Encouraging children to eat well can often feel like an uphill struggle. Toddlers are constantly working to gain independence and control in their lives – making battles over food choices a common occurrence.
Picky eaters are prone to consuming insufficient calories and often end up reliant on highly processed or convenience foods, which are deficient in many of the vitamins children need to grow and develop.
Using these motivational techniques, you can help encourage positive eating habits from a young age and give the children in your setting the best opportunity to grow into healthy adults.
In order to stay motivated to continue positive behaviours, it’s important to recognise the benefits. This can be challenging with young children, but encouraging them to help with cooking can help them to begin to understand the value of making nutritious food choices.
Children learn best with hands-on activities, so enlist their help with ingredient preparation, mixing and stirring and invite them to comment on the food they’ve helped make and how it makes them feel. Encourage children to understand that eating well will give them more energy and support them in doing the things they enjoy.
Toddlers tend to have small appetites and are natural snackers. Be realistic about food quantities – portion sizes should be about one-fourth the size of an adult portion, so don’t panic if it feels like they’re not eating much. For children who don’t seem interested in consuming 3 main meals, try offering healthy snacks every two to three hours instead.
Give some consideration to the time and place where children are being fed. Toddlers are active learners, meaning too much activity will take their focus away from the task at hand. Ensure that there are no unnecessary distractions at the dinner table and be on the lookout for signs that children may be growing overly tired or too hungry. Try to ensure that meals are served before either of these issues becomes a barrier to mealtime success.
Children are more likely to make healthier choices when the decision to do so comes from them, rather than an outside source. Research supports this, indicating that children are around 20% more likely to consume fruits and vegetables when they’re made accessible and presented attractively, but not forced upon them. Keep fresh fruit and vegetables on hand at all times and make sure they’re washed, cut up and ready to go. You can add yoghurt, tahini or hummus for extra protein.
Whilst parents are encouraged to maintain overall control (by deciding which food is offered, when it is offered and where it is offered), try leaving it to the individual child to decide whether or not they would like to try something and exactly how much they wish to consume. You may be pleasantly surprised!
It’s incredibly easy to unwittingly turn healthy food choices into a negative. By repeatedly trying to bribe or force a child to eat their greens, you run the risk of creating longstanding associations that are less than positive. Even if children are made aware that something will make them feel good or grow big and strong, they will be reluctant to eat well if they subconsciously associate food with negative feelings (due to previous experiences of pressure or food restriction).
Contrary to popular belief, children who are encouraged to enjoy a wide variety of foods (some nutritionally balanced, some less so) tend to be less fussy, while children who feel pressure to eat particular foods can be more selective with what they eat. Rather than getting hung up on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, try to encourage a little of everything in moderation.
It is important to build a positive attitude by continuing to offer previously rejected foods (without pressure or negativity), allowing children to explore food and letting them serve themselves. Try to avoid commenting on what or how much children are eating and make the dinner table a place where children want to be, rather than a battleground.
The childhood impulse to imitate is strong – children watch, listen and learn through observation and then follow what they see. As a result, if you encourage a child to eat their greens but shun vegetables yourself, they are unlikely to develop a taste for them. It’s important to refrain from commenting negatively on food or overtly restricting your own choices, so that the children in your care don’t adopt the same associations with food.
It’s easy to feel like children will never like certain foods, or to become frustrated when something that used to be popular is suddenly rejected, but it’s important to keep at it. It can take many attempts for a child to learn to enjoy something but by ensuring that children are regularly exposed to healthy food choices, they’re more likely to be receptive to them.
If weeks or months pass without tasting particular flavours, they will become unfamiliar and more of a struggle. However, they might just need a few tries to remember that they do like it. It is also always worth considering that children may not be ready for bitter-tasting vegetables yet, or simply don’t want any that day.