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Avoiding mealtime battles

From the moment your little one took his first messy mouthful of solid food, you’ve kept close tabs on everything he eats, what he likes, and what he can’t stand. But at some point, mealtime shifted from a thrilling new adventure to a battlefield. What can you do to make mealtime less miserable?

Experts are almost unanimous in at least one thing: You don’t want to make mealtime a power struggle. Even if you “win” in the short term, i.e. forcing something down your child’s throat, you’ll lose in the long term.

Some parents find it helpful to back down from the battle by sorting out what they do and do not have control over. Specifically: You can control what foods you shop for, cook, place on the table, and offer to your child. Your child has control over what actually goes into his mouth.

Once you get past that hurdle and stop thinking of it as a battle of wills, you can start to return to doing things that make mealtime a more pleasurable experience:

  • Have your kids help you shop (especially at the farmers’ market, when possible) and pick out the brightest, freshest, most colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Have your kids help you cook whenever possible, or create meals that involve “make-your-own” elements such as make-your-own pizzas, burritos, tacos, sandwiches, etc.
  • Make your meals playful: smiley-face blueberry pancakes, sandwiches cut into shapes with a cookie cutter, vegetables arranged into a shining sun, etc.
  • Encourage your child to taste new items, and praise him for trying something new, but don’t punish him for not trying something.
  • Maintain consistent mealtimes and don’t allow snacking in the hour before dinner.
  • Set a good example by eating healthy foods yourself.
  • Respect your child’s appetite. He will stop when he is full, and encouraging him to continue beyond that in order to clear his plate can create unhealthy habits.
  • Don’t continue to create separate meals for your picky child. Offer a main meal with a few side dishes, at least one of which you know he will eat, and then close the kitchen until dinner is over.
  • Serve your meals “family style” so your child can choose his own portions without wasting food.

There is more than one school of thought on dessert. Most experts say not to hold it out as a reward for good eating, but to restrict it to one or two nights per week. Others advise taking the glamor out of dessert altogether by offering it alongside the dinner in tiny bites (i.e. bite-sized pieces of cookie). Using this technique your child can eat dessert first, as long as he eats all of the other food being offered at dinner as well.

Again, the more you can do to make mealtime a pleasurable experience, the more likely your child will eat without a struggle. Give him time and he will most likely outgrow most of his pickiness. Before you know it, you’ll have a teenager on your hands who will eat anything — and everything — he can get his hands on.