By Dr. Nicole Avena
It’s no secret that babies and young children can be extremely picky when it comes to food, and can see mealtimes only as an interruption to much preferable play time. Sometimes getting creative is the best way to ensure that your child is eating proper meals and learning good eating habits that will stick as they grow older.
Cook Meals Together
Even children as young as four or five can help cook family meals. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, cooking with your child can cultivate skills that will benefit them in many aspects of life. It increases family bonding time, it engages the senses, and nurtures feelings of independence and accomplishment. After understanding the effort it takes to put together a meal, a child will be more willing to appreciate and take pride in the foods they have prepared, and thus will be more likely to sit down and eat them (1). Simple tasks like shucking corn, measuring ingredients, and reading recipe instructions allow your child to engage in the process of cooking.
Sneak in Vegetables
Many young children will quickly turn their noses up at anything green that isn’t artificially dyed. Vegetables are critical parts of any healthy diet as they provide several essential nutrients as well as fiber to aid digestion (2). However, their flavors and textures can pale in a child’s eyes compared to sugar and sodium-laden snack foods. One solution to this is the introduction of vegetables into foods that your child already loves. A simple internet search will reveal that healthy upgrades of comfort food classics are all the rage. Instead of a plate of steamed carrots and broccoli, try veggie-enhanced spaghetti and meatballs, sweet potato brownies, or enchiladas with greens. After these meals have been kid-approved, you can reveal the hidden ingredients and explain to your child that vegetables do not have to be boring and bland. You can find recipes online, or even buy books that cater specifically to picky children.
Mealtimes are a social event, and keeping your child engaged at the dinner table will not only making eating more enjoyable, but it will also teach them the importance of interpersonal connections. Have the whole family get together to talk about the day or play social games. Games like I-spy, telephone, or “what I’m bringing to the picnic” are all common icebreaker games that can make mealtimes more fun for children (3). However, it’s best to avoid the use of electronics in these games as they can prove to be more of a distraction than anything else.
The Bottom Line for Making Meals Fun
Each parent knows their own child best and can use that knowledge to create their unique set of mealtime traditions that will make eating enjoyable for the entire family. Whether you have a picky eater or a child that just can’t wait to get back to play time, there are a plethora of tips and tricks that will help establish a lifetime of healthy eating habits.
Nicole Avena, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University. She is the author of several books, including What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler, and What to Eat When You’re Pregnant. The post was adapted from What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler.
- Nimali Fernando. American Academy of Pediatrics (2019). 5 Great Reasons to Cook with Your Kids. Retrieved from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Cooking-With-Your-Children.aspx
- Harvard School of Public Health. Vegetables and Fruits. Retrieved from: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegetables-and-fruits/
- The Family Dinner Project. Games and Activities. Retrieved from: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/4week-program/support/games-and-activities/