Make Mealtime Fun for a Picky Eater

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Kids like to have fun. So why not use this concept to entice them to the table? Many parents report success when they are creative with the presentation or naming of the foods they want their kids to eat. You certainly don’t have to do this for every food, or for every meal, but it is a great way to reduce stress at mealtime.

  • Use a crazy name. Involve your child in making up names. Once a food gets a fun name, call it that whenever it’s on the menu. Funny names often get the best results, such as calling melon balls Pixie Basketballs or kidney beans Dinosaur Eggs.
  • Add your child’s name. Personalizing a food or meal gives children a reason to try it and love it. Experiment with something like Sloppy Joans, Ben’s Belly-icious Beans, Sophie Soup or Lillian-burgers. Or name food after your child’s favorite cartoon characters.
  • Give the food a personality. A great way to engage younger children in mealtime is to have the food “talk” to him. The spaghetti can call your child to the table for dinner. The beans can “ask” to climb into his mouth and visit his tummy. Whenever a food “talks,” make sure you use a funny, disguised voice; beans never sound exactly like Mom or Dad, you know!
  • Make foods into fun shapes. Use cookie cutters or a knife to make fun shapes out of sandwiches, pancakes and cheese. Strips, circles or funny-shaped bits can be more fun than a plain old square.
  • Serve food on anything other than a kitchen plate. Try using colorful containers, toy dishes, an ice cube tray or a muffin tin as dishes. These platters often make a meal or snack more interesting to a child.
  • Get creative with the presentation. Instead of neat piles, create designs. While adults are used to seeing food in tidy sections, lots of kids find a decorative disarray more appealing. You can string beans or noodles around the edge of the plate. Try alternating veggies, meat and grain in mini-piles or stripes all over the plate, or combine them to make a design.
  • Move away from boring beige or white. Use food coloring to create pink mashed potatoes or purple mashed cauliflower. You can also add a color to water when boiling pasta or potatoes. Your child can choose the colors or add the drops. Foods create color, too, so add blueberries to oatmeal or strawberries to yogurt for more color.
  • Pull out the craft supplies. Help your kids design and make their own placements, a table centerpiece or napkin holders. If this project is a hit, make it a monthly routine, perhaps decorating the table for each holiday or season. Once your children have added their personal touches to the table, they may be more interested in sitting there.
  • Purchase a decorated plate set. It can be decorated with your child’s current favorite TV or movie character. Or take your kids to the store and let them choose their own dishes, even if they don’t match your set.
  • Use a plate as a canvas. Arrange the food as a face or in the shape of an animal. Let your child build his own creation then dare him to “eat the nose” or “take a bite of the foot.”
  • Have a formal “taste test.” It clears your refrigerator of the week’s leftovers and gets your kids to try different things. Put an assortment of foods in small bowls or dishes and invite everyone to take small tastes of various dishes and comment on their flavors. Also ask your child to be your official taste-tester when you prepare a meal. Ask formal questions: “Do you believe that this contains enough salt, kind sir?”
  • Try a different configuration of a regular food. Instead of regular spaghetti with meatballs, serve spaghetti with one mega-meatball in the middle or surround spaghetti with several mini-meatballs. Cut carrots in very long, skinny strips from one end to the other instead of slicing in circles. Make long spirals of apple using a potato peeler.
  • Serve it with dip. Kids love foods they can pick up and dip. Serve items that come with a sauce separately, with the sauce in a bowl. Here are a few dipping ideas: fruit with mashed cottage cheese or yogurt; apples with peanut butter; pita bread with hummus; chicken pieces or beef cubes in marinara sauce; and meatballs on toothpicks dipped in mashed potatoes.
  • Present meals in ways you already know they love. Notice the presentation of your child’s favorite fast food and serve dinner in a similar arrangement. Fold the chicken into a paper wrapper, serve applesauce in a mini-cup and stand green beans in a paper cup to achieve an interesting French fry-ish appearance.

Get creative when you’re dishing out the next meal and see what happens. When mealtime is fun, your picky eater just might become happy eater. 

Excerpted from The No-Cry Picky Eater Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Your Child To Eat—And Eat Healthy by Elizabeth Pantley (McGraw-Hill, 2011).