Feeding your family should be a source of joy, not stress. But for many parents, the dinner table is yet another battle zone (typically followed by the bath splash clash and the bedtime “I need water/I have to pee” parade).
But after speaking with several leading child nutritionists, it became clear that it’s not our kids—it’s us. We as parents need to reframe our approach and our expectations, both about what and how much our kids need to eat. Mealtimes should be, above all, conflict-free, says pediatric dietitian and child nutritionist Natalia Stasenko. And here’s the kicker: We often invest the most in dinner, both in terms of time, money and energy spent on meal prep, and nutritional value offered. But the end of the day is when many young children are most tired and least hungry. Is it any wonder we are at odds?
Parents also misunderstand our role in feeding kids. We worry they’re not eating enough or enough of the right stuff, so we hover, pressure, bribe or distract them (usually with books or screens) into eating more. But the experts wish we realized that “young children are very good at regulating their food consumption—knowing when to eat, how much and when to stop eating,” says registered dietitian and child nutrition expert Jill Castle. “Their internal barometer for getting what they need is quite good, so parents don’t need to ‘make sure’ their child eats this or that, or enough food.” What do we need to do? Offer nutritious meals and snacks at frequent, regularly scheduled intervals (that means every two to three hours for toddlers). This gives our children plenty of opportunities to eat what they need. Adds Stasenko, reassuringly: “Unless there is a real growth-related issue, diagnosed by a doctor, children can and should be trusted to self-regulate.”
If you’re worried about all this, you are not alone. “I try to avoid the expression ‘picky eating’ because most kids are selective eaters,” says pediatric dietitian Victoria Stein Feltman, cofounder of Apple to Zucchini. “It’s just reality. It would be way more difficult to find a child who is open to trying everything than it is to find a child who is restrictive in some way.” (As food for thought, she recommends all parents read Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding.)
Below, the three most common challenges kids present at mealtimes—and expert strategies to overcome them. The key takeaway? If we stop digging in our heels, our kids just might start digging in.
The Carb King/Queen
Have you ever noticed that your kid’s favorite foods are all beige? Bread, crackers, PB&J, pasta or bagels with butter and (breaded) chicken nuggets? If so, you may worry that they’re missing out on vital nutrients, but as long as you are offering balanced meals, you can likely let this go.
“Kids are intuitive eaters,” says Stasenko. “In reality, most kids, even picky eaters, get more protein than they need.” Also, “not eating vegetables is rarely a nutritional problem, although it is considered the biggest issue for many families.” Preferring sweeter flavors, she adds, “is developmentally appropriate.” Kids are drawn to carbs because they are comfortable—and comforting. From a behavioral standpoint, it’s important to know your kid isn’t being stubborn if he refuses to try sushi. He’s following a biological imperative. “Kids are hardwired to like sweets because they are highly exposed to sweet flavors at a very early age—amniotic fluid and breast milk,” explains Castle. “Sweets aren’t a ‘learned’ taste like bitter, sour or umami flavors.” Liking adult food takes years of practice.
To help them expand their horizons, exposure is key. “We can’t make our kids eat what we want them to eat,” says Castle. “We can only provide lots of opportunities for them to eat nutritious foods, of their own will.” So if your kid refuses fruits, veggies, fish or meat, still offer them frequently. It may take 15 tries before a child will even taste new food.
While it’s painful to see a meal you spent time and money preparing insulted (or worse, thrown on the floor), don’t give up. You could also consider changing the way you present it next time. For instance, if your kids run screaming from pad thai, they may be more open to “deconstructed” pad thai—noodles, chicken and peanuts served separately but on the same plate. Kids don’t always like it when their foods are mixed together. (No, it’s not just your kid.)
The Snack Attacker
Goldfish. Pirate’s Booty. String cheese. Pureed fruit pouches. Our playground posse pretty much lives on these packaged staples, but when they’re actually at the table, they barely eat.
Here’s the deal: “Kids are not born snackers,” notes Stasenko. “They just prefer more palatable and easy-to-like food—understandably so. The issue is that they get fun and easy foods at snack time and see more challenging and boring foods like meat, veggies and whole grains at mealtimes. So it’s hardly surprising that they choose snacks.”
The solution? Up the nutritional integrity of your snacks. Just because your kid is eating on the go, in a car seat or on the bleachers at a sibling’s sports game, it doesn’t mean she has to eat vending machine snacks. “If you can, think of snacks as mini meals,” says Stein Feltman. “Use them as an opportunity to get in those key nutrients like protein and fiber.”
Crudités with guacamole or hummus, an apple with cheese or peanut butter, half a sandwich and soup—there’s no law that says you need to offer “snack food” at snack time. Another aha moment? Learning that snacks aren’t the enemy. In fact, kids need to snack. Their stomachs are smaller than ours, thus they require smaller portions at more frequent intervals than adults. Still, experts say you should aim to keep the 90 minutes before every meal snack-free. Kids do need to come to the table relatively hungry in order to be willing to taste what you serve.
Does your kid eat a steady rotation of the same four items (hello, nuggets, my old friend)? If so, it’s because children are driven by their desire for two things: flavor and familiarity. “Kids can get hooked on certain foods,” says Castle. “This is called a food jag.” And while it’s totally typical, “parents do well by continuing to offer variety and not falling into the trap of only serving what will be eaten.” That doesn’t mean you can’t serve what your kids like; you just have to mix it up as well. “If children have one or two foods they like included in a family meal, alongside some less-liked or newer foods, their preferences are accounted for and they get the important exposure to variety and balance,” says Stasenko.
If a nutrient is missing from your child’s diet—say she has an aversion to meat or fish or vegetables—try to fill in that gap with other foods that provide the same value. For example, the protein in yogurt is comparable to that of eggs. Omega 3–rich flax seeds are a possible fish alternative.
Adds Stein Feltman: “Parents worry a lot about leafy green vegetables, but fruits and vegetables have a lot of the same vitamins.” A good rule, she says, is to aim for a colorful plate. If they’ll eat red foods (say, strawberries but not bell peppers), you’re probably OK. Another great tip for helping kids break out of a rut? Serve the same food but in a new shape or color, or with a new ingredient. Offer bow-tie pasta, colored ziti or fettuccine made from almond flour instead of spaghetti. Stein Feltman’s kids take “No Thank You Bites” or “Brave Tastes,” meaning they are encouraged to put a new food on their tongue but are welcome to spit it out into a napkin if they don’t like it (only try this at home).
Then again, you know your kid best. If even this will incite protest, skip it. The long-term focus, says Stasenko, “should be on fostering a good relationship with food instead of micromanaging every bite.”