Feeding picky kids is one of those reasons. So let’s talk about how to successfully meal plan for picky kids.
Let’s rephrase that though, because you can’t successfully meal plan for picky kids.
You won’t be able to make a meal plan that makes everyone completely happy and where they will eat everything, every time. That’s not realistic. Not if you don’t want to eat the same thing all the time, or make several meals daily. And kids are often fickle, so even if you make them exactly what they ask for, sometimes they won’t even eat it! You know how it goes.
But we can talk about how to successfully meal plan with picky kids in mind.
We can talk about meal planning that:
makes sure everyone can eat enough to feel satisfied without drama
doesn’t require making multiple meals at each mealtime
gently helps picky eaters expand their preferences
doesn’t require eating the same 3 meals all the time
gives you, as a parent or other feeder or picky eaters, peace of mind that your kid is getting the nutrition they need while developing a healthy relationship with food
This method of planning for meals is based on the gold standard for feeding kids: the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding and specifically the concept of being “considerate without catering” . If this is something you are struggling with, I highly recommend spending some time at the link above and related website. It is overall a great way to help kids 1) get the nutrition their bodies need, AND 2) develop a healthy relationship with food.
These top tips are based on the Division of Responsibility in Feeding and will help picky eaters learn to eat new foods gradually while letting everyone else enjoy variety and making sure everyone has a chance to get the nutrition they need.
Top tips for meal planning with a picky eater in mind:
Plan at least one “safe” food with every meal and snack
A “safe” food is a food that you know your child is comfortable with and is pretty likely to eat. This varies depending on the kid, and will also change over time. This does NOT have to be a favorite food and is still not a guarantee that your child will eat it (nor should they be required to), but it means they have something they can trust they can fill up on if they don’t like anything else.
Having a safe food helps remove the pressure from trying new foods because the picky eater knows they can feel full without having to fill up on the new or uncomfortable food. It also removes the pressure for you because you know they have something to eat that’s acceptable to them! They won’t go hungry just because they are scared of a new food. (Yes they might eat only rice for the meal, but hold on, that’s related to the last tip)
Many safe foods are starchy, (crackers, bread, noodles, cereal) but most kids have a few safe foods in each food group, they usually have even have a few “safe” vegetables. Broccoli is a surprisingly common safe vegetable in my experience.
If it helps you, make a list of “Safe” foods in each food group so you don’t have to think about it when planning meals.
It’s a commonly quoted fact in nutrition education that kids may have to be exposed to a new food twenty times before they will try it.
I have tried to find the study supporting this – and I can’t, but I have found plenty of studies supporting the same concept.
Note, that’s twenty times of exposure (seeing it, being served it, etc.) before even trying it. Not twenty times before they will like it or eat it consistently. Twenty times before they’re willing to try it. To like it and eat it consistently, it’s probably gonna be more.
Twenty times is an average. For some kids it will be 50 or 100 times before they’re willing to try it. For other kids it might be five times or less.
The more times you offer a new or uncomfortable food without pressure, the more likely they will be to eat it, eventually.
The good news is, we humans eat every day, and usually, multiple times per day. That’s lots of opportunities to be exposed to new foods. A lot of kids eat 4-5 times per day. 7 days per week – that’s 28-35 new opportunities a week! So take advantage of the opportunities to get kids used to seeing uncomfortable foods!
It is important to do this without pressure. No telling them they have to eat it, no making them eat it before other foods, just serve it, and don’t make a big deal. Sometimes serving a tiny portion can also make it less intimidating. Think one blueberry, or one green bean, or one bite of chicken. And remember, you are also always serving at least one “safe” food.
Different parents feel differently about how to encourage kids to try new foods, but generally bargaining, forcing to try bites, not letting them eat other foods until they’ve tried the new food, isn’t helpful in the long term because it creates a negative association with food. Just the continued multiple, casual exposures is what will be effective long term.
Also a key here, is that these uncomfortable foods are foods that you as the parent (or feeder) are also eating. Watching parents eat foods makes a bigger difference than you think. No fair making kids eat foods that you won’t eat. They’ve got to see you eating them, or a least trying them.
