As parents, we face a myriad of struggles trying to raise healthy human beings. When they are babies, we rely on books and blogs and advice to determine what kinds of foods we’ll feed our children. We know how much tummy time they should have and what kinds of safety gear they need. We know to wash our hands and theirs often. Keeping them healthy by following the book is usually pretty straightforward. While we have choices, they are ours to make as parents. We choose from packaged foods or homemade purees or baby-led weaning. But what happens when the kids get old enough to start making their own choices? What do we do when they reject our perfectly formed ideas of how their diet should look?
Preferences and Allergies
I have four children with four very different ideas of what a healthy meal should look like. My two-year old loves pretty much anything she can eat with her fingers (even if it’s not a finger food). She doesn’t like many nuts because they take too long to chew. She’s allergic to dairy, so that’s her only true restriction. My four-year old is the picture-perfect eater. She eats salad and vegetables, fruit, yogurt and will literally eat anything, happily. My eight-year old is the middle-of-the-road eater. He rejects meat and potatoes and prefers foods in his odd little rotation. One day he will love a food and the next be undecided. He loves fruit and cheese and bread and will taste almost anything. My ten-year old is the pickiest. He doesn’t eat meat with the exception of perfectly cooked bacon. He loves fruit and will eat loads of it, but eats almost no raw vegetables. He also has a host of food allergies. My husband is Pescaearian which means he eats fish but no land animals or dairy. I eat pretty much anything but have a shellfish allergy.
Creative Meal Planning
How do you feed a household with such different food preferences? I have to be creative when I feed my family. I work full time and don’t have it in me to prepare 6 different meals for dinner so I have had to find ways to not only get healthy food on the table, but not lose my mind in the process.
Here are my tried and true tips for dealing with picky eaters:
- Make a list of the foods your family will eat. Try not to focus on their aversions. One by one, list each family member and their favorite foods. List the foods they may not love, but that you know they will eat under the right circumstances. Get them involved. What foods overlap? Does everyone in your family eat pasta? Does everyone eat eggs? These foods will likely be at the center of your meal planning rotation.
- Carve up your list and categorize the items into food groups. We use three food groups plus a “lagniappe” category. All of our foods get placed into Grains, Proteins and Fruits/Vegetables. Any food that doesn’t belong into those groups goes into lagniappe. You could even use Google Image to search for photos of each of the foods and have them help you sort them. The more involved they are, the more likely they are to eat them!
- Plan your meals according to your chart. What can you make that has foods from each of the main categories from step #2? If you need to put some items on the side (like tomato sauce or onions) to get your kid to eat the rest of the meal, try it! There will be things on the table that someone or another doesn’t eat, but as long as everyone is getting something from each food group, the meal should work. This will take some getting used to (adjusting recipes) but we’ve found that it’s better to make adjusted meals than several different ones.
- Use rewards. We love desert in my house. This could be a scoop of ice cream or a frozen fruit Popsicle or an Oreo cookie or two. They know if they eat dinner, they get desert and it’s a real treat. This also means that desert foods are limited throughout the day so that they remain a treat, but it’s worth it.
- Try a Pick Three “Menu.” There are many days when I can’t get myself together enough to put a prepared meal on the table or there just isn’t enough time before Cub Scouts to sit down. For these meals, my kids go to the chart (which lives on the fridge) and choose an item from each category and sometimes a lagniappe item, too. Yes, I understand that this could mean they might eat dry Cheerios, yogurt, baby carrots with ranch and an Oreo for dinner, but let’s break that down. Their choice consisted of: whole grains, dairy/fruit, vegetable and desert in moderation. I’m calling that a win.
- Give them Choices. Kids spend so much time being told what to do and how to do it that they often exert their need for control in their diet. Let them help pack their own school lunch (use the chart!). When presented with several choices routinely, they will adapt and find peace with their meal. Take them grocery shopping and let them choose some of the foods they will eat that week. Keep them invested in the process.
- Let go of the perfect meal idea. When you give the control to your child, it takes it from you. While your table may not look like you imagined, giving limited control to your kid is teaching them to make healthy choices and will relieve some of your stress, too!
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Tara Rosenkranz is a mother of four unique children and is contributor for New Orleans Moms Blog. Tara works full time at a corporate job and spends her evenings and weekends soaking up all that New Orleans has to offer. She and her husband are out-of-the-box thinkers and enjoy spending time playing music, reading and exploring the city with her family.