Feeding toddlers can be a bit tricky, can’t it? They’re starving one minute, then they pick at their food the next. They love peaches and broccoli and chicken and rice and anything else that you offer them one week, and then the next week they don’t want to eat anything but oatmeal with raisins and milk, morning, noon and night.

What is a health-conscious mom to do?

Today, I want to talk about shaping young tastes. I’m sorry, but this isn’t the post where I tell you how to make smiley faces out of their veggies and sneaking spinach into their brownies.

I will definitely get to the issue of how to creatively and nutritiously get food into our toddlers, and even ways to make it more fun and interesting for them, as I believe that it is important for them to enjoy their food, and that enjoyment helps them to develop lifelong patterns of choosing to eat foods that are good for them. So stay tuned, because the recipes and ideas are certainly coming (although be forewarned that although I am all for creative cooking, I do not endorse deception as a method of getting healthy foods into our children)!

However, today I want to discuss the ways that we, as the parents, shape the tastes of our precious youngsters, because I believe that it is one of the most important aspects of raising healthy eaters.

Who’s the parent?

Now, I am stepping out on a limb here, knowing that I may offend and get a few people’s backs up a bit. But I think that what I have to say here is really, really crucial. Here it is…

When it comes to feeding your children and dealing with pickiness, the bottom line is that you are the parent, and they are not. You are the authority, and their role is to learn to respond to you with complete obedience. End of story.

I have worked with a lot of preschoolers and their families, before I was married and had my own children, and what I saw was an awful lot of parents who were allowing their children to dictate to them what they would and would not eat. I knew children who would only eat macaroni and cheese and ketchup and rice crackers and cheerios, and would only drink pop and milk (not even water!), and that was it! Honestly, it was ridiculous, and it is a wonder that those children were even as healthy as they were (although their parents could not yet see the long term health, as well as intellectual and behavioral outcomes of that kind of a diet).

Although those kind of cases are extreme, I still see the same thing happening in many families, to a lesser degree. Children are allowed to be picky. They are not told, either in words or consequences, that pickiness is not acceptable. If we were to ask our grandparents about what they ate when they were children, they would likely tell us that they ate whatever was put in front of them, because they obeyed their parents (because they were trained to obey them) and because food was often scarce and they were grateful for whatever they had.

What is so different nowadays? For one thing, we have such an over-abundance of food, much of which is not even nourishing in the slightest, that we often do not even recognize how blessed we are to even have food on the table at all. All food that we have is a gift and a blessing. There is a song I love that we sing at church, and one line says “anything we harvest is a gift from Your hands”.

Are we, as parents, modeling thankfulness for the blessing of an abundance of food for our children? As I prepare food with my daughter and son nearby, and as we eat our meals together, we try to talk about how good the food is, how God provided it for us, how He created these foods to make our bodies healthy, and how we should thank Him for it.

Additionally, we are not training our children to eat what is put before them. As Christian parents, most of us recognize that God has given us authority to teach and train our children to obedience, and this applies to attitude, behaviors, manners, words, looks, respect for property and for other people, etc. I would suggest that this training must also happen at the dinner table, when we set a plate of food before our children.

Now, I am not advocating that we force our children to eat when they are not hungry anymore (in fact, this is not even a healthy practice, as it teaches us to disregard our body’s signals that we are full and we learn to overeat), or to eat great quantities of food that they strongly dislike.

However, in our home, everything must be at least tried, and we usually enforce that “trying” equals taking more than one teensy, tiny bite. It entails several decent sized bites, enough to really taste the full flavor of the food. If our daughter decides that she still does not like a food at this point (after 3-4 bites), we will allow her to leave it and eat the rest of her food.

Furthermore, that is not the end of that food. We will continue to offer it every time it is prepared as part of the meal. I do not avoid particular foods because of my child’s preference (although I do avoid some foods based on my husband’s preference, but that is an entirely different thing!). For example, my daughter currently has decided that she doesn’t really care for tomatoes, onions or red peppers (which is unfortunate for her, as these are very common food in our house!).