Offer most food groups at most meals and snacks (not just dinner)
Kids have whims and eat inconsistently so offering most food groups at most meals and snacks increases the probability that they will eat all the food groups over the course of the day and/or the week.
This is where your list of “safe” foods can help you. Vary which food group you choose your “safe” food from to help your kids get all their food groups.
This will also help you as the parent put less pressure on yourself and them, because if you know they ate a good protein-rich breakfast (PB toast, eggs with cheese, sausage), and lunch (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, tuna salad), you can be less worried if they don’t eat a bunch of the new chicken recipe you’ve tried for dinner. If they eat baby carrots almost every day for lunch and celery sticks frequently for snacks, you can worry less that they don’t eat much veggies at dinner.
This also helps kids learn that different food groups can belong at all meals and can be eaten in different ways. They don’t get stuck thinking that steamed broccoli or salad are the only 2 ways to eat veggies, for example.
Also, as a super practical tip – some kids have better appetite and adventurous energy earlier in the day. Try offering new foods more often at lunch and snack (leftover roasted asparagus with the PB and J) and see if this makes a difference.
The next tip goes hand in hand:
Think of nutrition in terms of the whole day (or even the whole week) instead of per meal
Some visual models we use to teach about balanced nutrition look like this:
So we picture that kids will eat like this:
Kids actually often eat like this:
But their nutritional intake usually balances out if you look at the day as a whole, or especially if you look at the week as a whole.
This is why it’s so helpful to offer most food groups at most meals. You are providing a steady, predictable base, so kids’ seemingly random eating can balance itself out.
Sometimes kids can feel like little random number generators. They won’t always eat predictably. Sometimes they will eat a lot, other times a little. Sometimes they will try a new food, sometimes they won’t even touch a food they normally like. We can help them out by offering a variety of food groups, a variety of liked and unliked foods, making sure there’s always something they can feel full on, and just not making a big deal out of it.
Some final encouragement
That being said, it won’t be drama free all the time. This method really does help in the long term, but it’s sometimes difficult to start. How should you keep track of all the food groups and what your child (or children) likes and doesn’t? How do you think of the whole day or even the whole week when you feel overwhelmed by just one meal? It can be overwhelming!
I love helping families figure out this type of meal plan. I’m happy to take on the mental work of planning and juggling of food groups so you can just focus on doing it. If that sounds like it would help you, contact me here
There are also a LOT of great resources out there. Here are a few of my favorites!
Listen, I see this mistake all the time and if you want your child to be an adventurous eater, it’s just self sabotage.
Stop telling your kids they won’t like a food! Stop saying in front of them that they’re a picky eater!
“You probably won’t like this”
“She won’t eat that”
“Kids don’t like this”
“Oh, this? It has [fill in the blank food], you don’t like [fill in the blank food]”
(This post is not about telling your child that they won’t like your favorite candy so you don’t have to share – that is a different issue altogether)
Why? Your kids will believe you!
You are totally allowed to think that your child probably won’t eat or like a food that is served and most of the time you will probably be right because you know your kid.
However, when you tell them they won’t like it, you’re saying “It’s not worth trying something you think you won’t like”. I mean, you might mean that, but most of the parents I work with do NOT want their kids to believe this. They want them to believe the exact opposite! (Which is “It’s good to try new foods and you shouldn’t say you don’t like it before you’ve tried it“)
It’s also totally possible to go too hard the other way and turn kids off trying a new food because you’re pushing it so much, but that’s not what this post is about.
So even if you think your child won’t eat something, just be cool and they might surprise you!
How to be cool, when you don’t feel cool?
Serve them a tiny portion without saying anything
You eat it, enjoy it and don’t make a big deal out of it
If they ask for some, give them some
If you feel like you have to talk about it, say something objective: “It’s crunchy” “Tastes like lemon” “It’s spicy”
It’s fine to express that you like a food! Just be genuine. Don’t exaggerate to get them to want some.
Ask them what they think (if they’ve already tried it) in a way that encourages them to describe it neutrally. “What flavor is it?” “Does it remind you of anything?”
