Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I love to cook, and we go out of our way to make meals we think our kids will like—or at least eat! But time after time we find ourselves dumping untouched food into leftover containers, or worse, into the trash. They seem to eat nothing but macaroni and cheese, and we’re worried that they’re not getting what they need in their diets. What can we do?
A: This may not make you feel any better, but I’m betting that every parent reading this column is nodding his or her head in agreement. Apparently all our children got the same memo.
Your job as a parent is to encourage healthy eating habits and to provide a good variety of healthy foods. Of course, as you know, providing it and getting the kids to actually eat it seem mutually exclusive. Not to worry. Research consistently shows that despite the frustrating appearance of the almost-untouched after-dinner plate, even the pickiest kids generally meet or exceed their recommended energy and dietary requirements. (After all, you don’t see too many kids keeling over from scurvy on the school playground, right?) The body automatically seeks out the nutrients it needs.
It might also help to consider that children’s unwillingness to experiment with unfamiliar tastes and textures may have some evolutionary roots. Early hominid children with a predisposition to put weird things in their mouths were less likely to survive to pass on their genes than those who preferred bland and familiar foods.
That said, there are ways to get beyond eating nothing but the white food group and develop healthy lifelong habits and attitudes:
1. Don’t let your children fill up on sugar or fat, especially less than two hours before a meal. Children who are reasonably hungry at dinnertime are much more likely to eat what’s put in front of them.
2. Follow the “rainbow-on-a-plate” principle (offering foods with a variety of colors) to cover the widest range of vitamins and minerals.
3. Don’t prepare different meals for the kids and yourself. Find a happy (or at least reasonable) medium that everyone can eat.
4. Get the kids involved in food preparation— measuring out and adding ingredients, stirring in milk, grating cheese, and so on. They’re much less likely to reject something when they’ve invested their own time and effort.
5. Have them help you shop. And, if you’re feeling brave, every once in a while let the kids find something new for you to try!
6. Try, try again. Research indicates that young children won’t accept a new food until it’s been offered it at least eight times.
7. It’s perfectly reasonable to ask children to take at least one bite of everything on their plate and to stay at the table until everyone is finished.
8. When (to your surprise, and theirs) a new food passes muster, write it down and serve it again soon.
9. Include a supplemental vitamin with breakfast to close whatever vitamin and mineral gaps there may be.
10. Cheat a little. If all else fails, you may be able to slip some nutritious foods unnoticed into their mac and cheese. The Sneaky Chef, by Missy Chase Lapine, has a ton of great recipes, as does her website, thesneakychef.com
When it comes to picky dinnertime eating, there’s less need for panic than we often assume. Fortunately, most kids get more adventurous with age. So if you keep your end of the bargain by filling everyone’s plates with a wide variety of healthy foods, chances are everything will work out just fine.