Imagine going to a friend’s house and he serves you a bowl of crickets. If you’ve never had crickets before, you probably wouldn’t eat a big spoonful right away. You might first poke at it to determine if it will feel soft or crunchy in your mouth. You might lick it for a small taste before taking a bite.
Now imagine your host puts a plate piled full of foods you’ve never seen before in front of you and tells you that you can’t have a glass of wine or get up from the table until you finish it all. That’s a lot of pressure for something that already made you uncomfortable. You might not be sure how your body will react to the new food. Maybe you’re not even hungry and wouldn’t have served yourself as much food as you see on your plate.
Little kids eating dinner might feel the same. Tara Schmidt, M. Ed., RDN, LD, a dietitian at Mayo Clinic, shares the latest research and recommendations for feeding kids.
Should kids clean their plates at each meal?
Perhaps when you were a child, you were told to sit at the dinner table until you finished everything on your plate. For some, this was out of necessity. Grandparents who grew up during the Great Depression, for example, learned that food was scarce. The family couldn’t afford to waste food and kids didn’t have the luxury to be choosy about what was on their plate.
But now experts see this as a high-pressure technique that leads kids to eat past the point where they feel full. We now know that punishing kids for not taking a bite is encouraging them to eat to please you rather than allowing them to listen to their body’s signals.
“Kids are actually a great example for adults about listening to their bodies,” Schmidt says. “Adults often lose this practice over time.”
That’s because adults have spent decades learning to ignore their body’s signals. We’ve learned to eat because the time on the clock said it was time to eat. We learned to keep eating even after we’re full because we didn’t want to waste food.
Instead, experts recommend exposing kids to new foods. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Just put a piece of a new food on your child’s plate. This gives them a low-pressure way to explore it without giving them a big portion that they might not eat. If kids like it, you can always offer more. Research shows that kids might need to see new foods 10 to 12 times before they’ll eat them.
“The main piece of advice I have for parents is exposure,” Schmidt says. “Exposure can just be having it on kids’ plates. They might not touch it or eat it. But having it on their plate, whatever they choose to do with it, is an exposure.”
Should caregivers require kids to try each food?
Some parents subscribe to a less extreme approach of asking their children to try a bite of everything on their plate.
“I think it’s OK for parents to naturally encourage their child to do things,” Schmidt says, “but I wouldn’t say it’s appropriate to have requirements like you can’t leave the table until you have three bites.”
Mayo Clinic pediatrician Angela C. Mattke, M.D., recommends making a big show of excitement to encourage little kids at the dinner table. If they hold up their broccoli and say, “Look, a tree,” you smile and clap. If they hold it up to their lips, you give even more attention. Preschoolers love attention, so the more they get, the more likely they are to repeat the behaviors that earn it.
One way to take the pressure off you, the adult, is to adopt the idea that adults are in control of what goes on the plate and children should be in control of what goes in their mouth.
“That’s one less thing parents have to be in control of,” Schmidt says. “They already do enough.”
Should dessert be a reward for finishing dinner?
Using food as a reward or punishment undermines the healthy eating habits you’re trying to instill in your child. It might teach kids to overeat in order to earn the treat — or to overdo it on the treats when they are offered.
“You’re really putting dessert on a pedestal,” Schmidt says. “It teaches kids that they have to get through the broccoli, chicken and rice in order to get a cookie. Kids learn that cookies are more valuable.”
Instead, if you decide to have cookies one night, put the cookie on their dinner plate. Your child might eat the cookie first, but it’s unlikely that they’ll only eat the cookie, Schmidt says.
You, as the parent, get to decide how big that cookie is, how often to have cookies and what kind to serve, Schmidt explains. If the child asks for another cookie, you can say, “That’s all for today.”
Also, when food is used to make a bad day better, it can teach children to use food to cope with difficult emotions.
Should I hide veggies in my kids’ food?
It’s OK to add something like spinach in a smoothie, Schmidt says. That’s a good way to get some fruits and vegetables in. But if the child asks, tell them there is spinach in it. We don’t want to lie about what’s in their food.
Dr. Mattke adds that putting vegetables in the foods kids already like helps them get used to the taste. But you still want them to accept those foods on their own, so keep offering it in ways that kids see, too.
Should I make my child “kid food” for dinner?
“At the end of the day, you have to feed your kid,” Schmidt says. She recommends making sure that there’s at least one food in the meal that you know your child will eat. If you know that they’ll eat bread, put a slice on their plate along with small portions of the food the family is having for dinner.
“And whatever they do with the new food still counts as a move in the right direction,” Schmidt says.
You might also try different cooking methods. A child who doesn’t like cooked carrots might like the crunch of raw carrots with hummus. Maybe your child won’t eat peas, but they don’t mind them in a soup or casserole. Dips and sauces also can help kids learn to like veggies.
“It might look like they’re just using the cucumber slice to fork ranch into their mouth, and that’s OK, it all counts in the end. They’ll eventually take a bite of the cucumber,” Schmidt says.
Does my child need vitamin supplements?
As long as they’re growing healthfully and eating a variety of foods, kids probably won’t need a multivitamin.
If you’re worried that your child is not getting all of the nutrients that they need, discuss your concerns with your child’s health care team. For example, it’s OK for your child to be a vegetarian, but tell your health team, so they can make sure your child is getting nutrients commonly found in animal products.
Can I let my child have snack foods advertised on TV?
Heavily advertised foods tend to be ultraprocessed and often higher in sugar, unhealthy fats or salt. But kids are going to be exposed to those foods. They’ll see them at birthday parties or in their friends’ lunches at school.
“It’s not that we can’t be excited about them, but it’s a fine balance of having them in our diet, but in a limited amount,” Schmidt says.
It’s OK to talk about and even have some of these foods, Schmidt says. In fact, forbidding them can make kids want them even more. If kids never get them at home, they might go overboard when they do have those foods at a friend’s house.
Instead of calling foods good or bad, you can talk about the advantages of different foods. For example, this banana has more potassium, or these cashews have more protein that helps build strong and powerful bodies. You can do this without teaching kids that some foods are “good” and other “bad.” Instead, focus on allowing kids to have all types of foods in moderation.
The last bite
Feeding children is challenging, and no one is going to get it right 100% of the time. The research on best practices evolves with time, too. You’re doing the best you can — just like your parents did when they told you to clean your plate or no TV.
Cook Smart, Eat Well
Healthy, flavorful meals are well within reach for anyone. This book is full of recipes that are easy to put together quickly with basic cooking techniques. Delicious kid friendly recipes, healthy desserts, snacks and side dishes. Being successful in the kitchen doesn’t mean you need to be a gourmet chef. Learn standard food preparation methods and cooking techniques for preparing a wide variety of tasty and healthy meals.Shop Now
Want more children’s health and parenting information? Sign up for free to our email list.Subscribe Open parent optin subscribe modal