Mealtime Dilemmas? No Problem!

little boy eating scrambled eggs

Your toddler is a huge fan of macaroni and cheese—and practically nothing else. Your preteen sneaks out the door without so much as a bite of breakfast. Your grade-schooler has developed an acute case of sandwich phobia... Sound familiar? Here are some parent-proven solutions to your top mealtime challenges from Ann Douglas, author of the recently published Mealtime Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler.

Questions and Answers About Feeding Young Children

1. Now that my baby is no longer eating purées, I don't know what to feed her. Any tips?

You can serve her many of the same foods you're eating, with a few important exceptions. Avoid foods that pose a significant risk of choking and go slow with foods that pose an allergy risk. As for what types of foods babies love as they move on to table foods, try experimenting with some of the following foods:

pasta and sauce, stew, casseroles, soups with lots of vegetables, soft meats, or beans.

Keep your baby's developmental stage in mind when you're deciding how finely to chop or mash her foods, but don't be afraid to challenge her with increasingly complex textures as she is ready. Babies learn by doing—or chewing, in this case!—after all.

2. My toddler would be overjoyed if our cupboards were filled with macaroni and cheese and nothing but. He has a fit if we serve him something else. How do other parents deal with this?

You can either try to get him to kick his macaroni and cheese habit cold turkey or you can give him a small serving of macaroni and cheese at dinnertime, alongside whatever else the rest of the family is eating. When the macaroni and cheese serving is gone, it's gone. (No second helpings.) If he's still hungry, he needs to figure out which of the other foods on the planet he's going to fill his tummy with until it's time for his next macaroni and cheese fix.

kids eating vegetables

3. My five-year-old hates vegetables. Any tips on encouraging him to add at least a few varieties to his diet?

  • Try grilling potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other mild-tasting vegetables on the barbecue. This idea is likely to score points with the child who is a hamburger or hot dog nut. (If it comes off the grill, it's got to be good—right?)

  • Find a dip that appeals to your child and then team it up with the vegetable he hates least. Let him dip to his heart's content. Don't limit yourself to things you think of as veggie dips. Some kids are wild about mustard or plum sauce.

4. My three-year-old hates the texture of meat. He chews it for a while and then spits it out on his plate.

You can make meat more palatable by sticking to tender cuts of meat, serving meat in broths or sauces, and cooking with lean ground meats. And don't forget that there are also all kinds of protein-rich alternatives to meat, such as chicken, fish, beans, peas, lentils, peanut butter, eggs, and cheese. Consult some vegetarian cookbooks for ideas on healthy meat-free meals.

5. My five-year-old and my six-year-old are constantly fighting at the dinner table. It's so annoying.

Your kids may be tired, hungry, and restless by the time they arrive at the dinner table. If you can serve them a healthy snack before dinner—perhaps a fruit and veggie platter with dip—they might not be quite as famished (or irritable) by the time everyone sits down to eat. It's worth trying... And don't worry about them filling up on all those healthy foods before dinner. Worse things could happen, right?

6. My seven-year-old hates milk. Is it okay to give him chocolate milk as a way to encourage him to drink milk?

Absolutely. Chocolate milk is just a chocolate-ier version of regular milk. And it actually contains less sugar than unsweetened fruit juice. Who knew?

7. My kids eat way too much junk food. How can I wean them off the stuff?

Go slow with the menu makeover or you could end up triggering a backlash that will have your kids holing up in the linen closet with a loaf of white bread and a container of chocolate spread. Instead, aim to introduce one or two nutritional improvements to your family's eating habits each week. Here are three quick tips to get you started:

  • Up your kids' intake of fruits and veggies so that they'll fill up on naturally healthy foods. Serve these foods in fun and kid-friendly ways (fun veggie shapes with healthy dips, etc.)

  • Go for whole grains. Zero in on whole-grain varieties of bread and pasta products that kids naturally love: pita bread, tortillas, and pasta in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

  • Stock healthier snack options like low-fat popcorn, low-fat frozen yogurt, and frozen fruit-juice bars.

8. What kind of lunches can you send to school with a kid who hates sandwiches?

Come up with healthy and kid-friendly food combos: cereal, yogurt, and fresh fruit; a pita slathered in refried beans (or cut into triangles with a container of refried bean dip); soups, stews, and salads; a side serving of bread and cheese alongside a jumbo-sized chef's salad; etc. For best results, get your child involved in menu planning and grocery shopping. Sandwich-o-phobes are notoriously picky, as you're all too aware.

girl refusing breakfast

9. My preteen skips breakfast most mornings. I don't know how big a deal to make of the situation.

Hungry kids have a harder time focusing in school, which can lead to academic problems. If your child is rushing out the door because she's in a hurry or she's suddenly decided she hates the standard breakfast menu fare, see if you can brainstorm some ideas for some almost-instant breakfasts (like a healthy and yummy fruit-and-yogurt smoothie).

Here's another point to keep in mind: Sometimes preteens skip breakfast in the mistaken belief that doing so will help them to lose weight. That, in turn, tends to lead to poorer food choices later in the day, which can set up a cycle of unhealthy eating.

10. How many times should I ask my child to try a food that he "hates" before I finally give up on that food?

Researchers have found that it can take 10 to 20 exposures to the same food before a child finally decides he likes it. Of course, you don't want to serve that food the same way 15 nights in a row if your child gives it a thumbs down the first night. Serve it in a slightly different way every couple of weeks. For example, serve sweet potatoes grilled on the barbecue, mashed like regular mashed potatoes, or sliced into julienne fries. Sometimes it can take a whole lot of trial and error to crack the code of your child's food likes. Your parent detective skills really pay off at a time like this.

About the Author

Ann Douglas is the author of Mealtime Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler (Wiley, 2006). Find more of her tips at ©Ann Douglas