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Journey to Parenthood

4 Tips for Establishing Healthy Habits for Kids and Reducing Mealtime Stress

Photo: Courtesy of Jimmy Dean

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian with a masters in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and the founder of Kids Eat In Color. Here she shares the 5 best ways for stressed parents to help their kids eat better.


Jennifer Anderson MSPH, RDN

Founder, Kids Eat In Color

1. Take the pressure off

“Two more bites, and then you can get down from the table!” you say. “No, that’s gross,” they scream. Next thing you know, you’re dreading meal time, and your child still isn’t eating well.

It’s easy to get caught up in making a child try a food or eat a certain amount of food, but it can backfire. Instead, try ending the pressure. You can say, “You don’t have to eat it,” when your child refuses a food. When you stop pressuring them to eat a certain food or a certain amount of food, you immediately end much of your mealtime stress.

Plus, this opens the door to your child learning to like more foods at their own pace. Pro tip: when you stop pressuring, also start using “micro-portions.” These tiny portions (think, one pea) keep your child from wasting food they don’t like.

2. Serve It, Eat It, Let Them Watch

Eliminating pressure is the fastest way to reduce stress for parents. Modeling and exposure are the two fastest ways to help your child try a new food. Research tells us that parent modeling is powerful. When you eat a variety of foods in front of your child, they are more likely to eat them too. If you want to take it a step further, show your child what it’s like to NOT like a food.

“Oh hmmm, I haven’t learned to like mushrooms yet. I’ll put one on my plate though. I’m going to try it and see how it is. I’m still learning to like it; I won’t have any more right now.” This can help your child learn to try a new food.

3. Serve Snacks with a Purpose

Have a routine or schedule for your snacks. Most kids need 1-3 snacks per day, depending on the family and the child. When you plan your snacks, plan balanced snacks. A balanced snack has a protein food (eggs, nuts/nut butter, cheese, etc.), an energy food (bread, crackers, rice, etc.), and something with some color (fruit or vegetable).

When you follow the protein +energy+ color formula, you end up with a child who stays full to the next meal.
Try “Toothpick Magic” A little fun can go a long way in helping your child try a new food. Kids Eat in Color Toothpick Magic is real. Cut up a food into age-appropriate pieces. Then give your child a toothpick and stand back (but still supervise). Many kids are willing to try a new food with a toothpick!

4. Ease Up on Screens

No judgement if your child is watching screens while eating, I get it. If you’re struggling with picky eating or your child is stuck in a rut though, screens may be holding your child back. When your child is watching a screen, their brain is disconnected from the eating experience, so they can’t learn to like new foods.

To help your child eat more foods, you can slowly add in screen-free meals or snacks to your child’s day. If you also join your child for screen-free meals or snacks, your child gets to watch you and learn from you. This can lead to your child learning to eat a bigger variety of foods.

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