Raising good eaters

Tips on getting my kids to be good eaters
I have 5 kids, all of whom are great eaters.  My oldest is 9 and my youngest is 14 months.  My daughter, who is 3, is definitely our pickiest eater, but she has learned to at least eat a few bites of every dinner, even if she doesn't like it, so in my mind she has grown to be a pretty good eater over the last couple of years.  People are always commenting on how well my children eat, so I figured I should gather my thoughts together and write down some of my tips for getting my children to eat.

I was a picky eater growing up so I became bound and determined to get my kids to be good eaters like my husband instead of picky like me.  Out of my 4 boys, only 1 was a naturally great eater- he would eat anything and everything set in front of him and never went through a picky phase.  He truly loves food!  For the others, however I have done many things to try and get them to be good eaters, and I can confidently say that these things have worked so far.

My oldest was a great eater as a baby.  He ate some from a jar, but I also made a lot of homemade baby food.  When you do this, you can gradually increase the consistency of it so that they get used to real people food as they get better at eating solids.

By about 1 year old, he had become a monstrous eater, sometimes having 3 serving of spaghetti and meatballs, and I couldn't imagine what he would be like as a teenager.   However, he didn't seem to like anything green and began throwing these things on the floor.  (as a side note, when we realized he was deliberately doing this out of defiance we began gently slapping his hand and saying "no" every time he would throw food on the floor and he quickly learned not to throw food on the floor anymore.)

I soon learned that if I gave him his veggies first when he was nice and hungry, there was a much greater chance that he would eat them, than if they were served with the rest of the meal. This was only the beginning of his pickiness.

The real struggle finally began at about 14 months old.  One day he loved spaghetti, the next day he refused it.  One day he loved chicken, the next day he hated it.  One day he loved black bean soup, then hated it.  WHAT DO I DO??

I learned that this is a stage that most babies go through starting at around 13 months old.  This is also the age when they want to start feeding themselves.  What do you do when they won't feed themselves the food you've made?

Do you force feed?
Do you make something special every night just for the baby?
Is he going to starve if he doesn't eat much?

Here are some tips for getting my children to be great eaters:

1.  Keep cooking the same foods you love  for you and your family and usually there will be something that he could eat so as not to starve (they usually always will eat the starch or the fruit served with dinner).  By doing this, you are not training them to eat macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets every night just because "that's all they will eat".  Children will not starve themselves, and when they are really hungry they will eat SOMETHING.  I start introducing them to our foods as soon as possible (7,8,9 months) by pureeing our dinners in a baby food grinder.  I believe this helps tremendously as they get older. 

2.  Start with veggies-  I always started with the vegetables, and gradually brought out the rest of the food.  (If he even saw the fruit, bread or other yummier foods, that was the end of him eating his vegetables!  So at this age I really try to hide the yummy foods.)   You really can't force babies to eat at that age, although there were times that I knew if I could get him to taste it, he would love it, so there were definitely times that I forced a little bite in his mouth, or even got a little on his lips so he would lick it.  Sure enough, he DID like it and gulped the rest down.  

3.  Do not give them milk BEFORE dinner!   Up until about 12 months, babies get most of their nutrition from breast milk or formula and the other food we give them (in my opinion) is more about training them to eat different flavors and textures.  When they turn 12 months, this is a good time to transition and start giving their bottle or cup of milk AFTER their meal so that they get used to eating more foods rather than reliant mainly on milk.  If you wait too long to make this transition, your child may hit the picky stage where they don't want to try anything new!

4.  Do not give snacks too close to dinner time.  This is a huge deal! I have seen parents give huge snacks to their kids and then wonder why they are such picky eaters.   In fact I don't usually give snacks (or milk or juice) at all from lunch to dinner so that they are nice and hungry and ready to eat anything.  Occasionally I will give a little snack (fruit or a few crackers) around 3pm to tie them over.  As my kids have gotten older they can usually handle a snack and still be hungry for dinner.  Around dinner time my kids usually say, "I'm SUPER hungry!"  and I say "that's great! because we're gonna have dinner soon."  

 5.  If you have to feed him before everyone else is sitting at the table to eat, this is ok!  I want my children to become good eaters, so I'd rather feed him dinner earlier than everyone else if he truly is that hungry, instead of giving him a snack or milk.  Of course, I'm speaking of children 2 and under.  As they get older, they can wait for everyone else to eat.  If you want to eat as a family, you can save the fruit or bread or something else for him to eat when everyone else is seated, but I always want him to eat the main course when he's nice and hungry instead of spoiling his dinner with snacks beforehand just to hold him off until dinner time. 

6.  Try different techniques -like putting something ONLY on your plate, and not on his. This is usually a great trick where kids see what is on your plate and wanting to eat "mommy's" food,  but it didn't work with my oldest when he was a baby, so I tried something different.

I figured out that if I made some broccoli while he was taking a nap, then brought him down after nap time and while holding him, I would begin to eat the broccoli without offering any to him, and suddenly he wanted to eat it!  The trick is to NOT offer any to your baby, and then it makes them think it is something special.  With broccoli, however I couldn't do this at dinner time, but rather when he first woke up from his nap and was still a little sleepy.  

7.  It might be a flavor issue- my third son was not interested in ANY type of baby food- store bought or homemade.  Finally, I added butter, cinnamon and a little sugar to his sweet potatoes and he devoured them- and he was VERY young too (about 8 months old).  One of his first foods that he actually liked was lentil tacos with salsa verde.  I finally realized that he just wanted some good tasting food instead of all that bland stuff! He is now 2 1/2 and some of his favorite dishes are the lentils, spicy curry, or thai chicken soup.

