By Dori Steinberg, PhD, RD
Heading off to Kindergarten opens up loads of new opportunities for exploration and learning – and that includes food! Kids this age start to explore new tastes, smells, and textures and are ripe (no pun intended) to learn new things all while continuing imaginative and creative play. Yet, society puts so much pressure on parents to feed their kids the “right way”, and that pressure trickles eventually down to the kids. This societal pressure often stems from the fear that if we don’t feed our kids the right way they will grow up to have bad eating habits and negative health consequences. However, raising an eater who is attuned to their body’s needs, has a neutral stance towards all foods, and is curious about trying new foods is going to lead to a much better relationship with food and better food habits long term. Here are some tips to help your kindergartener get started becoming a curious and intuitive eater.
Make It Fun
Kids can tell when things are fun and when things aren’t. The more we integrate fun into food choices and the eating experience, the more your kid will maintain interest in food. Consider things like using the rainbow as a guide and ask how we can get more color onto our plates. Make rainbow smoothies (see recipe below) or make food into a silly face. Create pretzel and cheese cube towers. Make a game with your kids while cooking and see if they can count the number of tomatoes in the salad or help measure ingredients. Be creative and think of new ways to make it fun.
Use The 5 Senses
Help kids recognize that they can use all 5 senses to explore new things and new foods. Using all of our senses also helps kids ground into the experience more. With eating, we often focus on taste and sight, but it can also be about touch, smell, and even hearing. Ask your child to tell you what sounds they hear when they bite into a cucumber or what they smell when eating hard boiled eggs. How do their taste buds respond to eating a lemon? My favorite is touch – let them squeeze or touch foods before they are cooked. It is fun to hug an eggplant or feel rice fall through your fingertips.
Expose But Don’t Expect
Focus on the goal of exposing your kids to all kinds of food. Exposure is important but doesn’t always lead to quick changes – and can feel like a lot of work sometimes. Be creative and try new things, but the most important part is to keep the pressure low and be curious. If your child rejects a certain food, ask them to explain what is off-putting. It can sometimes take several – and I mean several – tries before kids are willing to try eating something new.
Adopt An All Foods Fit Mentality
Adopting an all foods fit mentality is hard in the diet-culture focused society we live in, however, it is vital for helping your kid have a positive relationship with food and eating. Society tells us that some foods are on a pedestal (e.g., fruits and vegetables, salmon, nuts, avocado). These foods are rich in nutrients that we all need, but giving them extra super powers only increases the pressure. On the flip side, we hear that foods like ice cream, cookies, chips, and pizza are labeled as “junk food.” Yet, for kids this age, those foods are often the most palatable – and consistent. If kids start to see that some foods are put on a pedestal and some are restricted, they start to desire the restricted foods and reject the so-called optimal foods. Kids are smart that way. The best way to help your child be open to trying all foods is to recognize that all foods play a role in helping them grow and thrive. Broccoli contains certain vitamins and nutrients that crackers don’t, but crackers contain nutrients that are nonexistent in broccoli. A neutral stance toward all foods that recognizes that all foods provide us with nutrients is key.
Giving kids choices helps them feel like they are playing an active role in the foods they eat. This doesn’t mean making separate meals for your kids that are different from what the rest of the family is eating. Instead, always have a choice that you know your kid will eat and then focus on exposure. Offer bread and butter alongside the lasagna and grilled veggies you made for dinner. If they feel like they have a choice they will be more curious to try new things. Save time in the morning and have them help you pack their lunches and snacks for school.
Recognize That Kids Like Consistency
Kids start to become aware that some foods aren’t always the same. Cheez-it crackers are consistent – they pretty much taste the same every time. However, foods like fruits and veggies aren’t always consistent. Sometimes you get squishy berries, sometimes you have red peppers that are less sweet, and sometimes the pear tastes more like an apple. Understanding that consistency is important may help you become more aware about why your child chooses the crackers over the grapes for their afternoon snack.
Teach That Intuitive Eating Includes Planning
Help your kids help their future selves. Kids are very in the moment – it’s one of the things that is awesome about being a kid. There are so many new and exciting things to explore and learn. However, if you can help your child to recognize the importance of eating and how it can help them do all the things they love – run, jump, play – they may become more aware about how food nourishes their body. You can also use language like, “you need to eat your lunch to help prepare for your future self,” and “when we don’t eat enough at the designated meal/snack times given to us by our teachers, our future self may feel tired, sluggish, and cranky…which makes it hard to play and have fun.” I think the hard part is that the signals to eat aren’t always clear. We don’t always get tummy rumbles when it’s time to eat. Be curious about the cues your child gives when they are hungry – before it’s too late – and teach them that sometimes we have to eat for our future selves even if we don’t want to in the moment.
Lastly, everyone is learning and this process takes time and patience and compassion. It is normal you start to fear that your kid isn’t eating the right way. Remember that we are playing the long game here and that setting your kid up for success in Kindergarten and beyond starts with helping them create a positive relationship with food and their body. If you have any concerns about your child’s eating patterns, it is important to check with your doctor as it could be a sign of an eating disorder or other problems.
Here are some additional resources to help you get started:
IG accounts to follow:
Rainbow smoothie recipes: