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10 Secrets to Getting Your Kids to Clean Their Plate at Every Meal

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Everyone wants to instill good eating habits in our kids–but sometimes it can be a real uphill struggle.  My boys have far from perfect diets, but I’ve learned several lessons along our journey.

1. What doesn’t get finished for a meal gets saved for the next snack

Anything that is left on someone’s plate at the end of mealtime goes straight into the fridge and is brought back out at the next snack time.

If there’s a lot of food left on our plates, then I usually provide a more enticing snack, and usually, there’s at least one boy who is happily eating his tasty snack, while the others are staring at a plate of cold leftovers.  Those that finish their leftovers, then get the snack.

When they ask to be excused with food still on their plate, we say, “Sure, go put your plate in the fridge for snack time”.  Oftentimes, they will sigh, pick up their fork, and finish their meal, knowing they’ll have to face it again in a few hours.  (If they don’t finish their leftovers at the next snack time, then the scraps go to the chickens, we don’t keep pulling out the same plate all day long.)

2. Make sure there isn’t a physical issue

One of my sons was a very picky eater, and it was largely because he had enormous tonsils.  In our situation, there were other symptoms accompanying the picky eating–choking, gagging, and drooling, so see your doctor if you think there’s an underlying problem.

3. Keep the junk out of the house

I don’t sweat what kind of treats get ingested at Grandma’s, after soccer games, or at birthday parties–but they don’t come home with us.  If the options for snacks at home are all healthy ones, then my boys can eat the offered snack or wait until the next meal.

4. We all eat the same thing, and only clean plates get seconds

I don’t fix multiple meals, and everyone gets a reasonable portion of everything served. I’ve found it’s helpful to spice dishes mildly or leave sauces on the side and let people personalize their dishes with spices/condiments to their own preference.  (We have boys who don’t care for spicy food, and we have boys who pile on the hot peppers.)

5. Have set meal and snack times

I’m astounded at how my kids cling tightly to snack time, even the older ones.    We still have 3 meals and 3 snacks, and snacks are about 2 hours after the last meal.  We shoot for set times but are flexible if life gets in the way.  I think to snack or not to snack is just what works best for each family, but the real importance is the stability of routine, and knowing what comes next and when.  Our snacks are small and are typically fruit, vegetables, or nuts.  They don’t necessarily make anyone full, but they take the edge off of an empty belly.

6. Make sure it isn’t a texture issue

Time for me to ‘fess up–I have weird food texture issues.  Quite a few of them in fact, and I’ve passed the unfortunate train on to one of my children.  He and I have issues with textures (as much as I’m trying to overcome them), but don’t necessarily dislike the foods themselves.  Several people in our house (not mentioning any names, of course) have issues with crunchy vegetables in soft meat.  So if I’m cooking onions or celery to put into ground meat, I chop them very finely, and then sauté them in oil, so that the texture isn’t an issue.

This may seem like it flies in the face of not being a short-order cook, but I don’t mind a little extra prep work in exchange for better eating habits.  Likewise, if you’re trying to introduce a new or unliked food to kids, make it lots of different ways, and keep trying.

7.  Try, try again

I admit it’s daunting when I’m fixing a meal that I know is going to be met with groans from the boys.  In our house, the grown-ups freely admit when something isn’t our favorite, and talk about the reasons we’re eating it anyway.

8. Make mealtime special

food is important to our family, and we try and treat it as such.   While you may not have or want a formal dining room, anyone can emphasize the importance of food by sitting down and eating together, turning off the TV and other devices, using a tablecloth and/or festive tableware.  We sit down, turn on some music, talk about our day, and spend time together as a family as often as we can.

9. Involve kids with where the food comes from

We raise all our own meat, and as many vegetables, as we can, so when kids know where the food comes from, and even better if they had a hand in raising it, they’re a lot more likely to eat it.  Shopping at a farmers market or grocery store can be a great experience and get them interested in food.  Let them choose some produce, and then help you cook the meal together.

10. Let them help cook the food

My older sons are cooking more and more with very minimal supervision from me.  It’s very eye-opening for them to see how much work goes into cooking.  This makes them more respectful of a plate of food when they know from experience how much work it takes to get it to the table.  Even if it’s not something they love to eat, they’re beginning to understand the work and preparation that goes into a meal, and they’re showing respect to the cook by eating it no matter what.

What tips do you have for getting your kids to eat their food?

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