If you’ve ever said, “My kids LOVE salad!” or “Sure, give it to him. He’ll eat ANYTHING!” then move along. I’ve got nothing for you here! 🙂
But if you worry about rickets and scurvy while scanning the ingredients of ranch dressing (since that’s a food group) pull up a chair. I’ve got loads of ideas to get your child to eat better!
As a behavior consultant, a teacher, and a parent, I hear a wide range of complaints about eating behaviors. Many of my former students with autism had extremely limited diets. Some would eat only white carbs, others only dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets. Period.
Many kids just have narrow (but strong) preferences. Some kids have ONLY ONE vegetable they’ll eat, and some parents just want their kids to be more adventurous eaters.
JUST. EAT. IT.
In my experience, there are three primary reasons kids won’t eat.
1. Sensory Defensiveness
By now, a lot of parents have heard about Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). It can be a standalone diagnosis, but it’s also common for kids with autism.
In this scenario, the smells and textures of certain foods can be so painfully revolting to kids, that they would literally starve before eating them. It would be like me saying to you, “Look, this bowl of crushed glass is amazing and so good for you! Just eat it!” For a kid with sensory defensiveness, it’s an assault.
This is a situation for a professional. Occupational therapists are trained in addressing this. It can be remediated, but it takes a lot of work, bravery, patience and tears—for the kids, and parents.
Maybe you were going through a divorce, working two jobs, getting that degree, or fighting through a bout of depression. For whatever reason, you just decided food wasn’t a battle you wanted to fight with your child. So you served the nuggets, tots, and mac every night and called it a success that everyone was fed.
There’s no judgment here, but now your kids’ taste buds are programmed to crave starch, salt and fat. Nothing else measures up.
Remember the character Disgust from the movie Inside Out? Kids are biologically programmed for survival. Part of survival means not inadvertently ingesting poisonous plants or roots. Being leery of new foods is part of our instinctual programming. (That particularly applies to leaves and flowers, according to something I once read.)
Rejecting food also is completely age-appropriate for little kids. When a baby starts trying new foods, they’re relatively open to having their needs met by us. However, by the time the twos roll around (and for many years after) they’ve become hip to our agenda, and they’re learning their own power and autonomy. As a result, we can find find ourselves dealing with short lists of acceptable food options. (And weather-appropriate clothing, but that’s another post.)
So What Can We DO?
If you suspect your kid falls into category #1 (especially if there’s gagging and vomiting), talk to your pediatrician. She will direct you to the best resources. There are things you can do on your own, but it’s best to have professional guidance. Copy that for food allergies.
If, like most kids, yours are a combination of #2 and #3, there are lots of things you can try.
First, you gotta know your kid and get clear on what your family values are around food. Do you love cooking and sitting for an hour around a delicious meal? Or do you just want to get the maximum nutritional benefit into their bodies so you can move on to the nighttime routine? Is dessert a daily part of life? Or are sweets a rare treat?
Your values will influence which of the options below appeal to you. But you’ll also want to consider what behavior strategies are working for you right now (for food, or other things) and let that knowledge guide you.
A quick word of caution: Kids have strong control of what goes into their mouths, and when it comes out of their booties. Proceed with caution, lest you create a situation where they feel compelled to clamp down and demonstrate their full powers of refusal.
16 Things You Can Try to Get Your Kid to Eat Better
Some of the tactics below are controversial.
Like most things, you have to take what makes sense for your family and leave the rest. And like most things, we probably aren’t going to scar our kids for life with any of these.
Just use common sense, know your kid, and concentrate on how it feels when you try it. If it feels wrong, ditch it. If you get traction and everyone is happy(ish), you may have a winner.
1. Hold dessert hostage
We don’t always keep sweets in the house. (If you know where my personal stash is, keep quiet.) If we have ice cream and my kid knows it, it doesn’t make sense to me to allow her to eat it, if she doesn’t first eat the nutritious dinner I provide.
