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Managing Mealtime Menaces

"But yesterday you loved carrots!"

We want our children to eat well and to develop good habits. We know that eating does more than just help the body to grow. At all ages, eating should be a pleasurable experience, one enjoyed by both the child and the adult. But it can be very frustrating when your children do not greet all your good work with open arms and well-mannered cheers for more.

Here are some tips to try when your child refuses to eat, to try new foods, or will eat only one or two foods for days:

  • Don't force them to eat if they don't seem hungry. The child may be going through a slow growth period and may not be hungry. Also, when children are very active or ill, or if they are worrying about something, they may not be hungry.
  • Don't use food as a reward. "Eat your vegetable or you won't get dessert" gives the impression that dessert is better than vegetables. Avoid using food as a reward or a punishment. Serve dessert casually, as a part of the meal.
  • Keep two hours between snacks and meals. If the children snack too close to meal time, they may not be hungry for meals.
  • Start with small servings. Kids are easily turned off by adult size portions. Or, try the 'one bite' rule. Have the children try at least one bite of each food.
  • Remember variety. Serve a variety of fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, cheese, cereals, breads, and desserts. For extra interest, cut meat into strips; cut vegetables and fruits in rings.
  • Offer choices. Help children to feel more independent and in control by offering them choices whenever possible. For example, "Do you want peas or broccoli for lunch?"
  • Get children to help with the meal. They are more likely to try foods they have helped select, clean, or prepare.
  • Be aware of children's likes and dislikes. Children like bright, colorful, crunchy foods that aren't too hot or spicy. Many children also prefer plain foods rather than mixed dishes. Some children like to have foods separated on their plates. they may not want to eat food that touches another food. It is also common for children to eat all one food on the plate before they begin to eat another food.
  • Recognize that many children have "food jags." They want to eat only one or two foods for days on end. Try not to make an issue of this normal, frustrating behavior. Wait a few days and they probably will be eating a variety of foods again.
  • Set a good example. Children are great imitators. They watch what we do. If we refuse some foods, they also will be more picky about what they want to eat.

Prepared by Donna Kaufmann, Extension Educator, Nutrition & Wellness