Teaching Children to Love All Foods

We learned in our certification program and hear it over and over in our continuing education opportunities through the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute that the way to help children eat a diverse and healthy diet is to explain what food can do for their body.  We learned to ask children what they like to do, what they want to be, what they wish they could do when they get older.  When you are armed with their response, you can then respond with a statement such as: Food X can help you have the energy to do Activity Y.

This message seems great, makes sense, and I tell parents this all the time.  I tell them that it works and that children will listen to this and begin to make better choices and try new foods.  I tell parents that they may need to offer the new food many times, usually somewhere around 10-12, before they are even tried.  I tell parents with particularly sensitive children that the number of presentations is often closer to 20.

Here is my confession.  I have been doing this since before our son could even talk.  We have been talking about the benefits (in a little kid appropriate way) of good food choices and how they will help make him grow strong and have energy to play, swim, play trains, etc.  We have done this until we are blue in the face and are left sitting at the end of the meal with a child in tears because he doesn’t want to try anything new and has only eaten the familiar food item on his plate.  This has been going on for almost 2 years.  To put it mildly, we were feeling disheartened and desperate.  We were following all of the suggestions we could find and all of the suggestions I provide parents.  The suggestions didn’t work.  I felt like a fraud.

We didn’t give up because food is essential to life.  It should be enjoyed and it breaks my heart that my 3-year-old doesn’t love food.  We love food and want him to have that same pleasure in nourishing his body with great choices.

It is important to remember that while the 3-year-old brain is amazingly intricate, it is not always able to make complex connections or reason through problems.  I know this, but we still talk about what food can do for his body in a very basic way.  While our son eats all kinds of raw fruits and veggies, he shies away from cooked veggies and new grains, and has flat out refused to try meat.  We don’t mind if he is a vegetarian (because that is mostly how we eat anyway), but we do want him to try new foods.

Everything shifted this week.  Last week we traveled to be with my best friend as we mourned the loss of her dad.  She and her husband have 2 children – one is almost 7 and the other is 3.  The 7-year-old is quickly working his way to a junior black belt in karate (wow!).  He has a toned body, tons of energy, loves to read, and is ACTIVE.  He also eats meat, tries new foods, and loves his fruits and veggies.

While we were there, the 7-year-old (B) was practicing his kicks with a 150lb bag.  He can already knock over a 100lb bag with the strength of his kicks and is now feeling very determined to mast ther 150lb. bag as well.  K was mesmerized and fascinated.  Each night K saw him eat a well rounded dinner and enjoy it.  Meanwhile, K still refused to try anything new.

We returned home a couple of days ago and we continued our “food is good, it helps you grow” spiel but with an added twist – “Remember how B could knock over that bag with his kicks?  He has the energy to do that because he ate ________.”  Magically, K decided he wanted to be strong and grow like B.  He has tried chicken, homemade whole wheat cheese quesadillas, and lightly steamed green beans.  He has also started eating homemade guacamole again (avocado and lime juice).  He hasn’t tried that many new foods in the past 12 months combined!

The key to our puzzle was that he needed to see someone slightly older being active and eating those foods I was talking about.  He needed someone he could relate to and look up to.

I am writing this post because I felt discouraged, worried, and fearful.  I knew the words, but they weren’t working.  I knew the correct foods, but they were getting tossed in the trash day after day.  Please don’t give up if you are experiencing the same struggle.  I may not know what the key will be for you, but there is one and I would love to help you find it.  Keep offering the foods you want your child to try, remain patient, and don’t compare yourself to other parents and children.  You will find the solution that works for your family and your child.  You will find that key that unlocks their willingness to try new foods and create healthy habits.

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