This article was originally posted on Apple to Zucchini, a great resource on how to feed modern families in a healthy way.

If your toddler or preschooler suddenly says “No” to the food he or she was enjoying a couple of days ago, do not be surprised.  As children grow and gain a sense of individualism, their food preferences tend to get stronger. This can sometimes cause a little (or a lot of) havoc at the dining table and a narrowing number of accepted foods. Don’t despair! All is not lost. Rather you, as a parent, should remain steadfast with your current feeding strategies while adding a little verbal finesse to mealtimes.  Here are some tips for what to say and do to continue your lessons on balanced eating while accepting your child’s growing need for autonomy.

1. Instead of “Eat this, it is healthy” – ” Try this and describe it to me.”
Small children don’t necessarily care if a food is healthy or not, but they do care about its taste and texture, among other properties. Asking them to try the food and describe it to you turns the tasting of it into an activity and an eating experience. Encourage your little ones to use be as comprehensive as possible and give them the vocabulary to talk about color, texture, smell, temperature and flavor. I like this post by Dina Rose listing 200 words your kids can use to describe food. Just remember to have fun and keep in mind that it can take anywhere from 7-20 tries before a child accepts a food and many more if your child has sensory- or motor-based problems.

2. Instead of “Eat dinner you MUST be starving” – “You do not have to eat.”
The truth is, no one knows better than your child how hungry he or she is.Children have internal sensors that prevent them from overeating. Forcing or “encouraging” them to eat when they are not hungry bypasses their internal cues and can lead to overeating later on in life.  Allowing the child to determine if they want to eat or not helps them stay attuned to their hunger-satiety cues. Additionally, they may be not eating just to see what you will say about it. Once they see there is nothing for them to resist, they may wind up eating after all, if they are hungry, that is. Without any pressure, ask your child to join you at the table for a few minutes just to have some family time. Quite often kids relax and pay more attention to food on the table once the pressure is gone.

3. Instead of “Here is your plate of food” – “Serve yourself what you would like to eat.”
Family style service has worked miracles in most families with picky eaters I know. Giving children the opportunity to serve themselves takes a lot of pressure off the meal times. You know you have prepared a variety of foods and will be happy with anything they choose. In turn, they know you won’t force them to eat something they don’t want. This autonomy is crucial for children when learning how to eat in a positive way. Now, instead of battling on the “what” everyone eats, the family can enjoy the social part of the meal. Learn more about the mechanics of family style meals here.

4. Instead of “Eat x,y,z to get your dessert” – “You can choose to eat your dessert before or after dinner.”
Presenting the dessert along with the rest of dinner seems contrary to all of our nutritional beliefs. In reality, this is a great way to take the “magic” away from dessert. Using dessert as a reward has proven to be counterproductive in teaching children to like other food. Showing the dessert up front also relays to the child that dessert will happen no matter what they eat for dinner. Again, autonomy is very important. Don’t fret if they eat dessert before dinner the first few times. If you get the serving size right (think one chocolate chip cookie), they will be still hungry for dinner after eating it. And don’t forget, fruit also makes excellent dessert! Here are 5 healthier deserts we love in our house.

5. Instead of “What do you want for dinner?” – “Here is the meal I planned for today.”
Small children are famous for their erratic eating habits. Trying to guess what they will like on any given day is a waste of time. Instead of catering to them, take charge of the menu while keeping their preferences in mind. Prepare a meal with both new and familiar foods to expand your child’s food repertoire in a relaxed environment. Knowing there is something on the table that they can comfortably handle allows children to feel accepted and successful at handling meals. Moreover, your child may learn to think of the other foods as “safe” because they are served along with the familiar food.

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Sources:

Orrell-Valente, J. K. et al (2007). ‘Just three more bites’: An observational analysis of parents’ socialization of children’s eating at mealtime. Appetite, 48, 37-45

Satter E. Child of mine: Feeding with love and good sense.

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