What should you say to other people about your child’s eating? Feeding Littles shared this great post with some examples a while back:
It would be nice if it was just something you could buy, like a neat meal planner, or a cute chalkboard to write your menu on, or even buying a pre-made meal plan from a service or the right meal prep containers. But it’s rarely that easy or one size fits all. That’s why this is key to success – because it’s not trying to make one solution work for everybody. It’s helping YOU know what YOU need.
Now, this isn’t a guaranteed success tool. It’s not like you will automatically succeed just because you know what you want to accomplish.
BUT, if you’re not sure what the point of your meal plan is, how will you know it’s working? How will you make it work?
You need to know what difference you want your meal plan to make so you know when it’s successful.
Knowing how you want your meal plan to serve you will help you decide what it needs to include and what it doesn’t.
Anyway. Enough theory. Let’s talk about some examples – that always helps me.
I did not have a lot of money, but I did have time, and I was willing to eat some weird stuff. I was mainly cooking just for myself and, as I was studying nutrition, trying to follow nutrition guidelines. I also lived in an apartment with 3 roommates and 1 fridge. So what did I want my meal plan to do for me?
Be efficient with ingredients (not use a lot of variety, both for cost savings and for space savings – 4 roommates one fridge, remember?)
Meet certain nutrition goals, like eat fish 2x/wk, have enough calcium, etc.
What did I not need my meal plan to do for me ?
Be quick and easy to make – I had plenty of time to cook
Please anybody else – I could just make what I wanted and/or was willing to eat
Be mentally easy – I had mental space and enthusiasm to try a lot of new recipes, so I could make weird stuff with the ingredients I had because I had time to think about it
Practically this meant I ate a lot of beans, cheap vegetables like cabbage, some cheap meats like whole chicken and sardines, and I did a lot of cooking from scratch and a lot of new recipes. (Made my own bread, tortillas, broth, etc.).
Let’s move on to Dietetic Internship Cami
At this point I had a little more money because I had married a rich engineer – haha, just kidding, we weren’t rich, because dietetic internships DON’T PAY YOU, but we had a little more money. We were also very tired. Both of us were working full time and commuting at least an hour each way (usually more). I didn’t need to pack lunch because one of the perks of dietetic internships despite being unpaid is that they sometimes/often feed you. But my husband did, so some leftovers or lunch ingredients he could pack were helpful. So what did I need my meal plan to do for me then?
Be convenient! We needed meals that required almost ZERO effort when we got home at night. I seriously still don’t know how we made it though that year; when I think back most of what I remember is exhaustion.
Save some sanity. In addition to not having much time, we were both pretty burned out and so didn’t have a lot of motivation or mental energy to cook or plan meals
Still save some money (again, we weren’t really rich, just no longer poor college students)
Be acceptable for both me and my husband – thankfully he’s not picky so this wasn’t a big deal, and provide some leftovers he could take for lunch.
What did I not have to worry about for this meal plan?
Cost (as much)
Efficiency (a little more money to spend on a variety of ingredients, and a whole apartment kitchen to store our stuff!)
I didn’t worry as much about nutrition, mainly because convenience was a priority
We ate a lot of slow cooker meals that I would prep ahead on the weekends, a lot of quick meals like quesadillas or grilled PBJ. We ate a lot of the same meals on repeat because we didn’t have to think of new ones, and we went out to eat more often* (but still not a lot), because we could afford it, and it was sometimes a bright spot after a long day.
*Remember this: Planning to go to a restaurant or planning to get takeout counts as meal planning. Many times the reasons we meal plan (cost, nutrition, dietary restrictions) limit eating out but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a part of a successful meal plan.
