Get Your Kids to Eat Better at the Table – without threats or bribery!

EatBetterI’ve been fighting the “eat your food!” battle for almost 10 years. Sound familiar? Each kid has taken to the dinner table differently than the last, so we have to continually learn how to keep our children alive by getting food into them. Once in a while, we will get lucky and a couple of them will hit a growth spurt, letting their guard down when it comes to mealtime; but for the most part, we usually have at least one little one that needs some extra help when it comes to eating a good meal.

Here are 11 tricks we have learned that help our kids eat better:

Potty and wash hands PRIOR to sitting down. How many times have your kids interrupted the meal because all of a sudden, their bladder might burst? I don’t know about your kids, but I have one child in particular that will use this excuse, especially if it is a meal he doesn’t care for.

“You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” Maybe it’s a Disney princess plate or an Avengers bowl. For us, it’s the colorful children’s IKEA bowls, plates, and cups. My 4-year-old flat out refuses to eat if his food isn’t served on the orange plate. Heaven forbid those things are in the dishwasher or lost! Trying to rationalize with them that it’s the same food despite the plate color has never worked for us.

No snacking prior to the meal. This almost goes without saying, but it’s hard to do! Your toddler is constantly hungry, always wanting something – so, you give him a snack. Yogurt. Cheese. Fruit. Cereal. Whatever. If they are snacking close to dinner, they aren’t going to eat as well as if they had come to the dinner table with a hungry belly. This includes sippy cup after sippy cup of milk or juice; that fills their tummies, too! No snacks an hour before dinner is the rule at our house.

It’s a home, not a restaurant. What mom has time to make different entrees for each member of the family?! Not this one! From the beginning, I have always put the same food on their plate as I have on ours. That means our 1 1/2 year old eats beef stroganoff or meatloaf just like the rest of us. By doing this, they are getting used to the taste from the beginning when they aren’t as close-minded as they are when they’re preschoolers, therefore nipping the picky-eating issue in the bud sooner. With that being said …

Serve food they will eat. While I do serve meals according to what is on our family’s menu, I don’t serve food that I know they won’t touch. After all, I want them to eat! For instance, if I make chili, it’s not super-spicy. My husband can add as much heat as he wants to his bowl, but for the huge pot, I make it tasty for the palates that aren’t as tolerant to spice. Chili isn’t necessarily a “kid food,” but I serve it often enough that the kids have tried it, know I won’t give them something else, and now eat it willingly. I even got a cheer of approval from my 9-year-old the other night when he asked what we were having!

No toys at the table. I know your toddler never puts down that Thomas the Train or that baby doll that just has to stay by her side at all times. But … no toys at the table! Period. End of story. If your child gets the smallest opportunity to grab that toy in-between bites, she will – and that just prolongs the meal for everyone! This rule also extends to those bigger kids and their books, drawings, Pokemon cards, etc.

Smaller portions. As much as you would think your 6-year-old is going to love those mashed potatoes and gravy, chances are they won’t eat that huge dollop. Not only are their tummies (and preferences) smaller than ours, a huge mound of food can seem quite overwhelming to these kids. If someone put you at the base of a mountain and said, “start climbing,” you’d probably give ‘em the finger, turn around and walk away! Start off small and see how it goes. If they love it, they can always have more!

Less to drink. I have definitely had moments when I don’t blame some other cultures for not serving drinks with their meals! One of my boys will completely fill up on a huge glass of milk, then have nothing to do with the food on his plate. So, we either give super-small amounts of milk or water, or no drinks at all until food has reached the belly. It may sound mean, but … it works.

Eat together. It never fails, the second I get up from the table to start doing dishes, my kids take that as “dinner’s over! Time to get up!” Or if it’s a busy night with practices, meetings, and homework to get accomplished, feeding the kids quickly almost always results in them never truly eating what is put in front of them. Taking the time to sit down as a family always ends up with fuller bellies. Even if I scarf my food down, making a conscious effort to stay there with the kids always results in them eating more. Besides, it’s also a great opportunity to spend more time together!

Make it a game. Have trouble getting your kids to eat veggies? I do! We have finally learned to make up games in order for them to try new things or to eat their veggies. One game, in particular, that is played often in this house is “guess the veggie.” It involves one person taking the fork and picking out a veggie from the mixed veggies and feeding it to the closed-eyes guesser. For some reason, the kids love it – and we’re happy because we are seeing them eat the healthy stuff!

No talking. If you have a talker like I do and all else fails, institute a no talking rule until more food has been consumed. My first grader loves the sound of his own voice and rarely stops talking or making noises. We are constantly telling him to stop talking and start eating. But, the response to those requests is usually short-lived; so, when we’ve been at the table for almost-too-long and there is still a lot of food on those plates, we end up playing the quiet game until plates are a little cleaner.


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