(Child eating paint...she must be REALLY starving)
It's one of the most challenging pieces of the parenting puzzle- how do I get my kid to eat good food that's good for them, and how do I get them to eat a meal at meal time?
We've all fallen into the easy, seductive trap- give the kid a hot dog, (they LOVE those)- and let them chomp away while they watch Dinosaur Train. Sure they won't be hungry come dinnertime, but at least they ate SOMETHING.
Hold that thought- just feeding your child something, anything, so that they aren't starving isn't good for anyone involved. The child is lacking nutritional subsistence, and you'll be lacking hair after years spent at the dinner table trying to force feed them green vegetables.
Now I understand that every child, and every situation, is different- not every method works for every family (ask me about the "having the child sit on the toilet backwards for potty training" advice I once received). But when dealing with my own now 3-year old, here is the approach deemed successful in our home.
1. Kids love routines- that's why you sit them down for 3 squares at the same time every day- snack time may vary, but the main meals should become a timely, daily routine. After a couple days (maybe weeks, stick with it) the child will begin to realize that these AND ONLY THESE are the times they'll be presented food.
2. Treat your kitchen like YOUR kitchen, not a restaurant- Again, the regular times you prepare food are the only times the kitchen is open. This is not a place for your child to come sit down, peruse a menu and place an order at their convenience; rather; these are your 2, maybe 3 options- and that's what's on the menu, and it's only available hot and fresh for the next 10 minutes.
3. Make at least one meal a day a family meal as part of your routine- This is easier said then done for busy families, but if you can all gather around the same table every evening for dinner it will help to demonstrate the notion of "meal time" (monkey see...) and let's face it- our kids want to spend time with us, because we are awesome!
4. This Is What's For Dinner- That doesn't mean force feed them lima beans and liver every night- try to make sure the meal includes an item you know you child enjoys (maybe ask them for input on what that one item should be), but also have them trying new foods as often as possible. If they look at their plate and say "I'm not hungry", instead of making them sit there until they've finished every last bite, inform them that they don't have to eat right now, but they do need to sit at the table with you until you are finished eating. And then, later on, when they ARE hungry, this same meal will be waiting for them. You will gladly re-heat it for them once they are ready to eat. I know this is a bit contradictory to tips 1 and 2, but after a couple nights where the child does later decide it's time for dinner and you then put the same meal in front of them, they will quickly realize eating with you at the scheduled dinnertime is much more enjoyable than sitting at the kitchen table alone, eating re-heated leftovers.
***Side note, I know parents who have adopted the philosophy that their job as parent is merely to provide well-balanced meals to their children- and once prepared, the child has the option to decide when they eat it...this may work better for you if getting the entire family around the dinner table at the same time proves difficult***
5. Try New Things Again and Again- "I don't like carrots" was the response to my child's first crunchy bite of a fresh carrot. This seemed odd- she LOVED carrots when they were pureed and heated into mushy baby food. Granted she's older now and taste buds change, but getting her to eat vegetables is a priority in our household, so the next time we served carrots, they were cooked (overcooked, actually). And she loved them! So if they say they don't like broccoli, then try cooking the broccoli, if they don't like cooked broccoli, make broccoli cheese soup- keep re-inventing those difficult-to-get-them-to-digest dishes, and keep having your child try them- again and again. I have friends to this day who were never pressed to try vegetables and now, in adulthood, they are still picky eaters. They may dispute this- but living on hamburgers and chicken fingers is a mundane existence- learning to discover new foods is one of the great joys in life (this coming from a very hearty eater who loves trying any and all foods).