Variety. It’s one of the go-to words in the child nutrition world. We talk about it all the time. And we do our best to encourage parents to introduce as much variety as they can into their child’s diet.
But at the same time, we also recommend parents avoid all forms of pressure at the meal table. That means no encouraging kids to eat something and no asking them to take a bite. No saying that they liked it before or anything similar.
Which means that many people are stuck wondering just how they’re actually supposed to help their child to increase the variety in their diet! If you can’t strongly encourage your child to try something, how will they actually learn to like things?
Pressure to eat doesn’t work
When it comes to eating, it’s easy to want to exert some control over what our child puts in their body. Asking them to take another bite of something, requiring them to eat all of one food before they can have more of a different food, or refusing to let them have as much as they want of a food that is served are all examples of adults controlling what their child is eating.
As tempting as it is to do, especially because it often feels like that is what is expected of us as parents, the research is very clear. Controlling practices like that backfire. They often result in less eaten, and less variety. Even though they are often done with good intentions.
No pressure ways to increase variety
Many different research studies have been done on how to help encourage children to eat a larger variety of foods and change their eating behaviors. Since the various studies are designed differently, it is hard to say absolutely that something will, or won’t ever, work.
But there is a very distinct pattern in the research. And that pattern shows that the most effective way of changing a child’s eating behavior is with a hands-on approach. (Ref) When it comes to food, that means gardening and cooking.
In some instances with older school age children, simply gardening and learning how to cook was more effective at improving their eating behaviors than any kind of nutrition education.
This research has primarily been focused on older school aged children. But it can fairly confidently be extrapolated to all age groups.
Getting kids in the kitchen is vital!
Allowing our children to touch and feel food in a no pressure environment is so helpful for them. Having the chance to explore a food, and even taste it if they want outside of the table allows them to be in control of their eating.
And kids, regardless of their age, are seeking to have some control when it comes to food and what they put in their body.
It may seem like getting your child in the kitchen, or gardening with them, are afterthoughts when it comes to your child’s eating. That they’re something extra that as a busy parent you just don’t have time for.
But these strategies work for helping your child to improve their eating behaviors. As well as expanding the variety in their diet.
It might be hard to believe since it’s not necessarily something that you see have a direct effect on their eating habits. It’s not like asking them to take one more bite and seeing them do it. But that is likely one of the reasons that it works.
Getting hands on experience works
Providing them a hands-on way of experiencing the food is what allows them to expand what they want to eat. And is likely why we see such strong research support for things like cooking programs and gardening. These type of programs and experiences meet our children where they are at. They help to let them explore food without pressure.
So instead of thinking of cooking with your kids, or gardening with them as an afterthought and something you’ll start when you have more time, think of it as an important part of eating for your child.
Think of it as a vital part of how you are reducing problems at the table. Or preventing them from happening in the first place!
Get step-by-step guidance for getting your kids in the kitchen.
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