End mealtime battles by finding new ways to introduce different foods to your child

Dinnertime should be a family bonding experience inspired by togetherness and the pleasure of a shared meal. However, toddlers often see it as an opportunity to assert their opinion on various food types while challenging their parents to a battle of wills. Every family handles this situation differently, from a “you’ll eat when you’re hungry” attitude to the careful creation of a kid-friendly alternative just to keep the peace.

Food refusal is not only frustrating but it also causes parents to worry about proper nutrition and future eating habits. The good news is that, chances are, your child won’t live on a “dino-shaped chicken nuggets with ranch sauce” meal plan into old age, but it’s still a good idea to help them expand their palate by trying new things.

A balanced meal

It’s important to understand that young children learn by pushing boundaries. This is an unfortunate fact for parents, but try to remember that and remain calm – sometimes kids are seeking a reaction even more than an outcome.

Children will go through multiple phases with trying new foods and it’s important to have the patience and persistence to try a few different strategies. Experiment with the following suggestions to get your picky eater to try new foods.

Start early: Let’s face it – babies don’t even know that doughnuts exist. Infancy and early toddlerhood are prime-time opportunities for establishing healthy habits. It may not stick, but at least you got a good start. When you start feeding your baby solids, expose them to everything with an emphasis on a wide variety of vegetables and appropriate proteins. Go easy on the sweet stuff like fruit; although it’s good for the baby, it’s also not as difficult to introduce later.

Go easy: Don’t expect young children to eat an entire serving of something that they claim to dislike. The easiest way to avoid a food feud is to compromise early in; encourage them to take one or two bites of food they “dislike” near the beginning of the meal to try it again.

Add sauce: There’s something about dipping food into something else that transforms the taste and experience for young children. Try a range of flavors such as ranch, ketchup, mustard, honey mustard, hummus, Greek yogurt, and anything else you can think of. Introducing something familiar like a favorite sauce to a new food can make the unfamiliar more appealing.

Work together: Make mealtime a more collaborative activity by involving your child early on. Whether it’s growing ingredients in the garden or helping you cook, children are more likely to try something they feel a sense of pride or ownership about. Even asking them to help set the table gives them a role and a small investment in the outcome.

Be enthusiastic: Demonstrate good behavior by showing excitement when you try new foods and by making mealtime more than routine. Use “fancy” plates or talk about how special a certain dish or ingredient is and why. Praise your child for good table manners or trying something new. Set meals up as a fun experience, and maybe they’ll follow suit.

Making food for your family is a labor of love and having that effort met with combative behavior can be disheartening. Understand that food refusal is a normal part of early childhood development and continue experimenting with new ways to introduce a variety of foods into your child’s diet. The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.