So what do I do about it? First of all, I still use them freely in my cooking. And, I allow her to help and to watch me cook, so she is involved in the process and more interested in eating the final result because she has had a role to play in it (I will probably spend an entire post talking about including our children in our food choices and preparation).

Second, she is required to try some of these foods each and every time I make them. And increasingly, we are requiring her to eat more than just a few bites, and more recently, the entire amount that she has been served. Just as a side note, I try to keep her servings very reasonable in size, even slightly on the smaller side, so that we can enforce that she eat what she has been given, and then if she is still hungry, she can have more of her favorites.

Third, I am training her through my words (and my husband’s, at dinnertime) to like these foods that she believes that she dislikes. I grew up “disliking” many foods, and was an incredibly picky eater by the time I was an adult. I decided to begin re-training my taste buds while I was in university, by slowly adding a few new foods (mostly vegetables and fruits) into my diet every couple of months, until I learned to like the taste of them. And you know what? It worked!!! The little girl (gosh, even the 19 year old!), that used to eat only carrots, corn, potatoes, tomato sauce and iceberg lettuce, now eats a very full array of vegetables (not to mention most fruits and other foods as well). The key word here is “train”!

Training and shaping our children’s tastes

So how do we train their likes and dislikes? When Abbie is eating healthy foods, especially vegetables and fruits, but also slightly different foods, such as quinoa or millet, real yogurt with no sweetener, molasses, etc. I will sing the praises of those foods! For instance, “Abbie, did you know that God made peppers to keep your body healthy? They are so good for you, and they’re delicious- they’re one of Mommy’s favorite vegetables!”. Or “Wow, isn’t this quinoa good? Wasn’t it kind of God to create such yummy and healthy foods for us to eat? What do you think, Daddy?”

When she tells us that she doesn’t like something, I will calmly say, “Well, God gave us _____ to keep us healthy and to help our bodies grow strong. We should thank Him for it, shouldn’t we? I’m glad that you’re trying _____ and that you are learning to like it.” A common phrase from my daughter at dinner these days is “Mommy, I think I’m learning to like tomatoes (or peppers or lettuce or whatever it is we’re working on at the time)”. When she finishes eating her meal, and has eaten all of the foods that we specifically asked her to eat, we try to make a point of letting her know that we are proud of her for choosing to eat her food, and for having such a happy heart about it (because obeying is not complete with a sour attitude- obedience is completely, right away and with a happy heart!).

Lest you think that our training efforts are perfect, I will let you know that we have the occasional dinner where there is a minor meltdown, or where those 3 pieces of pepper that she was given are the last thing standing on her dinner plate, and they’re not going down without a fight. This is ok. She’s sinful, just like me. We just deal with it as with any other disobedience, require her to do as we have asked, and move on.

Some of you may be thinking, “It’s great that you started training your children young, but mine are 7 (or 10 or 13) and I don’t know how to change their tastes at this point”. This is a very valid question.

To answer in a nutshell, I would say that you apologize to your children for not having trained them correctly in this area (a humbling but necessary step), and let them know that things will now be changing around your house. From this point on, they will be required to eat a little bit of everything that is served, and they will do so with a cheerful attitude, and that the entire family will be making some healthier choices, together!

Parents, you will need to strongly model this for your children, if part of their pickiness comes from watching you avoid many of the foods that you know that you should eat. It may take some time, as you cannot change these kind of things overnight. But if you are consistent, and persistent, I believe that you can gradually re-train your children’s tastes the same way that I re-trained mine.

It’s so worth it…

In the long run, to have children who will obediently eat what they are asked to eat, and for them to have healthy tastes that have been molded by you, the family “nutritionist” :) For those with young children, like myself, be diligent in these early years and you will reap the rewards! I can already see it starting to show in my daughter- she doesn’t request candy or pop or chips (well, she does share her parent’s affinity for ice cream, but it’s still a pretty rare treat)- this girl wants dried fruit and nuts/seeds and yogurt and apples and smoothies and even asks if she can have some salad at dinner- Yippee!

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