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Getting Real: Picky Eaters & the No-Thank-You-Bite rule

March 24, 2011

I’ve been asked more than once how to get your kids to eat healthy food. Listen, this is not easy and my kids don’t necessarily eat everything I make. (Remember that I said that for the next Menu Monday recipe!)

However, I am not a short order cook. What I make for dinner is what we’re eating. When you say “Well, my kids will only eat mac-n-cheese/chicken nuggets/hot dogs,” then what you’re saying is that you only serve your kids mac-n-cheese/chicken nuggets/hot dogs. So you may need to get real about your role in your kids’ crappy eating habits.

No matter what age kids you have or what you’ve done in the past, you can change how your kids eat. I know this for sure. My almost-12 year old stepdaughter came to live with us when she was nine. So for nine years, she ate a diet of pure crap. Fast food multiple times a week, lots of fried foods, all starches, little-to-no vegetables or fruit, soda with most meals…you get the picture. EXCEPT – when she came to our house. In a meager four days a month, we fed this (hard-headed!) child “real” food. Oh, it was not easy. Oh, it caused fights of World War proportions. And yet, our tween girl now eats broccoli, salads, drinks water more than anything else. At least when she’s with us. (Unfortunately, she still eats like crappola when she’s at her other home.)

In addition, I have a four year old Picky Eater. I was determined that he would eat better than his big sister, and I prided myself on all the healthy goods I served him. And yet, he still rebelled, turning his nose up at almost all-things-healthy shortly after turning two. (Hey, let’s watch my ego deflate!) That’s when I was introduced to the No-Thank-You-Bite rule.

Simply enough, when you serve dinner, your child must take at least one bite of everything on the plate. If they eat a bite of something and do not like it, they may simply say “No thank you” to eating any more. They tried a food they don’t like and yet still have some power in their decisions. Sounds simple, right?

Well, it’s not, but it does work. I’ve had to modify how I present food, how much food to put on the plate, and more than once my child has gone to bed hungry. If I’m serving chicken, potatoes and green beans, I have to make sure there are only a couple of bites of chicken. He won’t get more chicken until he takes his no-thank-you-bite of potato and beans. (This kid only likes his potatoes fried!) If he refuses, he has until the end of dinner – when everyone else is done – and at that point, the plate goes away and he may very well have an empty tummy. But it is all his choice.

You can take the no-thank-you-bite a step further with the bites-per-age rule. When I serve the same meal over and over, and have finally gotten him to take no-thank-you-bites of all the foods, I up the ante by letting him know that he needs to take four bites of each item. (Which will soon be FIVE bites!) And again, no more chicken/yummy-thing-he-likes until the other two items get their bites.

To help get these no-thank-you-bites and bites-per-age down, I’m a big fan of combo-eating. Load the fork with a small bite of green bean, then potato, then chicken – all items in one bite! (Please make sure the bites are small so you don’t choke your kid!) I got the picky four year old to eat broccoli this way! After no less than 10 times of trying, of course. It is said that you have to serve your children a new item 26 times or something crazy like that before they will accept it. I have found that to be completely true!

If they want dessert, the plate needs to be cleared. Now, a cleared plate for my four year old is not the same amount of food as the tween or us adults. And I know that some weight loss experts warn against teaching kids that dessert is a treat. But we go by the idea that the healthy and good foods need to go in the body before we put the delicious-in-small-amounts foods in.

Another way to get them to buy into the meals you serve is to ask for their help in preparing the food. This has backfired on me with the tween girl – I still remember the Best Hamburgers Ever that she loved until she helped me make them once and found out what I put in them. However, most times this works!

And remember that your kids are ultimately following your lead. If you are served something and go on about how gross it is, so will they! But if they see you take a no-thank-you-bite, they will feel more empowered. Watching you say, “You know, that’s not my favorite, but I’d love more of the yummy-item-you-served,” they will learn grace and manners when faced with strange and new foods.

If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed at this point, I get it! But you have to decide if you want to be a parent who’s got the kid that won’t eat normal food or not. Are you willing to make tough choices to do right by your kids? No one ever said raising good kids was easy, so you shouldn’t think getting them to eat a well-balanced diet will be either.

This was a long one, so let’s end on a recap:
1. Feed your children well-balanced meals. Think about how much food is on their plate so that they can meet your expectations.

2. Let them know before they eat what you expect of them and what the consequences are.
ex 1:  This is what is for dinner. You need to take one bite of everything before you get more chicken. You can choose not to take one bite of everything, but breakfast is a long way away.
ex 2: This is what’s for dinner. You need to take four bites of everything before you get more mashed potatoes. You can choose not to, but breakfast is a long way away.
ex 3: This is what’s for dinner. If you eat everything, I have some ice cream for later. It’s OK if you don’t, though. You can always have ice cream another time.
ex 4: Aunt Jane made us a nice dinner. You need to take a no-thank-you bite of her potato salad, I know it’s not your favorite.

3. Let your kids help you make meals. Most kids will be so proud of their work, they’ll get over questionable ingredients.

4. Be a good example to your kids. They are watching you.

5. Prepare for the first few (or 10 or 20) times to be really freakin’ hard. Persistence. Patience. No need to yell if you’ve set out the rules, because they have the power to make their choices. And then live with them.

6. Love your kids! All this work will pay off and you’ll be so proud when in a few years they say “More broccoli please! It’s my favorite!”

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2011 11:00 am

    We didn’t have a name for it, but we’ve had the No-thank-you-bite rule for years. There are no additional helpings of anything else until they’ve tried everything (and by “try,” I mean a “big boy bite,” not a measly crumb on the tip of a fork prong). It helps that two of the middle boys are huge fans of veggies, and the little two want to mimic them, so they are more easily persuaded to try new things than the oldest (who couldn’t give a rip what anyone thought). 😉

    I appreciated what you said about dessert, as well. We don’t have dessert often, but when we do, it is understood that you cannot leave most of the food on your plate and still get a sweet treat. Rather than the age-bite rule of thumb (which is a great idea!), I usually tell them that they have to eat at least half of what they are served, in order to get dessert.

    Again, as you said, it boils down to choices. It irks me to no end when friends complain about how poorly their kids eat, but it’s because they placate their every whim and run to drive-thrus (sometimes two different places!) to accommodate everyone’s desires. I tell the boys that I work hard to provide groceries and good things to eat, so if they choose not to eat what they are served, then they are the ones who decide to be hungry. Choices have consequences.

  2. Jeanne Spencer permalink
    March 24, 2011 8:00 pm

    AMEN, sister. My kids are not picky eaters, though the middle one (7) doesn’t like a lot of meat. My 2 year old dau, is a great eater and loves just about everything I serve. My 11 year old eats it, even if it’s not his fav. We have a deal where if they don’t like the meal the first night, they don’t have to have it for leftovers. However, they do have to eat it at least one night, each time it’s served as a meal. Seems to work well and I’ve had no trouble over the years.

    I love the one-bite rule and have used it since they were little. It’s funny to see how they don’t mind the increase in ‘just … more bites’ as they get older. We serve generally healthy, balanced meals, mostly natural or organic and often meatless, to save money. It’s always an adventure.

    I enjoy reading your blog, thanks for sharing your story with us.


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