My personal experience over the years feeding picky kids on a vegetarian (lacto-ovo) diet and seeing that they actually do grow and thrive has inspired me to share my ideas with others who may be struggling with this issue, vegetarian or not. Seeing your toddler cry about the complicated meal you have lovingly prepared for him, or your preschooler refusing to eat a single bite of her meal can be very frustrating and anxiety-provoking. I have experienced many of these moments as a parent and would like to share some tips:
Pick up a copy of Ellyn Satter’s Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense: http://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/store/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=52. Ironically, Ms. Satter is not a big proponent of vegetarian diets for kids, and I think her ideas on this (at least in this book) are a bit outdated, but her philosophy of Division of Responsibility really helped my husband and I to relax and enjoy the healthy and balanced meal we were providing to our (at the time) toddler son, and to know that is was o.k. to leave it up to him as to what and how much to eat. He did not starve when we stopped cajoling and bribing him into eating!
Always have at least one or two familiar foods available at the meal so that you know your child will have something he or she is comfortable with eating. Maybe that is milk and bread with butter or margarine, soy milk and applesauce, or baby carrots with hummus. This will help everyone to relax knowing there is something the child will eat, and your child may be more open to try the other more “adventurous” foods on the table.
Don’t “label” your child as a picky eater, or over-react in excitement when they do try something new. You can remind them that their tastes will change as they get older, so that a food they disliked a bite of tonight may become a food that they enjoy later on.
Keep serving healthy, simple foods like cut up fresh fruits and veggies, both with meals and as snacks. Serving these when your kids are hungry may encourage them to be more adventurous. In our house, my kids know that they can always have a fruit or vegetable, even right before a meal (when the Pirate Booty is off limits!)
Have kids help with family meals by picking out produce they would like to try in the grocery store, helping to plant/tend/pick veggies in the garden, or helping to cook a meal. Getting more involved with family meals may help them to feel more ownership in the process so that they are more likely to try these foods.
Remember that it often takes multiple exposures to foods before a child will try them, and the presence of a trusted adult is an important factor in whether a child tries new foods. Eating meals together frequently as a family has been linked to better nutrition in kids. Making family mealtimes a priority, and letting children see their parents eating healthy foods will help them learn to enjoy healthful foods themselves. Likewise, kids respond to peer pressure, so seeing their friends eating healthy meals or snacks at preschool or a playgroup can help kids to be more interested in foods they may not normally eat.