Hi there! I’m Nicole, owner of Peasful Kitchen, a cooking school that teaches parents how to prepare the healthiest meals for their families. My job of introducing the recipes is the easy part; the real challenge is often getting a child to actually swallow that food. Throughout my six years of teaching, I’ve heard countless parents describe the hair-pulling drama of dinnertime, which only ends when they resort to an alternative meal as a compromise. I’m certainly not immune to this with my three young children. (Despite my job, my kids are still kids!). There are moments when they decide they no longer like their favorite chicken soup, times when they beg me for marshmallows for dinner (their persistence is impressive!), and my personal favorite: nights when they flat out refuse to eat and then decide they’re starving at bedtime. #thestruggleisreal
In my experience, there are some practices that seriously work- and others that flat-out don’t- when you want your child to eat her dinner. Here are strategies from my own life, and the lives of the parents I teach, that can make mealtimes saner and more successful.
DO let them lend a hand. During my cooking classes, parents are always shocked that their children are willing to try foods that they would never eat at home. This happens because preparing a meal makes the food more familiar and because kids take pride in their work. I admit that the last thing I have time for on a busy weeknight is to prepare a meal from scratch with my kids (plus, that mess!), so we often save cooking together for weekends. During the week, I try to find quick, mess-free ways for my kids to be involved. They add finishing touches to meals by sprinkling on a little cheese, squeezing some lemon juice, or adding a dash of salt and pepper. Even letting kids serve themselves directly from the pot gives them a sense of control that translates into them being more receptive of the meal ahead.
DON’T tell him it’s healthy. Which sounds more appetizing: “Eat it, it’s good for you” or “Eat it, it’s delicious”? Research backs up the latter. In fact, when presented with the same exact meal, people rate their food tastier when it’s described as yummy vs. healthy. Instead of emphasizing the health benefits, talk about food in ways kids can relate. “Wow this spinach is the same color as Ninja Turtles!” I remember the first time my oldest and pickiest son tried a red pepper. I said, “I wonder if Lighting McQueen is super fast because he eats red peppers.” Worked like a charm!
DON’T be afraid to let them get hungry. We had a huge dinnertime turnaround once I stopped letting my kids snack after 4 p.m. They still get their traditional after-school snack, but that’s it until dinner. Once we got rid of the granola bars, popcorn, pretzels and other empty-nutrition treats they’d reach for when they got the 5 PM munchies, my children actually started eating their dinner because they were hungry enough for it. And let’s face it, when you’re hungry, you eat what’s in front of you.
DO play with your food. Could you imagine how difficult it would be to teach children the ABC’s without singing? Children learn almost everything through play, so making mealtime fun is crucial in their learning to love food, too. My kids are big fans of build-your-own rice bowls, tacos, and baked potatoes because it’s fun to assemble your own plate. We also have picnic dinners in the living room, make up themes such as dinner-on-a-stick nights, and create fun games that play on my two boys’ never-ending energy.