When my daughter was at preschool one of the other mums’ was complaining… ‘My child will only eat chicken nuggets’. When I drilled down a bit, it was because she was only feeding her child chicken nuggets! Every time her 3-year-old daughter said she didn’t want to eat her dinner, her mum would cave in and cook her chicken nuggets.
The mum wanted her to eat SOMETHING and not go to bed with an empty stomach, so figured chicken nuggets would be better than nothing – I am sure we have all done this at some stage in some form! Of course then the little girl knew that if she didn’t eat her dinner – she got to eat chicken nuggets and so the spiral continued! She ended up wanting them for every meal.
Setting good food habits for your children early is so essential to their development and attitude. Right from when your child starts eating (6 months) is when you can start the good habits and move from there.
So, how do you stop your child eating JUST chicken nuggets? Or change any other ‘bad’ food habit they might have.
1. Sit at a dinner table
Make dinner time family time. It is so easy to put the kids in front of the television or at the kids table to eat dinner but this is a great time to be together as a family. Ever since our kids were tiny, we made sure we ate a table and my husband made it his priority to be home by 6pm for dinner. He sometimes went back to the office or worked from home afterwards but dinner was at 6pm. It is a ritual now that we go around the table and ask ‘What was your favourite part of the day?’. Everyone has an uninterrupted turn to say what the best part of their day was and it usually sparks a conversation about something else. It also has the added bonus of helping our children to look for the positive things in their day. At a table there is open conversation. It sets a good habit for eating, but more than that, it sets up a safe, open space for your children to speak to you about their day – this is a good thing, especially as they get older. It also creates the idea that eating is social. It is so entwined in our fabric as a social thing to do, especially since the explosion of restaurants and eating out in the the 1970s that eating at a table with the family helps our children to associate food with being with people and having fun and not a chore.
2. Feed your child what you eat
If you are preparing two meals a night – one for the adults and one for the children – stop. It is so much easier to get your children to eat what you eat right from the get go. Between 6 and 8 months, your child needs pureed food and usually pureed vegetables but after that age, you can start to introduce food that you eat – especially finger food. By the time your child is 18 months old, they will be eating everything you are eating. And don’t cave into the pressure of making another meal if they don’t eat the one you have given them. It can take some time to instil the new habit of all eating the same meal, but once you are there, you won’t look back. Firstly, you only have to cook one meal so you are saving on time and secondly, they are getting all the nutrients and goodness just as you are. This advice will obviously only work if you eat nutritious meals – if you eat hamburgers and chips every night for dinner – disregard this tip.
3. Make dinner time fun
If you sit down to eat your dinner and all you are saying is ‘eat your dinner’, ‘eat your dinner’ – you won’t have any fun and your child will associate it with a negative time. So mix it up. My husband used to play a game where he would have the kids folk full of food and pretend he was going to eat it before they did and so they would gobble it down. I made chicken soup and put alphabet letter pasta in it so we spent the whole meal making words while they were eating. There are so many ways to make it fun and not constantly focus on telling your kids to ‘eat or there is no dessert!’ in a raised voice.
4. Let your child prepare the meal with you
There is nothing better than hands on dinner making. Not every night or you may go mad, but some nights they can help you get the vegetables they want to eat out of the fridge. My daughter was given a cook book at 6 years old and she chooses a recipe and we cook it together. The pride in making her own food resulted in her eating it. At 9 years old, she is now a whip at making pasta carbonara. Another favourite in our house is tacos. We put everything in the middle of the table and the kids make their own tacos. They love preparing their own meal and gives them some choice on what they are eating. The trick is to make all the choices healthy so they are only choosing to eat health food!
5. Be a role model
If all you eat is chicken nuggets, that is clearly all your child will eat! If you want your child to eat a variety of foods and fresh food – give it to them and eat it with them. It takes something like 32 times for a child to taste a new food before they like it so get them to try new food often and more than once. My youngest daughter loves spicy food and eats green curries and chicken laska. As a mum, you are probably the one who buys the food from the supermarket so buy the food YOU want you kids to eat, not the food THEY want to eat. Only get snacks for the cupboard that you are happy for your children to eat and if fresh fruit and vegetables are important to you – buy them! In our house, there is nothing better than when my son chooses the full fruit bowl over the cupboard for his snack. And also be consistent. If your child doesn’t want to eat broccoli tonight but you will expect her to eat it tomorrow night – give her the right message.
We also made the rule that there were no toys allowed at the dinner table and no electronics what so ever! No mobile phones, iPads, no television on. It is a quiet time for everyone to regroup as a family.
Another rule at our table is that no one is allowed to say YUK. As soon as someone says they don’t like something, no one else will eat it. For example, my son doesn’t like tomatoes – as soon as he identifies a tomato he says ‘Yuk, I’m not eating that’ and I know it will be a huge battle to get anyone else to eat it – so the blanket rule is just put the food they don’t like on the side of the plate until everyone is finished.
Another habit I have instigated lately is to eat the vegetables or salad first – before the meat, pasta or rice. That way, by the time they get to the end of the meal when we are generally finished it is less of a struggle to get them eating meat and carbs.
If you set the food habits you want for your children early on, your children will try a variety of foods and choose the ‘right’ foods that you give them. They will grow up to be strong, healthy adults who are resilient to illness and you will know you have done your job!
If you need help with a fussy eater, I would love to help you! Get in touch…
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About Anna Partridge
Anna Partridge is a school teacher, mother of three young children and founder of parenting and education blog, Positive Parenting with Anna Partridge. Anna inspires mums to be the most awesome mum they can be and gives them encouragement, inspiration, a tool kit and confidence to be a great mum and great woman. Anna runs parenting workshops about ‘Raising Confident and Resilient Kids’ and other parenting related topics. Through her work, Anna is building a community of mothers who are sharing the inspiration and challenges of raising the next generation. To find out more about Anna Partridge, visit her website here.