10 strategies to encourage your children to eat well

Children can need some encouragement to eat a healthy and varied diet. Here's some strategic nutritional advice for parents in need of inspiration.

Making sure a child is eating healthily is both a priority and a challenge for care givers, and fussy eating can be stressful to deal with. There are many reasons why children may be refusing food, but it’s important not to give up, as a healthy and varied diet will ensure that your child receives all the nutrients they need to grow, learn, and defend themselves from illness.

All children will respond differently to different kinds of encouragement, so here’s a range of strategies to arm yourself with to triumph at mealtime. Try one approach at a time and give it a few weeks to see ifit's working.

1. Reward Charts
Reward charts provide simple and clear reinforcement of positive behaviour and allow you to keep track of your child’s food habits. Give your child a gold star or sticker for every time they finish their meal or try a new food and reward them when they hit a certain target (10 new foods, for example). This turns the process of trying new things into a positive experience, backed up with rewards.

2. Gentle encouragement
Children aren’t necessarily going to eat food just because you’ve put it in front of them - they may need a little nudge and it's ok to interact with them during mealtime. Using a few key phrases that play on your child’s desire not to miss out can help to encourage them to finish their food. Here are some examples:

  • Mummy/Daddy is going to eat all your food – it’s so yummy
  • Let’s be part of the Clean Plate Club! (Serve up smaller portions as you can always dish up more later)
  • If you eat the smiling face, you’ll be smiling all day long and will be able to play your games better
  • These vegetables have been in the garden, they've had many days of sun, rain and fun, now they have ended up on your plate, aren’t you lucky!

3. Play with your food
Children need to be stimulated, particularly when something becomes routine. So if you want your child to eat well, dispel the myth that it’s bad to play with your food and start having some fun.

The traditional ‘Train in the tunnel’ or ‘Aeroplane landing’ methods (where the spoon becomes a vehicle for the food and the mouth becomes the tunnel/ runway) are great for toddlers. For older children you can try including them in the creation process – making build-your-own plates such as these chicken wraps, for example.

4. Same, same but different
If there is an ingredient that your child is particularly fussy about, often it will be the texture or the colour that is putting them off rather than the taste, so present it in a different way. If vegetables are a problem, for example, try adding them into pasta sauce or soup; add fruit into a smoothie or a milkshake, and try chopping food into different shapes such as sticks, cubes or even stars.

You may also want to consider how you serve the food. Whether you usually mix it up or keep it separated, try doing the opposite.

5. Glamorising food
Michelin Star chefs have been doing it for years because they know that we all eat with our eyes first – glamorising food makes us want to eat it. Applying this logic to children’s food could help your child to enjoy mealtimes more. A few methods to try are:

  • Creating a rainbow on their plate
  • Using cookie cutters to shape food
  • Wrapping up grapes, blueberries, radishes in foil packages
  • Creating lollipops out of vegetables
  • Adding toppers and sprinkles to food using ground seeds, dried fruit, mixed herbs, cinnamon or cocoa
  • Making faces/ hedgehogs/ dinosaurs/ animals out of the meal.

6. Food bridges
Food bridges are about building on your child’s favourite foods. If your child likes cheese, for example, try grating apple or carrot on top. If they like mash, try mixing in onion, parsnip or carrot. You could soon find that you’ll be able to serve the additional ingredients on their own.

7. Let the children decide
Involving children in their food choices can be introduced from a young age. Toddlers can be involved during the supermarket shop. If you grow your own fruit or vegetables, young children can help with planting and picking. Older children can help produce a meal plan for the week and get involved in tasting the food before it is served.

8. Use fun eating tools
Plates with faces and shaped utensils can make children more excited about the process of eating. If your child likes monkeys, for example, consider a monkey-shaped plate and a banana-shaped spoon. There are lots of options available in the market. For older children, using grown-up forks can be as equally appealing as the novelty forks for youngsters.

9. Role models
Who are the role models in your children’s life? If you have a picky eater ask them what their family members, childminders, athlete or pop star role models eat and use this as a tool to encourage them to do the same.

10. Themes
Having a theme night once a week where you let the children dress up or make something relevant can add some creativity and interest to mealtimes. Think about what foods might be relevant to the theme and let the children help you make it.

Here are some themes to try:

  • Pirate and treasure island picnic with sausages, mash and jewels (small pieces of red pepper, peas and sweetcorn)
  • Rainbow fairy using foods from different colours of the rainbow
  • Favourite animal, e.g. flamingo using pink foods like prawns, beetroot or pink coloured mash
  • Athletics, with foods representing the different sports i.e. asparagus as a javelin, orange or tomato as a shot put and runner beans
  • Shapes, where everything is a square, triangle or circle
  • Different country or culture.

Last updated Tuesday 27 November 2018

First published on Wednesday 15 February 2017