Now a family (based on many real life families I’ve worked with)
They are tired of eating the same 5 meals over and over again and they want to spend less money on going out to eat. They get overwhelmed at dinner time so it would be helpful to have a dinner decision made BEFORE the kids get tired and crazy and they get super hungry and they end up just picking up sandwiches or making chicken nuggets again. They’d like to eat healthy, but don’t have any specific nutrition-related health conditions or dietary restrictions. Their meal plan needs to:
reduce decision fatigue by just having the decision made ahead of time
be convenient enough that they will follow their plan and not just go out to eat anyway because what they’ve planned has too many steps
include enough variety to help them and their kids not be bored and/or learn to eat new foods
but also be familiar and appealing enough that they will follow through with the plan
What they don’t need to include:
any particular nutrition goals or dietary restrictions (I always think trying to get all the food groups in is good, but this is not their priority right now)
cost savings on food because they’ve determined going out to eat less will save them money
a lot of new recipes or meals. Too many new things at once is overwhelming even if the actual dish/recipe is easy. They might be adding in 1-2 new things per week. (like a new salad dressing or a new side dish to a favorite main)
Their meal plan would probably include a lot of familiar, easy to make favorites, with small variations each week and maybe as they get in the habit of cooking at home, they start to add in new recipes more frequently. They will probably be most successful if they use convenience products (pre-cut veggies, pre-made sauces, frozen sides or mains) so the effort at dinner time is easy. Shooting for generally balanced meals is good, but if trying to eat lots of vegetables or low salt for example, will make them less likely to eat at home or try new things (their priority), then it does not serve the meal plan and should be set aside to make room for their priority.
My college meal plan would not work for this imaginary family. Probably way too many weird things for their comfort level (molasses on bread for dessert anyone?) and a lot of unnecessary stress about cost savings when paying for some convenience is within their budget and will help them accomplish their goal of being less overwhelmed at dinner time.
You need to decide what success looks and feels like for YOUR meal plan.
Questions? Comments? Tips? Share in the comments. Or talk to me if you need help figuring out what a successful meal plan looks like for you. That’s my specialty. 🙂
Look. I’m tired today, so we’re going to talk about something that I had actually planned in advance, but is appropriate for a day when you are tired and don’t feel like cooking or maybe don’t even feel like eating a meal:
How to make a meal out of snacks.
The fancy version of this is charcuterie. Or a smorgasbord. Although I recently looked up what a real Swedish smörgåsbord is, and apparently it includes 7 courses and must include herring and I don’t know if I’ve ever even had herring.
Anyway, you can have snacky meals that look like this:
But they can also look like this:
They can be fancy, but they don’t have to be. Most of the time when I eat a snacky meal, it’s because I’m already tired or too hungry to cook, so putting in the work to make it fancy would defeat the purpose.
The snacky “meal” I’m writing about today is assembling a meal out of things you already have on hand, or can prepare quickly and easily (like washing grapes, cutting up cheese, or baking some frozen sausage cheese puffs)
What are the ingredients?
Ideally, a snacky meal contains at least 1 fruit and/or vegetable, at least one protein food, and at least one starch.
This can definitely be modified, but the dietitian here recommends you get all your food groups (or at least 3 out of the 4).
What do you have in the fridge/freezer/cabinets that can fit in each of those categories? See some examples below
All of my examples here are finger food, but they don’t necessarily have to be – this is a great time to bring in leftovers.
As you can see, we often eat cheese for our protein – but you can use whatever you prefer and generally have on hand: hard boiled eggs, jerky, tuna salad, leftover chicken, salami, sliced lunch meat, nuts or seeds or trail mix, yogurt, leftover meatballs, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, hummus, leftover lentil or bean salad
Best if you can include both a fruit and a vegetable – or even a variety of both, but again, the idea is to pull from what you already have, not make more work for yourself. This is a great time to pull out leftover vegetables, the bag of baby carrots, the end of the salad greens that need to be eaten, those random olives or pickles that you always forget about and the bag of grapes that nobody is eating because they’re in the fridge and not on the counter. Don’t forget about dried fruits! No prep needed for those and I know mine often get neglected as they are hidden in a cabinet.
Starches are often prevalent in pantries and readily available for snacky dinners: crackers, bread, chips, pretzels, tortillas, etc. Don’t forget about leftovers – leftover pasta, potatoes, waffles – you might come up with some odd combinations, but the bottom line is – you’re being nourished!
This is a perfectly fine way to have a meal. Kids (especially young kids) often love eating this way because there are a lot of finger foods involved, they feel like they have more choice, and there are often a lot of familiar foods offered.
It may also be helpful for adults who are struggling with poor appetite, low energy, or low motivation to make sure they are getting the nutrition they need.
What do you think? Have you ever had a snacky meal before? What type of foods do you like to include?