Some people don’t like this approach. But it’s just a natural consequence in my house. Does she have to clean the whole plate? Depends what’s on the plate. Veggies are a must if there’s dessert involved. Pizza, probably not (as if that would be an issue…)
I admit, sometimes I’m tired, and I don’t have energy for the dinner tug-o’-war. I’ve been known to say, “We have ice cream, and if I have to remind you one time to finish your broccoli, you may not have any.” But don’t say that unless you mean it, and you’re going to follow through.
2. Sit down at dinner
If kids are allowed to eat in front of the TV, or while roaming the house—stopping for a bite between episodes of play—do they really tune in to the hunger sensation? Studies have shown that meals eaten while standing or distracted typically contain more calories and satiate for shorter periods of time.
Generally speaking, it’s best to have kids sit and focus solely on eating. This is also how kids learn the full complement of meal etiquette (burping and fart-noises included) that a family dinner provides.
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3. Make sure they’re hungry
Sounds obvious, right? If they’re not reasonably hungry by dinner, you’re already at a disadvantage with whatever new and exciting dish you want to introduce.
Don’t make it harder on yourself by giving them snacks between meals. Kids need to be mentally and physically ready to eat. Especially if you’re starting this as an intervention. (There’s a new Vegetable Sheriff in town and things ’r gonna be changin!)
This is pretty self-explanatory. I do get tired of washing all the teeny side bowls, but when we’re trying to make a new veggie appetizing, a few favorite dipping options is helpful. My daughter seems to appreciate having regular control over this aspect of her meal.
5. Be COOL. Offer, but don’t get attached
This is big in our house. The minute my husband says, “THIS IS SOOOOO GOOD! You HAVE to try it!” in his excited voice, it’s over. “You liked it when you were a baby” is even worse.
Our daughter can smell his attachment a mile away, and she knows she’s holding all the cards. She never fails to dig in on her refusals in this scenario. So why does he keep doing it? Because it’s genuine. There is so much great food she misses out on. She did used to eat some cool stuff when she was a toddler.
Instead of getting attached, I try to say something like, “Taste this and tell me if I should serve you some or not.” She knows she has control and can focus on whether or not she actually likes the taste of it.
She almost always says yes to this, too. Because, in general, I know the type of stuff she likes. Also, I don’t ask her while we’re at the table, so the power dynamics of dinner aren’t activated. I think that helps.
6. Make it a family value
The French supposedly have this figured out. According to Karen Le Billion, even her American-born kids ate all varieties of fresh and lovely dishes when they moved to France and took up the lifestyle.
Here in the U.S., I have a friend whose father ran a successful produce business. Her childhood reportedly also was filled with deliciously cooked vegetables, which she devoured with glee and continues to crave.
I believe there’s a cultural element to appreciating the entire process of a healthy meal. But I’m not sure you can fake a family culture. Let me know if you figure it out.
7. Serve the target food first—alone on a plate
I do this on the days I CAN’T EVEN. I can’t with cooking, and I can’t with nagging about the stuff I didn’t want to cook. Yes, boxed mac ‘n cheese is on the menu tonight. Jackpot for you. Right after you eat this plate of broccoli and oranges. Consider it your first course.
I worked at an elementary school with the rule: Eat your protein first. Children were taught the rule from day 1 in kindergarten, and they all picked it up quickly and policed it themselves. Inevitably, Robert would laugh milk bubbles out his nose and the table would turn into a raucously successful Night at the Apollo. Not another bite would be swallowed, but at least they had already eaten the most filling thing.
8. Reinforce with something good
If you have your kids on a behavior plan, make eating part of it. Offer an incentive to reinforce the behavior of tasting one bite of something new without protest. The same for finishing all the vegetable or protein requirement.
You can read more about how to use reinforcers here. But I only recommend this if you aren’t currently focusing on changing another behavior. One thing at a time in behavior land!
9. Give control by letting kids choose
Depending on age, I think we underestimate what kids are willing to do. If you get them involved with the decision-making, and get their buy-in, you might be amazed at what they’ll try on their own terms. Or you might not.
Set parameters, such as: You have to try a new vegetable. Lay on the healthy/nutrition speech. Then give them options and let them pick one. You might even want to discuss which dips might pair well. Ketchup and jicama? Why not?
