been devastated if we just took it away completely from his morning routine. So I started to add scrambled eggs into the mix. For every bite of egg he took, I would let him have a bite of his waffle. Eventually, I phased out the amount of waffle I was giving him until there was none. By then he had grown to like eggs, and homemade sausage, and other fun and healthy breakfast foods that I introduced, so it was no longer an issue. But if I had just handed him the scrambled eggs one morning without introduction, he would have thrown them back in my face.
2. Make sure there is always some preferred food available
Pick the healthiest of your child’s current preferred snacks (goldfish are better than, say, Cheetos, for example) and use that as their special treat, so that if they try to eat the meal you prepare for them, they know a favorite snack is waiting for them. At first, my son’s preferred snacks were cookies. I let him know that if he ate the healthy stuff, his preferred snack would come right after. Eventually, as my son’s taste buds changed, his preferred snacks choices became healthier, and he started to look forward to an organic apple or orange instead as his treat. I don’t always have to use a preferred snack as an impetus anymore, but every once in awhile, it helps in motivating him to eat his regular meal first.
3. Keep adding to the list
Once you find something new and nutritious that your child likes, add it to your list of “tried and true” foods. Then serve each meal with a “tried and true” item, so that they are enticed to sit and eat at least something. But serve it with one new thing that they must also try. If necessary, remind them they can eventually get their special treat at the end. Exposure is key, so keep offering new things in constant rotation, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised when, one day, your child decides he just might like it.
4. Clean out your pantry
Don’t keep crappy food in the house. It will just sit there tempting you and tempting your child. You will hear a lot of whining at first. A LOT. Especially if you have older kids who have had longer to get used to their comfort foods. Once again, remain consistent and calm. Slowly they will realize they are not going to be able to rely on their old food options.
5. Sit at the table
If you don’t currently have your children sitting at a table to eat, you might want to start. Eating at the table gives you greater control over their attention and allows them to attend to their food. We used to eat in our sunroom, and not only did that make for a big mess on my carpet and rug, but it also allowed the kids to run all over instead of taking a bite. They did not take mealtime as seriously as I would have liked them to. For younger kids that are no longer strapped into their high chairs, expect that they will want to get up from the table often (and they will). Calmly lead them back to the table, even if it means you must do it over and over again. It’s going to seem like torture in the beginning. You are going to want to lose your patience. Try not to. If you stay consistent and calm, your kids will soon realize you mean business. Side note: If you’re kids currently do not eat at the table, choose to transfer them over to table seating first before tackling their food conversion or vice versa, but don’t try to do both at once.
6. Limit snacking
Children often want to snack all day. I know mine do. I do give a mid-morning snack and a mid-afternoon one as well, but if a child grazes all day, they are a lot less willing to sit at a table and attend to a meal. A plate full of nutritious food is not going to be that appetizing to a child that is already pretty full. They are less likely to care about the food in front of them if they are counting on getting a snack later. This is something I am still constantly working on with my kids.
7. Stand your ground
Before you start this adventure, realized that there are going to be good days and bad days. I have a distinct memory in the beginning of sitting with my two year old at the dinner table, trying to get him to take one bite of green beans. Just one bite. All he wanted was waffles that day. He kept throwing himself on the floor yelling and crying and throwing major tantrums. I had to calmly put him in his room, wait for him to settle down, and then bring him back to the table to try again. There was no yelling involved and no pleading. Just a calm request for him to “try a green bean”. After several trips to his room to calm down and then back again, he eventually tried a green bean. After that one bite, I ended our “session” until the next day, when we tried it again. Guess what? He loves green beans now. And no, sometimes I can’t believe it myself given that first introduction to it. Also, all attempts to introduce new veggies after that went a lot easier with a lot less resistance.
8. Practice maintenance
The other day, we were at an Easter party. There were cookies and pretzels and goldish crackers being served right under my son’s nose. Due to my son’s specific food sensitivities, the only thing I could offer him was the apple juice. We don’t generally allow juice in the house but it was fine for that special occasion. In fact, any of the snacks being served would have been fine, in my eyes, for a special occasion if we didn’t have to be so strict due to my son’s specific food intolerances. But of course, after that party my son wanted apple juice all the time.Why wouldn’t he? I’m sure it tasted amazing. But I had to set a limit and explain to him that the juice, and all special treats, were for parties only. Whenever he starts to have too much of one thing, and when he starts to prefer it over eating well-rounded meals, we set limits again and make sure we are consistent with them until we are back on a good path.
9. Remember, every child is a potentially picky eater
I often hear from other parents that their child is just too picky. So was mine, I swear! There are very few kids that come out of the womb willing to try all foods. In fact, with my one-and-half year old daughter , who is currently in that super-picky toddler stage, we are often starting at stage one all over again. She will like something one day and hate it the next. Especially with the young ones, it’s important to expect a fickle approach to food. Don’t read too much into it and don’t give up.
10. Be kind
The goal is not to make your child miserable or have them develop a stressful relationship with food (or with you!). I try to approach meal time with a positive attitude, and explain to my children that eating well helps them grow big and strong, and gives them the energy they need to play with their toys and with their friends. Know when enough is enough some days. Until a full food conversion is in place, there will still be some days when they are not eating as healthy as you’d like, and that’s ok.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Don’t give up!
Be consistent and stick with it. Annoying words to hear, I know. But it works. We threw out a lot of food in the beginning, after many refusals to eat the new stuff, but I would just take a deep breath and offer it again.
My oldest child went from eating grilled cheese and pizza at almost every meal to eating, or at least trying, anything, and I mean anything, that we put in front of him. To be honest, it took me almost a year to be able to completely change him over. But with each day that passed, we were able to get him to try something new, or, even better, to like it. It feels really good to know my kids are getting the fuel that they need to grow big and strong.
Here’s to a happy and healthier mealtime!