Find an appropriately sized container for leftovers
Count out ingredients
Play with non-breakable bowls and spoons
When I was a toddler, my mom had one low cabinet that had the metal mixing bowls and pots that I was allowed to play with and I totally thought a two piece bundt/angel food cake pan (like this one) would make a great snowman costume if I put the pointy part on my head like a top hat and wore the round part around my neck as a…scarf? I’m not sure what I was thinking. But I definitely got stuck in the round part and panicked and my mom had to help me get out and it’s one of my earliest memories
Suggest a meal or side dish
Choose a meal or side dish
Look through a cookbook or cooking magazine together and choose some recipes to try
Choose a recipe from a cooking show to try (even if it is just used as an inspiration)
Follow a video tutorial together
Some limited physical coordination required
Many of these tasks can be done by very small toddlers who have an adult helper. Very small kids probably won’t be able to complete the task by themselves, but they will be able to participate, which is the important part. Check out the ADORABLE Chef Kobe here for some visual proof that toddlers can do these types of tasks
Sprinkle toppings on a salad
Sprinkle cheese or breadcrumb topping
Rinse lettuce leaves
Add pre-measured ingredients to a mixture
Mix spice mixtures/sauces/batters
Put ingredients in a pot to cook
Collect bowls/measuring cups/measuring spoons
Move dirty dishes from the table to the counter or dishwasher
Get out toppings/condiments and put them on the table
Mash potatoes, bananas, or squash
Shake a jar or container of dressing or seasonings to mix it (just make sure it is fully closed!)
Throw skins/peels/package wrappers in a garbage bowl, trash, or compost bin
Carry dirty dishes to the counter/sink/dishwasher
Wipe off a table or a counter
Toss veggies in oil and seasonings by shaking them in a closed container
Cut out dough with cookie cutters
Decorate cookies with sprinkles/frosting
Top pizzas with cheese and toppings
Somewhat higher coordination or level of strength required
Will still require an adult supervisor and possibly an adult helper
Help put away groceries
Find and collect ingredients as you read them from the recipe
Put away ingredients as they are used
Remove husk and silk from corn on the cob
Pull garlic cloves from a head of garlic
Peel garlic cloves that have been smashed
Use a garlic press to press garlic
Use a measuring cup or pitcher to add water to a pot
Press buttons on a mixer, blender, or food processor
Crush nuts or bread crumbs in a plastic bag with a rolling pin, pot, fists, or Hulk hands if you want to make it extra fun
Put plates, cups, silverware, and/or napkins on the table
Peel an orange or banana
Use a lettuce spinner to dry lettuce
Dry lettuce by spinning it in a towel or mesh bag
Tear up lettuce leaves
Toss a salad
Toss veggies in oil and seasonings for roasting using a bowl and spoon/fork
Use a cookie scoop to portion out cookies/biscuits/meatballs
Shape meatballs, rolls or other doughs
Turn on slow cooker
Peel an onion that has been cut in halves or quarters
Put spreads on bread or toast
Put dirty dishes in the dishwasher or sink or on the counter
Reading skills required
Preheat the oven
Read recipe out loud
Read the ingredients list out loud
Find a recipe
Write ingredients on a grocery list
Search for and add foods to an online grocery order
Read the grocery list and cross items off the list as they are bought
Follow directions to prepare microwave food
Write and decorate a menu (although, they can just decorate a menu and “write” if they don’t actually know how to write. No one actually needs to read it 😊)
Find a recipe that they want to try in a cookbook
Search for and find a recipe to make online
Follow a simple recipe
Sharp safety skills required
Use your best judgment as a parent
Use scissors to cut fresh herbs
Use scissors to cut pizza or quesadilla that has cooled
Use an egg slicer
Use a cheese slicer
Use an egg slicer to cut strawberries
Wash and cut grape bunches with scissors
Put vegetables/meat on skewers
Add ingredients to a food processor or blender
Press the buttons on a food processor or blender
Kids can start to learn knife skills earlier than you might think! Here are two really great resources on how to start helping kids use knives safely and in an age-appropriate way (superhealthykids.com and happykidskitchen.com/) Might as well start teaching them safe skills early! (Besides, the earlier they learn, the earlier they can help!)
