-We build on past success: Sky and Fire love ranch dressing and will dip anything in it. We started giving them a little bit of salad at dinner time with ranch dressing and only asked them to eat one bite of it. Once they realized that it had something on it they liked they ate more of it and that led to them liking to eat the vegetables that made up the salad. From regular salad, we added in taco salads, then regular hard shell tacos and now, fish tacos. Each one is a slight change on the previous meal but has enough similarity so that it's not too challenging for them.
-Give them a little taste before dinner: Sky has refused to eat the cheesy fried polenta I make to go with tofu and peppers but this time I caught her before dinner when I knew she was hungry and offered her a little bit of the crispy fried edge of a piece of polenta. She loved it and when she made a face at dinner, I reminded her how much she'd liked it just a little bit ago. That reminder got her to eat the first bite of dinner, which was all it took.
-Keep offering new foods: Sky used to hate tomatoes. She absolutely refused to eat them and for a little while, D and I fell into the easy trap of just not giving her any. Then one evening before dinner, when I knew she was hungry, I offered her a little tiny bit of tomato (just the flesh) that I was chopping for dinner and she ate it without complaining. I was shocked but managed not to say anything. We built on that one tiny bite with other tiny bites on her dinner plate and from there to cherry tomatoes. She's gradually learned to like them so much that she begged for her grandma's tomatoes from the garden for a snack when we were in Kansas. We've used the same technique for mushrooms, onions, and Brussels sprouts with success every time.
-Not every meal is a challenge: we have some stock dinners in our repertoire that we know the kids will like and we try to have one or two of those a week. Pasta, grilled cheese, and taco salad and meals like that ensure that not every dinner is spent "working" with the kids on eating. Sky is getting old enough to choose some dinners and to help prepare them and doing those things makes her more invested in the meal, which makes her more likely to eat it.
-Milk is a food: we only have water on the table to drink during the meal so that the kids don't fill up on milk (or juice) instead of the food we've prepared for them. We'll offer them a small glass of milk after they've eaten but usually only one. If they're thirsty enough to ask for more milk, we'll offer them water instead.
Just keep introducing new foods- don't give up!
Here are some of the rules we use at the dinner table:
Try one bite of everything on your plate- that's it, one bite. If they've taken one bite of each kind of food on their plate, we won't push them to eat any more. We do remind them that they need to eat more if they want desert ("If you're not hungry enough for dinner, than you're not hungry enough for desert) but otherwise we'll offer them a glass of milk or water and let it go.
No spitting food out- this rule goes hand-in-hand with the one above. We expect them to actually eat that one bite. It's also very disrespectful to the person who prepared the food to spit something out half-chewed as well as rude to the others at the table.
If you want more of one thing, you have to finish everything else on your plate- no more noodles until you eat your meatballs and broccoli.
Stay at the table until others are done eating- sometimes just sitting with everyone a little longer will help the kids decide that they do want to eat. This rule also gives us more time together as a family.
You don't have to eat what's on your plate but we're not going to make you anything else- D and I aren't short-order cooks. If the kids really don't want to eat what's being served for dinner, we will offer them a glass of milk after they've had their requisite one bite but that's it. We're not going to make each child a special meal just because they don't want the food that was offered to them.
The rules and suggestions above make up the basic framework for meals at our house. Having a system like this does mean that some meals are a challenge and we do spend some time each meal encouraging our kids to eat the food on their plate but that time is getting shorter the longer we use this system. That's not to say that we don't eat fast food some nights or eat popcorn and ice cream for dinner every once, but having rules like this in place makes it easier to get back into our good eating habits after a treat like that.
Are you trying to encourage your children into better eating habits? What has or hasn't worked for you?