Make Mealtime Fun for Your Picky Eater

When I was in the process of introducing my fourth child to foods for the first time, she was not buying it. At eight months, she was still resistant to putting most foods in her mouth and preferred to smear them all over her high chair instead. As I contemplated how long it could be before she ate more solid foods, I was reminded of Elizabeth Pantley’s article on making mealtimes fun for picky eaters. Mine was still too young for many of these ideas, but some can apply to older children. I personally would not add artificial food dyes to children’s everyday food since real and whole food is a priority for us, but some of these other ideas have worked for us in the past.

Make Mealtime Fun for Your Picky Eater

~ By Elizabeth Pantley, Author of The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution

No Cry Picky Eater Solution cover

Kids just want to have fun. So why not use this concept to entice them to the table? Many of my test parents report success when getting creative with the presentation or the names of the foods they want their kids to eat. You certainly don’t have to do this for every food, or for every meal, but it is a great way to take a bit of stress out of getting your little one to eat.

~ Use a crazy name. Get your child involved in the naming process. Once a food gets a fun name go ahead and call it that whenever it’s on the menu. Funny names often get the best results, such as calling melon balls Pixie Basketballs or kidney beans Dinosaur Eggs.

~ Add your child’s name. Personalizing a food or meal gives him a reason to try it and love it. Experiment with something like these: Sloppy Joans, Ben’s Belly-icious Beans, Sophie Soup, or Lillian-burgers. Or name food after the dog or your child’s favorite cartoon characters.

~ Give the food a personality. A great way to get younger children engaged in mealtime is to have the food actually “talk” to him. The spaghetti can call your child to the table for dinner. The beans can “ask” to climb into his mouth and visit his tummy. But whenever a food “talks” make sure you use a funny, disguised voice – beans never sound exactly like Mom or Dad, you know.

Make foods into fun shapes! Use cookie cutters or a knife to make fun shapes out of sandwiches, pancakes, and cheese. Shapes, strips, circles, or funny shaped bits can be more fun than a plain old square.

Use anything other than a kitchen plate to serve up food. It’s so easy to use colorful containers, toy dishes, an ice cube tray, or a muffin tin as dishes. These platters often make a meal or snack more interesting to a child.

Get artistic! Instead of neat piles on the plate make designs or separate the peas all over the place. While we adults are used to seeing food in tidy designs, lots of kids find a fun disarray more appealing.

Move away from boring beige or white. You can use food coloring to create pink mashed potatoes or purple mashed cauliflower. You can also add a color to water when boiling pasta or potatoes and have green pancakes or orange pasta. Your child can participate by choosing the colors or adding the drops. Foods create color, too – so add blueberries to oatmeal or strawberries to yogurt for more color.

Get out the craft supplies! Help your kids design and make their own placemats, a table centerpiece, or napkin holders. If this project is a hit, make it a monthly routine, perhaps decorating the table for each holiday. Once your children have decorated the table they may be more interested in sitting there.

Purchase a decorated dinner plate set. Have it be decorated with your child’s current favorite TV or movie character. Or take them to the store and let them choose their own dishes, even if they don’t match your set.

~ Use a plate as a canvas. Arrange the food as a face or in the shape of an animal. You can even let your child build his own creation then dare him to “eat the nose” or “take a bite of the foot.”

~ Get creative with presentation. Your child’s plate doesn’t always have to look the same – with a pile of each different type of food neatly arranged. You can string beans or noodles around the edge of the plate. Try alternating veggies, meat and grain in mini-piles or stripes all over the plate, or combine them to make a design. Get creative when you’re dishing out the next meal and see what happens!

Create interesting presentations. This can make a meal irresistible. Stand up broccoli pieces in a bed of mashed potatoes and sprinkle on bits of meat to make an edible forest. Pick a fun name, such as “Dinner Forestville”, or name the forest after your child.

Have a formal “taste test”. It’s a great way to clear your refrigerator of the week’s leftovers and get your kids to eat. Put out an assortment of foods in small bowls or dishes and invite everyone to take small tastes of various dishes and comment on their flavors. You can also ask your child to be your official taste-tester when you prepare a meal. Ask formal questions, “Do you believe that this contains enough salt, kind sir?” This game can be played over and over!

Try a different configuration of a regular food. For example, instead of spaghetti with meatballs serve spaghetti with one mega-meatball in the middle of the plate, or instead make mini-meatballs — have lots of them surrounding the spaghetti. Instead of carrots cut in circles make one very long, skinny strip from one end of the carrot to the other, instead of apple pieces make long spirals using a potato peeler.

~ Make it with dip. Kids love foods they can pick up by hand and dip – so anything that comes with a sauce can be served separately with the sauce in a bowl. Here are a few dipping ideas:

  • fruit in mashed cottage cheese or yogurt
  • apples in peanut butter
  • pita bread in hummus
  • carrots, celery, zucchini and other veggies in ranch dressing
  • chicken pieces or beef cubes in marinara sauce
  • meatballs on toothpicks dipped in mashed potatoes

Present meals in ways you already know they love. Take a look at the presentation of your child’s favorite fast food and present his dinner in a similar arrangement. Fold the chicken into a paper wrapper, serve applesauce in a mini-cup, and stand green beans in a paper cup to achieve an interesting French-fryish appearance.

When you make mealtime more fun, your picky eater just might become a happy eater!
Excerpted from The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Your Child To Eat – And Eat Healthy by Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2011)

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