Chop lettuce with a lettuce knife
Chop soft vegetables or fruits (banana, cucumber, zucchini)
Chop dough (to section for rolls)
Chop or slice vegetables
Heat safety required
Steam frozen veggies in the microwave and then season
Make a microwaveable food
Stir a pot or pan
Add ingredients to a pot or pan on the stove
Follow a simple recipe that involves using the oven or stove
Please note that these are ideas meant to empower you to involve your kids in the cooking process. You are the one who best knows your child’s abilities. Use your best judgement to choose activities that will be appropriate for your child. Please make sure you supervise your children during these activities, especially those that involve heat or sharp blades!
Imagine having your children by your side in the kitchen. You read the recipe out loud and they find the ingredients in the pantry. You show them how to carefully measure out ingredients. They stir the ingredients together, remarking about how good it will taste. Then you put it in the oven and you both excitedly clean up the kitchen waiting for it to be done. Then you laugh together as you eat. A picture-perfect scene.
It can happen. But let’s be real, sometimes it looks like this:
. . . like your toddler pulling snacks out of the pantry while you try to get them to stop so you can just get the ingredients you need. It looks like them dumping the ingredients into the bowl so enthusiastically that half of it lands on the table. It looks like your two kids fighting over whose turn it is to stir. It looks like you’re stressed because you’re trying to make this a positive experience, but your kid just licked their finger to taste the batter and then started stirring the sauce with their hand and the other kid keeps trying to touch the stove. Sometimes it looks like your kids not being at all interested in helping cook. It’s not always the warm happy Pillsbury crescent commercial. That’s for sure.
It’s often more work to have your kids “help” in the kitchen.
So why is it worth it? And how can you make it easier?
Why it’s worth it:
Kids who help with food preparation are more likely to try new foodsand eat more vegetables Research shows that helping to prepare a meal makes kids more likely to try new foods (1), more positive about unfamiliar foods (1), more likely to eat more vegetables (2), and more likely to eat more of the meal in general (2).
If kids are involved in the making process, they feel ownership and pride over the meal, so of course they want to try it and are biased toward liking it. Plus, they get to experience the food in an environment where there is no pressure to eat it. This can make new or disliked foods less intimidating. This does not mean they will magically like everything, but it will probably surprise you how much more likely they are to try something that they helped prepare.
If you have particular or picky eaters, this can be one way to help them be more comfortable in exploring new foods. If you’re worried that your kids don’t like “healthy” foods and only like beige and white foods, this is normal, BUT involving them in cooking can help expand their palate.
Kids who practice cooking are more confident in their cooking skills and are more likely to make healthy choices(3) The more kids cook, the more kids handle food, the more kids practice good food hygiene, the more comfortable and confident they are in their ability, and the more positive they feel around food(3). This seems pretty obvious. However, having confidence around food and cooking is a huge advantage toward choosing and eating healthy foods. It removes the barrier of not knowing how to prepare a food. And even if they don’t know how to prepare a specific food, they are more likely to feel confident that they can learn how. People who know how to cook and feel confident in this are more likely to choose and prepare healthy foods (3).
Practicing cooking and food skills doesn’t need to be learning how to julienne vegetables, sautee meat, or make a roux. It includes things like picking out foods at the store, washing vegetables, following a recipe, loading a dishwasher, measuring ingredients, learning what a spatula is, and using a microwave. It can of course include fancier skills as well, but you don’t have to and shouldn’t start there.
By helping your kids have food literacy, you are equipping them with vital tools they can use to be healthy which leads to the next point:
Cooking helps improve self-confidence and independence. Do you remember the first time you made a recipe all by yourself? My first memory of this is making the Kraft boxed mac and cheese. I was so proud! A kid helping with dinner feels like they are a contributing part of the family. As they get more comfortable with a skill and learn new skills, they gain confidence and independence.
This helps them grow in confidence while they still live with you, and equips them for when they are on their own as adults. Interestingly kids in a focus group about cooking at home counted learning cooking skills as a valuable part of helping in the kitchen, because they knew would need to be able to cook later in life (4). Future cooking skills is one thing at least on some kids’ minds.
