Nutritionist Tips for Helping Kids Eat at Mealtimes

Anyone who feeds children has a tough job. This is one of the first places where kids exert their independence by refusing to eat or only eating certain items. It can be frustrating for caregivers who are legally responsible for feeding them. And, of course, love them and want them to be nourished.

First, know that you are doing a good job. Just by clicking on this article, it shows you care. Kids might be stubborn, and it might take some time, but you are giving your kids an invaluable gift by giving them a foundation of healthy eating—even if they don’t act on it until their adult years.

Adults Decide What Is Served

The first rule is caregivers decide what is served and when. This is important because kids don’t know what is healthy and what their bodies need. That’s why they have grown-ups.

I recommend:

  • Serving a variety of foods. Offer familiar foods your child has seen before and one new thing. Let them eat as much or as little as they like.
  • If you serve dessert, serve it with the meal and let them eat it in whatever order they want. This prevents sweets from being seen as better. If kids ask for more dessert, you can say “that’s all we have today.” Resist making dessert a prize they can have only if they eat their chicken and peas.
  • Not assuming your child won’t eat it. They might surprise you.
  • Role model eating a variety of foods yourself. You can talk about why you do, too. Carrots help our eyes work better or oranges help us recover from a cold.
  • Asking other adults in the child’s life to avoid labeling foods as good or bad or saying “eew vegetables” or “yay cake!” in front of your child.

Kids Decide If They Eat and How Much

Children decide if they eat and how much. That’s important because we don’t want to train children to eat to please someone else or to override their internal cues for hunger and fullness.

They need to learn to listen to their body’s needs. That might mean that children refuse a meal or only eat part of it. As caregivers, we need to be OK with that.

There are some things caregivers can do to encourage their kids to eat at mealtime:

  • Limit snacks. If older kids fixed themselves a big after-school snack or little kids carried a cup of Cheerios around an hour ago, they probably won’t be hungry at dinner time. If they aren’t hungry, they won’t be motivated to try something new.
  • Offer healthy snacks. Let kids choose from pre-approved snacks that offer vitamins and minerals. Yogurt, nuts, carrot sticks, or anything they find in the fruit bowl are some ideas.
  • You can still offer their favorites as part of the meal. For example, if a child asks for cheese, you can say “sure, we’ll have some cheddar on our salads tonight.” Or if they ask for pretzels: “Sure, I’ll put them in your lunchbox tomorrow.”
  • Let kids explore different food textures. They might prefer the crunch of raw vegetables or softer cooked varieties.

Try to resist making an alternative meal for kids. If they always know there’s something else, they won’t be motivated to try new foods. If they aren’t hungry at mealtime, you can put their plate in the fridge to offer it again later if they’re hungry. Otherwise, just serve the next meal when scheduled.

One Last Thing

Many caregivers hide veggies in meals. I add spinach to my own pasta sauce and riced cauliflower to my smoothies to get more veggies in. It’s a fine strategy, but if kids (or adults who eat like kids) ask, ‘fess up. Lying might make them even more hesitant at mealtimes.

Image by monzenmachi.

Candace Nelson

In the mountains or water debate, Candace Nelson, MS, CN chooses water every time. She is a licensed nutritionist and loves taking any fitness class that makes her forget she's working out. Read more at candacenelson.net



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