My daughter is 2.5 years old and refuses to eat anything but the following: cheese, pasta, cheerios, milk, and bread. I have tried everything – being encouraging, being stern, offering “dessert”, talking, early bedtimes – nothing works! When I put something other than pasta in front of her, she screams “I no like it!!” – what else can I do?
Mom of A Toddler Full of Pasta
Dear Mom of a Toddler Full of Pasta,
You and so many other parents are going nuts with toddlers who want to live on dough and dairy. Think about how many common, well-liked kids’ foods are nothing more than white flour dough and dairy: pizza, grilled cheese, cereal, mac and cheese, noodles and butter, nachos, quesadillas. Getting kids to be adventuresome eaters who love healthy food is learned behavior, made from a lifetime of positive associations with tasting, trying and experimenting. Here are 10 great tips and tricks to help you along the way:
1. Avoid meals made of “dough and dairy.”
If you want them to eat more veggies and other healthy foods, make sure they have those options on their plates without the pile of dough and dairy. Give a toddler a plate of mac and cheese with a side of steamed broccoli and the broccoli is going to be left for the trash can. Give them choices that YOU are happy with, even if that means eliminating some of the their current favorites in the beginning. Let dough and dairy foods become a treat rather than the mainstay of kids’ meals.
2. Create fun around the dinner table.
Who would want to show up at the table if they are going to scrutinized and scolded? Make mealtime fun. I think it’s great to have “bad manners night” every now and then. Once in a while, encourage them to eat with their fingers, talk with their mouths full, let their faces get messy, stand up to eat, slurp and generally be uncivilized. This can be their chance to get some unruliness out of their system and you can all be silly and playful. It can also be a good time to let them whine and complain and say how yucky the food is. Then the next night, remind them that “Bad Manners Night” is over so they need to use their good manners.. and then promise another bad manners night in a week or two if they want it.
Some families create fun around the table by starting the meal with “Mad, Sad, Glad” where everyone shares something they were mad, sad and glad about during the day.
When I was trying to get my toddlers to eat, I’d make it playful by making the food into different animals. I’d hold the broccoli up high so my little “giraffe” had to stand up and stretch his neck to get it. Oh, did he just pop a veggie in his mouth? Imagine that. Sometimes he would be a lion and the piece of chicken was a gazelle, bouncing through the savannah as he tried to catch it with his mouth (watch your fingers!) The snake slithered and ate food that snuck from one plate to the next. The hawk caught food that was flying through the air. Sometimes we get so serious about parenting “right” that we forget that the way to a child’s heart and mind is through PLAY.
3. Try using the “3-bite rule.”
I was raised on the “three bites of everything” rule. After enough times of having to eat 3 bites of anything green, I ended up liking veggies. To avoid a power struggle, this is a good time to be sweet and empathetic about the challenges of trying something new. It’s also a good time to play the “animal game” mentioned above. We might kindly say, “I know, it’s hard trying new things.”
4. Use Love and Logic® Enforceable Statements.
Enforceable Statements can go a long way at the dinner table. The 3-bite rule can be enforced with “I’m happy to serve dessert to all my kids who have 3 bites of green beans in their bellies.” Want to serve mac and cheese? Do it. But first, put the veggies and protein on their plates and then use your enforceable statement: “I’m serving mac and cheese as soon as the meat and veggies are gone!” Or make up silly rules like, “Mac and cheese is happiest when it gets to land on top of the peas.” If they insist, you can show empathy and say “Yes! You CAN have mac and cheese! You bet! Just as soon as those peas go down the hatch, the mac and cheese will be jumping onto your plate.”
If you don’t agree with a 3-bite rule, try offering choices. Cook two veggies and let the child pick which one he wants. This gives him the chance of rejecting one veggie. There’s power and freedom in rejecting a veggie so set it up from the beginning to know that at least one veggie is going down the gullet that meal.
5. Set up some “culinary adventures” for you kids.
One of my favorite things to do with my kids was to have “Culinary Adventures.” We’d eat at different ethnic restaurants and see who could try the most new things. We made it a fun adventure. Or we’d go to the ethnic markets and just talk about what it would be like to try all those different and unusual looking foods. We’d buy funky looking things just for the fun of tasting. Ya, sure, sometimes I threw food away and wasted money. Guilty as charged. But the long-term result was that my kids found it normal and interesting to try new foods, knowing that not everything is delicious to everyone. But they seem to know that an unfamiliar flavor on their tongues probably won’t kill them.
6. You can be tricky!
My sister-in-law’s kids thought everyone’s mac and cheese came with green sprinkles on it. They never gave it a thought… of course there was dehydrated spinach flakes in it that they couldn’t taste. No questions asked. Spaghetti sauce served on top of spaghetti squash or “broccoli slaw” shreds covered in cheese? If you start when they are too young to protest, they don’t know anything different. Pancakes loaded with cottage cheese, eggs, bananas and/or applesauce? They look the same as their white-dough counterpart and taste even better.
7. Make sure they are hungry.
Have you ever experienced one of those days where you were so hungry that whatever you ate tasted like the best thing in the world? That is called appetite! Appetites are built during the periods between meals. Unfortunately, American kids snack a lot – with entire aisles at the grocery store devoted to easy to consume, salty/ sugary goodness, it’s hard not to pick up a few boxes of anything. But remember that when dinner of baked salmon and green beans is served, that recent snack is going to tell you child they aren’t hungry enough to eat anything other than chicken nuggets. Save their appetites for dinner – or limit them to a healthy snack like raw almonds or veggies and dip instead.
8. Model good eating habits.
If your kids are young enough, they want to do everything that you do; and if they are older, they want to see that you do as you say. So model eating healthy food with great delight. Note: that means that YOU have to eat YOUR veggies! Don’t make it a big deal or shame your child for not doing what you are doing, just carry on as usual.
9. Don’t force them to eat.
Offer healthy options, but never force. Eating is something that kids have complete control over and it can turn into a power battle before you know it – and it is not a battle you can win. Put together a plate full of healthy options. After that it is up to them if they are going to eat or not. If they choose not to, let them know in calm, matter-of-fact voice that they don’t have to eat, but the next time that different food will be offered will be at the next meal.
10. Don’t cave.
The “don’t cave” part comes in after the meal you offer gets rejected. If your little one is hungry after the meal, you can either empathize that they didn’t eat much and assure them that they’ll get a chance to eat at the next meal. Or, lovingly offer to reheat their previous meal if they are hungry later. Stay strong – this can be heartbreaking but is a crucial step!
Remember to take the “big picture” view on developing good eaters: it’s about creating a mindset. It’s about developing adventuresome, healthy eaters over the long haul. More fun; less battling.
Kerry Stutzman, MSW, LMFT
©2015 Kerry Stutzman, Head & Heart Parents
Kerry helps parents save their sanity and sense of humor while raising young children with love and laughter.