Also, with enough practice, kids will eventually be actually helpful in the kitchen! It’s a long term investment – but it can pay off.
So, why is it worth it? Because even though it will be slow and difficult and stressful at times, you’re equipping them with really valuable life skills: not just cooking, but exploring new and different foods, the ability to choose and prepare healthy foods, and the confidence builder of mastering new things.
So, how can I make it easier? (and not want to shut everyone out of the kitchen forever)
I could talk forever about this because introducing kids to the kitchen is what I loooove to do. But here are a few ideas to start out:
Choose the right time. Don’t try this at a time when everyone is cranky and hungry and/or rushed. Choose a time when you can give your full attention and have no time pressure.
Make breakfast on a quiet weekend, do some prep work with them when they come to you bored (read the recipe and collect the non-refrigerated ingredients, wash and tear up lettuce leaves, mix spices, bake some rolls or biscuits), choose one afternoon a week when one kid goes down for a nap or is at school so you can focus on one child at a time, etc.
Start with hand washing This should always be the start of any cooking session. It teaches food safety and hygiene right from the start and can make them feel like they are really cooking (because everyone, even a chef, needs to wash hands before cooking). Be sure to model this behavior as well as speaking about it 🙂
Use an easy recipe you are really comfortable with. Don’t make it harder on yourself by trying to involve kids with a new or tricky recipe that requires brain space. This might mean that they help you make box macaroni and cheese – this is perfectly fine! After washing hands, and before you start, read the recipe out loud together. This is a good cooking practice to establish and it makes sure you know what you’re doing, and depending on the age of the kids, helps them get a big picture as well.
Start small. It may be overwhelming and taxing for you and your kids to expect them to help you with a whole recipe or a whole meal, especially if they are small. Involving them in meal preparation can start with as little as having them put silverware on the table, having them help you wash vegetables, helping you get out ingredients, or having them shuck an ear of corn.
In the mac and cheese example, this could be that they get to use a measuring cup to help fill up the water to boil or dump in the cheese packet. Keeping it short at first makes it a positive experience even with a short attention span. Obviously if they want to keep helping, that’s great, but if not you can build up little by little.
Repeat Kids thrive on routine. If you have a weekly repeating meal (Taco Tuesday, Pizza Friday, etc.) this is a great time to involve them because you and they know what to expect and you will both get lots of practice making it together. Kids can get familiar with the steps and gradually grow in their abilities.
My earliest memories of cooking are making pancakes or waffles on Saturday mornings with my dad. I grew from helping him mix to proudly learning how to flip pancakes (this was over a matter of years, I was not a preschool pancake flipping prodigy)
Narrate If they’re with you in the kitchen (even if they’re not actively helping), just talk about what you’re doing like you’re on a cooking show. If they ask questions, answer them. Offer to let them help with a specific task or to let them taste or smell an ingredient. You can also talk about where the recipe is from or tell a story related to the recipe.
Let them help you pick what to make This is especially good if you need help getting your kids interested in the first place. With your guidance, kids (especially older kids), can help choose foods to make. Use cookbooks, or magazines, Yummly, or Pinterest to find a recipe that looks interesting to them. Sources with pictures are really great, because we eat with our eyes, and for a kid not familiar with many foods or cooking techniques, it may be hard to image what a food would be like from just a text recipe. Start with a category that you choose (soup, breakfast, broccoli, chicken, etc.) to narrow down options and make sure you aren’t always making desserts or pizza rolls.
Have them help with clean up It is good for them to learn to clean as they go and really good for you to have them clean as they go. You can start small with this too. Kids can help put wrappers or food scraps in the trash (you can also use a garbage bowl on the table to reduce trips to the trash can), they can put dirty dishes in the sink or dishwasher, help put ingredients away, and wipe off a table when they are done.
This obviously isn’t comprehensive. How you involve your kids in cooking will depend on them and you and that’s fine! But I hope these ideas provide some comfortable ways to get started and some encouragement to keep going if you already have.
