Eating is one of life’s simplest but more enjoyable pleasures. It brings people together, renews your energy, and just makes you feel good. So as a parent, it can be difficult to understand why your little one refuses to eat, scrunches their face up at the sight of certain foods, and even spits them out. The dinner table can be a daily struggle for many parents, even a battleground that can end in tears, and not just for the child.
So how do you make mealtime fun and change your child’s attitude toward food? Well, according to new research from Aston and Loughborough Universities in the U.K., you could banish your child’s fussy eating habits for good thanks to the “Three R's”—Repetition, Role Modeling, and Rewards. Here’s how it works: Expose your child to a certain food (repetition); eat it first and show them how tasty it is (role modeling); then praise them for trying it (rewards). The study found that introducing this concept “dramatically increased children's liking and consumption of vegetables that they previously disliked.”
Contributing Parents nutrition editor Karen Cicero says we need to remember that “it's the parents' job to serve healthy food, and it's the child's job to eat it”—even if getting your kids to eat more vegetables feels like a battle a lot of the time. “Your job is going to be thankless and frustrating at times, but it's important to keep cool—at least around the kids—of course, you can vent to other parents,” she says. “If your child will only eat a handful of foods—despite your best attempts—and doesn't like the texture of many foods, talk to your pediatrician about seeing a feeding specialist, who can help you work through these issues.”
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, every little tip or trick to encourage our children to eat well helps, right? When we asked you on MyDomaine Instagram recently, we were overwhelmed with helpful tips and tricks from roasting veggies in olive oil to disguising veggies in a pasta sauce. We tapped Karen to share her thoughts on the “Three R’s” and offer some of her personal tips for getting picky eaters to love healthy food. Scroll down to read more.
According to the research, by offering a food repeatedly, day after day, you will increase the child’s exposure to the food, and thus increase their willingness to try it. This might seem like a lot of work, but Karen urges parents to stick with it. “While it's tempting to give up after your child has tried a veggie or another food a couple of times and not liked it, try to hang in there, because research shows it can take up to 15 exposures for your child to accept it,” she says. “I worked on getting my own daughter to eat salad for almost two years, but now she genuinely likes it and eats it when I'm not around.”
The study found that eating the food with your child and showing them how tasty it is encourages them to try it, too. Karen says this means making one meal for the whole family. “Young kids especially love to snatch food off their parents' plates, so take advantage of that,” said Karen. “I'm not a fan of making two meals—one for the kids, the other for the parents. I think the family needs to eat the same thing, unless there are food allergies involved.”
By praising your child for eating the food, they will feel rewarded for trying it. Karen says you should save the praise for when your child eats a meal rather than specific food. For example, "We had a nice dinner together tonight," rather than "Good job for eating your broccoli." She adds: "I think the latter subtly sends the message that broccoli isn't all that tasty and I have to praise you for eating it. Think about it: When was the last time you said, 'Good job for eating all that ice cream?'"
The "Three R's" are a great place to start, but Karen also has a few other helpful suggestions and tricks that will have your kids eating healthy foods.
Offer a choice
“Ask your child: Do you want zucchini or green beans with dinner tonight? When kids have a say in the decision-making process, they're more likely to eat the food they picked."
Build on foods they already like
“Suppose your child's favorite veggie is carrots. (That was the top pick in a Parents' survey a few months ago.) Mix them with a little bit of another veggie or other food (like raisins, for instance) you'd like your child to try.”
Give veggies fun names
“I think my daughter called broccoli 'trees' until she was about 8. Research from Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab shows that when you give veggies a catchy name (they used "X-Ray Carrots," for instance), kids ate way more.”
Do you think the “Three R’s” will work in your household? What are your tips for getting picky eaters to eat healthy foods? Share them with us in the comments.