 Babies like to eat good food, just like everyone else!  If you find good recipes, they are much more likely to eat it!

8.  It might be a texture issue -  I also learned with my 3rd boy that he didn't like certain textures so I ran just about everything through the baby food grinder.  Certain dishes require you to take a perfect bite in order to really enjoy the dish and since a 14 month old can't get a perfect bite, I figured I needed to blend it in order for him to taste all the flavors.  Sure enough this worked more often than not.   In fact, he is now 2 1/2 and I just had to puree something again because he wouldn't eat it, and guess what?  he ate it when it was pureed!
Update:  He is now 5 and I have not pureed anything for him for a long time, so trust me, they grow out of these stages. The purpose of pureeing food is to get them used to the flavors we eat, and this seems to really work.

9.  Do not give juice! -For some reason there is an idea that children, and even babies, are supposed to drink juice.  I am COMPLETELY opposed to juice at a young age, not only because it is terrible for your teeth, but because it ruins your taste for fresh fruit.

think about it for a minute.

Juice is MUCH sweeter than most fresh fruits, so if you drink juice all day long, why would you then want to eat fruit?

Allow fruit to be a sweet treat that they LOVE, and then they can look forward to it at dinner. Try different fruits that are in season and on sale because if it is in season then it will probably be more flavorful than something NOT in season.  Get them used to the less-sweet fruits at a young age like berries, peaches, honeydew, kiwi.  Apples and bananas are usually available and reasonably priced all year round, but they are really sweet, so if this is all they ever eat, they may not learn to enjoy the wide variety of yummy fruits!

We have fruit with just about every meal and my kids have ALWAYS loved it.  During the really picky age of 13 months -2 years, fruit and whole milk is a guarantee of something they will eat each night.  When they get to be about 20 months old, I actually begin to say, "you don't get any fruit unless you eat your dinner" and this works like a charm just about every time.

10. Don't give dessert until about 18 months -2 years.  To some people, this may seem extreme, but in the same way juice is very sweet and reduces a child's desire for fresh fruit, dessert does the same thing.  If you can get them to love fruit at an early age, it is like candy to them, so why introduce any other "dessert"? Trust me, with 5 kids I know how hard it can be to keep dessert from your baby when everyone else is eating it, but all I have to do is cut up some apples, canteloupe and bananas and he is completely content!  He has had small doses of dessert every now and then, when there isn't any fruit around, but he hasn't had enough to take away the desire for fresh fruit.  I suppose when a child doesn't eat fruit, then it may be necessary at a certain point to introduce cookies as a means of bribery to get them to eat their dinner, but if you can bribe them with grapes or raisins, why not use that power?!

10Give a set amount of bites they have to eat/play a game - This doesn't work as well with the babies, but by the time they are about 18 months old they kind of understand this concept.  3 bites is much more attainable than an entire plate of food!  Sometimes, i will even guess how many bites it will take to finish it and say "just 5 bites", and they will quickly eat everything in the bowl! 

 If they refuse to eat a set amount of bites on their own, often times they will do it if you spoon feed them, or make up a silly game.  Our daughter often didn't want to eat her dinner unless we fed it to her. We would pretend the food is Dora who has to get away from the bad fox, and where is she gonna go?  Next thing we know, she would open her mouth nice a wide.  If's funny because by about 14 months babies want to feed themselves and want nothing to do with us feeding them, but then a year later, they want us to feed them again. She is 3 and probably seems to old for us to be feeding her, and we don't have to nearly as much, but again, its about getting our kids used to the flavors, and she has gradually learned to like what I serve, so whatever works is fine with me.  I know that I won't still be spoon feeding her when she is 10.

It has been said before that it takes 11 tries to start liking something.  I've personally experienced this rule with my oldest son's salad hatred where he went from complaining about and despising salad to absolutely loving it and wanting more!

 so, what if they still refuse to eat even a couple bites?

11. They don't have to eat it, but they won't get anything else the rest of the night - It is difficult to discipline kids for not eating because you don't want it to become a control issue where they aren't eating just to be in control.  The best thing, in my opinion, is to let THEM make the choice and say "ok, that's fine if you don't want to eat, but you don't get anything else the rest of the night (including fruit)."  STICK TO THIS RULE!  Do not start feeling guilty.  I just did this with my 2 year old last night, and as soon as he started watching everyone eat grapes, I said, "nope, you didn't eat your dinner."  Guess what?  He quickly ate his dinner!

It doesn't always happen this way, but one night without dinner is not gonna kill them!  It is mainly important that you stick to your rules so that they know you are consistent.  If you slip even one time and let them have something else, then they know there is always a chance that if they DON'T eat their dinner, they might still be able to have something else.
12.  Experiment with other tricks and don't give up!
my 3rd boy was a strange one when it came to food as I've already mentioned the texture and flavor problems he had, but he also went through a phase where if I was holding him and started giving him bites of his dinner, he would eat it happily.  As soon as I set it on his tray, and set him down, he would refuse to eat it -even if I picked him up again.  He was a much better eater while being held, so I went with that for a while because it is what worked for that particular child.

Am I still holding him at age 2 1/2?  Did I ruin his table manners?

of course not!  they grow out of these silly things, but I am totally willing to try all kinds of things for that frustrating age of 1-2 because it is SO WORTH IT now that I have 5 great eaters.

It may seem stressful while in the midst of it, trying all different ways to get your child to eat, but it ends up being far LESS stressful for the rest of your life when you try some of these tricks at an early age before its too late!


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