If you are you reading this and going, wait, I don’t even feel comfortable in the kitchen myself. How can I teach my kids? I don’t feel confident in my ability to prepare balanced and meals, but I want to, and want my kids to have that ability. I wish I just had somebody who would just walk me through the process, make it a little less overwhelming, who could be my coach and cheerleader
That’s me! I can do that! I would love to work with you at your current level of cooking/food comfort to develop a tool kit of meals, skills, recipes, so you can feel confident in the kitchen and pass that along to your kids. If this sounds like something you want, learn more here
Listen, if you haven’t yet watched How to Dad‘s YouTube Channel, you are missing deadpan humor, adorable kids, and surprisingly helpful parenting tips. Checking it out is worth a few minutes of your time – most of his videos are less than 5 minutes long and they always make my day. But today, I’m going to talk as a dietitian about what I like in this video. ↓
This video illustrates so many true things about teaching kids to eat vegetables – intentionally or unintentionally I’m not sure – but let’s break it down. How to Dad is trying to convince his toddler to eat a plate of broccoli and carrots with varying amounts of success.
She starts out by biting a carrot, and then putting it back on the plate without eating any
This is normal and good and it is how kids explore new foods. Any exposure to new foods is a step in the right direction. Licking, biting, touching, or even just smelling a new (or less liked) food gives a child more experience with a food and means they are becoming more interested or less scared of it. Even if they spit it out, it’s still progress. (And teaching them to politely spit out food can take some of the pressure out of trying new foods)
When the vegetables are covered with cheese or ketchup, she just eats the cheese and ketchup
There’s nothing wrong with using other preferred foods to make vegetables more palatable, but know it won’t always work. Kids will eat what they want. Same goes for hiding veggies – it might work, but kids are also pretty smart and might just see right through it.
“Pounding the table” doesn’t work
In this video it results in oh my goodness tiny adorable table pounding! But in real life, ordering or forcing kids to eat vegetables is more likely to result in a power struggle than learning to eat vegetables. They might eat them, but they’re more likely to view it as a chore than to learn to enjoy eating them, and who likes chores?
They play with their food
This has varying degrees of success – in fact most of the play doesn’t result in eating any vegetables, not until the end of the video. However, it does have the advantage of increasing exposure to and familiarity with the food (see point 1)
She eats the broccoli after watching her dad eat it
This is HUGE. Kids learn by watching and imitating you. If they never see you eating vegetables, they’re much less likely to want to eat them. On the other hand, if they see you regularly eating vegetables along with all other foods like it’s no big deal, they’re likely to grow up learning that vegetables are just something you eat, like hamburgers or toast.
She is having fun
Obviously these two have a positive relationship. Even when the dad is “pounding the table” she thinks its a fun game. And every interaction, even the ones that don’t result in eating vegetables, is happy. Obviously it’s unrealistic to expect you to have 100% happy moments with your kids (especially with a toddler), but making mealtimes an overall positive environment by having positive conversations, promoting good table etiquette, not creating power struggles, etc. can make a big difference in promoting an overall healthy relationship with food, not to mention trying new foods.
She eats the most vegetables when How to Dad isn’t even paying attention to her
The food is there in front of her, but there’s no pressure on her, and no one’s trying to get her to do anything.
There are a lot of attempts and not a lot of actually eating vegetables
Studies show kids may need to be exposed to a food up to 20 times before they even try it, not to mention liking it or eating it regularly. Being exposed to a food can eating it, but it can also include playing with the food, helping prepare the food, and smelling it, touching it or licking it (see the first point). It may seem like kids will never eat new foods, but don’t give up! If they never see it or interact with it, they will surely never learn to eat it!
I know it can be hard and frustrating, but you can do it! They can do it! You’re just helping them practice the skill of eating new foods, which like any skill, takes practice!
In summary, what should you learn from this?
Keep serving the vegetables, keep eating the vegetables (and let your kids see you doing it), don’t make it a big deal, be prepared that it might take a long time, and know that that’s ok.
Note this also applies to any other food that you want your kids to learn to eat, just substitute “fish”, “beans” or “croissants” for vegetables in the article above 🙂
If you’re looking for more information and encouragement on this topic, I also recommend checking out feedinglittles.com or following @feedinglittles . Great accurate information (they are a dietitian and occupational feeding therapist team), practical tips, and overall great positive attitude!