Does this scenario ever happen to you? You spend time planning dinner, buying food, and preparing a lovely home-cooked meal. You set the plate in front of your children, they eat their one or two favorite items from the plate and then say they are finished because they are “full,” except of course, for dessert. Foods are left on the plate (often times green in color and usually a vegetable), mostly untouched. This all-too-familiar situation is maddening for parents trying to combat dinnertime pickiness.
Ensuring that children get a balanced array of foods and achieve a healthy diet is a difficult task. Many parents struggle to get their children to eat the variety of foods prepared for a meal on a regular basis and are frustrated that delicious food goes to waste. And, once your children say that they are full, you don't want to push them to eat more just for the sake of consuming a serving of broccoli. You want to encourage them to recognize the natural feeling of fullness, indicating when they should stop eating and not force them past that point.
Eating in a Circle
What can you do when this happens in your household? As parents, it is absolutely appropriate to provide parameters and structure during meals. Just like you may provide parameters around screen time, bed time, or the number of sweets allowed in a day, it is important to use the same types of guidelines at mealtimes.
To provide structure within the meal, I love the idea of having children eat in a circle. This can work for children as young as two years of age and is still appropriate for children up through middle school. Eating in a circle literally means just that…taking turns eating one bite of each food on the plate. For older children, you can have them pick the first food and select the order of the remaining foods. The important part is that they need to take a bite of each food before getting back to the beginning. It may be helpful to influence the order of the food so that higher preferred foods are interspersed between less preferred foods. This way, your children are motivated to get back to a preferred food as quickly as possible.
With this strategy, it is important to have: 1) between one to two highly preferred foods and 2) one or two foods that are less preferred but not totally nauseating. The less preferred options should be the types of foods that your children begrudgingly eat or taste on the condition of pleading, begging, and bribing. You may also need to monitor the meal so that bites of higher preferred foods are not monster-heaping spoonfuls. Otherwise your children may quickly eat through the preferred foods and leave all of their “yuck” foods for the end. But, it is absolutely ok to have the less preferred foods be smaller in size than a normal bite. This can help transition through the rotation of foods while still providing exposure to newer flavors.
Stick to the Circle
When you are ready to begin this strategy, sit down with your children and let them know that you are going to start a new habit during dinner. Explain the process and answer any questions they may have. Underscore that a well-balanced meal is an important component of staying healthy.
That night at dinner, present the foods that you prepared and ask which food each of them would like to eat first. Then guide them to follow the pattern of eating in a circle. If your children try to jump the order, don’t let them! If you stick to the pattern, after a few attempts to get out of it, your children will follow the flow. This is especially true if your children are hungry (that is, they have not been snacking all afternoon before dinner) and there are highly preferred foods on the plate.
The hope is that there is not much refusal behavior since the less preferred foods are ones that your children will at least taste. Encouraging your children to follow the pattern of eating in a circle, allows for them to expand the variety of foods they eat during a meal and significantly decreases the nag factor involved in so many family dinners. Happy eating and bon appetite!