Sneaky Strategy #1: Divide & Conquer
Though school lunch trays may have negative cafeteria associations for you, to young children they're just big, fun plates that keep all the foods from touching. These trays (or toddler-size divided plates) work well for typical meat-starch-fruit-vegetable dinners, but they work even better for deconstructed versions of all-in-one meals that kids often reject (soups, pastas with lots of ingredients mixed in, casseroles, etc.). Say you're having Hawaiian haystacks. Your kid may not want to eat a sloppy mix of rice, cream soup, chicken, pineapple, crispy chow mein noodles, and whatever else. (Who would!?) But divide all the components up among the sections of this tray, and suddenly they're eating it. Photo from here.
Sneaky Strategy #2: Toddler Buffet in an Ice Cube Tray
Wow, that rhymed. At first glance this strategy may look a lot like the one above, but look closer and you'll see that the idea here is to provide a full buffet of finger foods for toddlers, all served in an ice cube tray. A colorful array of easy-to-manage foods is irresistible to little kids. Shown here are shelled edamame, strawberries, cucumbers, pretzels, corn niblets, raspberries, goldfish crackers, animal crackers, raisins, cheese cubes, blueberries, peas, cheese puffs, and wheat bread. Small chunks of chicken or meatballs would also work well. The fun part of this strategy is seeing which foods they go for first, and which ones they *still* leave in the tray. Photo from here.
Sneaky Strategy #3: Cute Enough to Eat
Taking the time to make the food cute can get more of it eaten. There's no denying that it's more fun to bite the legs off a frog-shaped sandwich than it is to eat two bites of a regular sandwich. Sadistic? Maybe. Effective? Definitely! I chose this picture because it represents one of the easiest and most familiar "cute foods", Ants on a Log (celery with peanut butter and raisins), plus a sandwich cut-out that doesn't waste half the sandwich. This photo came from Another Lunch, which has tons more bento box-style lunches full of cute food inspiration. Along the same lines, though more of an art book than a cookbook, is Play With Your Food by Joost Ellfers. See if your library has it. My kids loved it!
Sneaky Strategy #4: Sip from a Silly Straw
Not a food strategy per se, unless your child is on a liquid diet, but silly straws certainly up the likelihood your kids will drink their milk or water. I've even seen it work at my mom's house with healthy, vegetable-filled GREEN smoothies. The silly straws pictured are from here, but I'd recommend checking your local party stores or Amazon for a great variety of shapes. From loops to eyeglasses to fish and butterflies, there's something out there your child will love. It's no trouble getting kids to drink juice, but silly straws can get kids drinking more healthy milk and water. I'll drink to that!
Sneaky Strategy #5: Make Like the Sample Lady and "Pick" It Up
One day I was making my way through Costco with my two-year-old, partaking of all the lovely samples offered to us on toothpicks and in little paper cups. Soon I noticed my little guy was eating all kinds of things he might usually reject at home. Ravioli. Meatballs. Chicken. Taquitos. He was moving way outside his usually realm of noodles and fruit. The next time he balked at eating the small pieces of chicken breast on his plate, I stuck a toothpick in each one and next thing I knew he had eaten them all. I have probably used this trick once a week since then -- on vegetables, meats, convenience foods, even pieces of grilled cheese sandwich. Of course, you'll need to keep an eye on your little ones when sharp sticks are involved, but you might be amazed at what they'll eat. Photo here.
Sneaky Strategy #6: Tell a Truly Elaborate Story
I can't take credit for this one. My sister-in-law and my babysitter had to show me the way. We've all tried the old "airplane" routine, right? "Here comes the airplane...here it comes...here it comes...open up the hangar!" In my life it's usually played out against a kid with a mouth clamped shut like a steel trap. Then at a family dinner I saw my sister-in-law convince my four-year-old to eat his food by telling him he was a huge space monster who needed to eat all the planets and slurp up all the moon lakes, etc., etc. He totally fell for it! And then I thought back and remembered my babysitter convincing my then-three-year-old that he was a mighty T-Rex who needed to take dinosaur bites of all his foods. I had played it out further by turning him into and herbivore and getting him to eat trees (broccoli) and tree-stars (leafy greens, a la The Land Before Time). Get creative and move out of the airplane rut! Photo here.
Sneaky Strategy #7: Dip It! Dip It Real Good!
This is an old standby most parents have used, but it deserves a shout-out. Letting your kids dip their food in something can get a lot more of it down their gullets. The prime candidates are ketchup and ranch dressing. You might have to avert your eyes and hold your nose to keep from losing your lunch over some things your kids will dip in ketchup (pineapple? sandwiches? granola bars? -- yes, I've seen all that and more). This strategy can be especially effective when used in combination with the toothpicks in strategy #5. I know, I know...ketchup and ranch dressing are often processed and salty. I've found that plain Greek yogurt also does the trick. Photo here.
There you have my Seven Sneaky Strategies for Getting Kids to Eat Their Food. Do you have any great methods of you own? I'm always looking for new ideas to add to my bag of tricks.
I also wanted to share this blog and Twitter I came across today. It's written from the perspective of a toddler, and it's hilarious and scarily accurate: http://honesttoddler.wordpress.com/ and Twitter @HonestToddler. I highly recommend this post http://honesttoddler.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/newborn/ and this one http://honesttoddler.wordpress.com/2012/06/23/the-woman/. Such good stuff!