10. Let them help cook
I hear that kids really like this. Mine does. I have to be honest, though. As much as I enjoy watching my family eat delicious and healthy food, I don’t enjoy cooking it. Having my four-year-old help usually makes it more painful and laborious for me.
There’s a long list of things I enjoy doing with my child. Cooking is not one. I worry about passing along my disdain of cooking. But when I tried faking it for her benefit, it was laughably inauthentic. This is the mom she got. Thank goodness for her grandmother. They cook together a lot.
11. Keep offering over and over
I read that children have to be exposed to a food up to 20 times or more before they will even truly be able to taste it on their tongues. So don’t give up.
My kid’s school prides itself on healthy lunches and their success rate with getting kids to eat. Their secret is they have a fixed menu of three weeks. The same meal reappears every three weeks, so kids are exposed methodically. No surprises. Kids also are more likely to eat things they see other kids eating, so peer pressure helps.
12. Disguise the veggies
There are megatons of recipes that explain how to trick out your kids’ plates with veggies. It’s definitely a strategy to keep in your back pocket.
I agree with critics who say kids should become accustomed to seeing and consuming vegetables in their natural form. But sometimes it’s nice to just sit down to dinner and be free of the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
13. This is what’s for dinner (a.k.a. Eat it or go hungry, and Sit here ‘til it’s gone)
I’m not a huge fan of this one, but I’ve seen it used to great effect. It is a deep, deep line to draw in the sand.
Again, you have to know your kid and know your family. This is the recipe for a major power struggle and I’m typically opposed to those. I have, however, said this to my child out of exhaustion, having prepared a similar meal that she willingly ate the week before. I wasn’t the least bit concerned she would starve, but it was hard. She didn’t eat and never said another word about it. Maybe she just wasn’t hungry.
14. Let them pick one thing NOT to eat
Kids love control. Who doesn’t? Put two vegetables on their plates. Then scarf down the one they refuse like you’re getting away with something!
15. Try not to worry
Just try. The kids are OK. We’re all OK.
Nutrition is important. Sanity is important-er. See what happens if you just let go for a week. You might be surprised. Chances are if you’re worried about nutrition, then you’re doing just fine in the big picture.
16. I don’t like green olives
I have tried, and I don’t like them. Everyone seems to want to convince me to like them. I don’t. I think it’s respectful to acknowledge our kids as individuals with their own unique interests and tastes.
Think about a food you don’t like and consider what it would feel like to have these tactics employed to harangue you to eat it for your own good. I mean, I would eat a bowl full of green olives for a bowl of ice cream, but that’s me. I love ice cream. My point is, strange as it sounds, they really might not like mash potatoes. So work with them to a degree.
So Many Caveats
People have strong feelings about this topic. At our house we do a little of everything based on our mood and where our daughter is developmentally.
If you feel like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth with some of these suggestions, I am. I think where food is concerned, very few people are the same day to day. We’re moody and hungrier some days. Our cravings change based on our body chemistry.
These suggestions all require Boss Parents to know the baseline of what is reasonably acceptable for their children to do. As will all behavior modifications, you want to see where children are and nudge them just a little bit toward where you’d like them to be, as gently and supportively as possible.
Open, kind, and loving is the goal. So don’t turn dinner into a battle every night. Try one little thing with one different food, and help your child be successful to build momentum. Even if you laid down the law and told your kid he had to try a bite before he leaves the table, don’t let him sit there for two hours out of spite (or because someone like me told you follow-through is the most important thing in the entire universe). Mistakes happen.
Be the Boss. Make a tweak to what you said. Approach him with an open, kind, and loving heart, and make that “bite” barely visible to the naked eye. Then when he touches it to his tongue, let it go. Try something different tomorrow.
We’re all learning. Yes, it’s so important to be consistent, but there’s almost always a win-win to be found on your terms, if you’re flexible.
I want my daughter to grow up with a healthy body and healthy ideas about food. But I also want to balance that with my responsibility to be an open, kind and loving Boss Parent.
About the Author
Lisa King is the co-founder of Boss Parent. She also provides parents with in-person and remote child behavior consulting.