Set menu: Why I have a 'one family one meal' policy

If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again to get your child to expand their food preferences, says dietitian Aoife Hearne

VEGGING OUT: Getting children involved in the meal process can help them to eat more vegetables and develop their taste buds. Picture: iStock

WHILE there is something special about watching your little ones develop into their own person, there is also something unbelievably frustrating as their food preferences change almost on a daily basis at times.

This is a normal part of development but can become a major stumbling block for parents when all of a sudden your child has very limited foods that they will eat. However, there are things you can do to help prevent your child turning into a picky eater.

There are lots of factors that can impact on your child’s food preferences. Some children are “super-tasters” and taste more flavour in bland foods which can often impact on the types of foods they desire. Keep in mind your child is learning about food and eating through more than just taste.

Smell, colour, appearance, texture and the environment can all play a role in your child’s acceptance of a new food. Research shows that it can take a child seven to over 20 exposures to a new food before they will accept it. It will take even longer for them to say they like it. That takes a lot of commitment from parents and you may find there is a lot of food being put in the compost heap in the meantime.

Like a lot of things with children, their taste buds, thoughts about foods and preferences are always changing, so don’t give up trying. And as the old adage goes ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’.

I am a big believer in one family: one meal. As a busy parent, it is the only the way forward for our house. I am committed to not being a short order cook. In our house, if you don’t like what’s on the menu you have two options: eat it reluctantly or don’t eat it and go to bed hungry. In reality, I’m a bit of a softy with the kids, but this is the one family rule that I am holding tough on. And don’t get me wrong, it can be really tough at times. However, I really don’t want spaghetti Bolognese to be the only dinner the kids eat for the rest of their lives so I push through the painful nagging. Research shows that a habit can develop in a toddler in as little as three days, so hold fast for three days and they will quickly learn they would rather eat than be hungry! And to be honest, so far it has worked in our house for the most part.

Although it’s counter-intuitive, allowing your child the right to refuse food actually also goes a long way to creating a child/ adult who will eat a wide variety of foods. When children are given permission to say ‘no thank you’ and politely decline foods they are more likely to try new things if they know they won’t be forced to eat it.

It is generally vegetables that are the hardest sell when it comes to meal times for children. Vegetables have unique flavours and are often more bitter and have tougher textures. You can tone down strong veggie flavours with salt, fat, sauces, breadcrumbs, herbs, cheese and spices initially at least to make vegetables more appealing to children. I have definitely found that having Dylan and Alva involved in the whole meal process really helps. And while I have read tips about planting a mini garden — I think just trying to get them to the supermarket to pick out some of the vegetables at dinner is a good and more realistic place to start. As they get older allowing them to help wash, prep and stir, and even pick out a recipe every week can help them feel part of mealtime rather than another rule they have to follow.

You may be surprised what your child is willing to sample during the prep process. Last but not least try to make mealtime fun (if you have the energy for it). Singing silly songs, giving wild applause, using a sticker reward system for veggies eaten, or playing interactive games with your child can really help to emphasise healthy eating.

If, like me, there are days when you are just worn out from thinking about what to cook for dinner hang in there. Remember, just because your child would not eat broccoli last week does not mean they won’t eat it this week. Rightly or wrongly, I name Dylan’s favourite local hurler to encourage him to eat broccoli. It seems to be working so far so much so that now broccoli is his favourite vegetable — for this week anyway.

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