What makes a kid a good eater? My friends always comment that my kids are good eaters; and while George is still in the stage where he will eat anything and everything at all times, my response (in my head) is always, "really?!"
As much as I love the compliment I still constantly deal with the I don't like dinner talk, the strong will not to try things, and the overall small-portion dining.
So, are kids just born picky/good eaters? Is eating just another personality trait? I would think the answer is yes and no. Can we probably nurture better outcomes? I think yes.
On letting kids run the show
As tough as dinner can be, I have found that I have to (usually) stick to my guns. Believe me, nothing gets me riled up like an argument with a 4-year-old over if the ham and cheese melt is good or not when they have not even laid a finger on it (and, clearly it's delicious). But if I offered a new dinner option for the kids on the nights where they "didn't like dinner," then I would be doing that 3+ a week. Take that option away. It will make your life easier and theirs. (Some nights are just a bust, and that's just life).
On giving them options
Speaking of options, I used to think it was best to always give Nora a lot of options so that she had the freedom to make her own food decisions, particularly at breakfast and lunch. And while I do want to give her the freedom to decide, it started to get a little out of control. So now, we still have options at those meals, but there's a limit (anything goes at breakfast and 2 choices max at lunch). And dinner is dinner--no options there. Our dinners always feature something on the plate that everyone should like and then food that the kids may or may not like. Everyone is expected to try everything (and as little as a bite if it is new and/or scary). I constantly remind Nora that her taste buds are constantly changing, so you always have to give things a try; and it's ok if you don't like something. Exposure, exposure, exposure…sometimes it can take 15+ times for a kid to like something (and sometimes never, but…cross that bridge when you come to it).
On overly processed foods
We know processed foods are not good for us, but who can deny the convenience? The major problem I have with processed foods is that they mess with our taste since they are loaded with hidden sugars and salt. Things start to taste different after eating a lot of processed foods. I no longer buy any boxed mac n' cheese, never have hot dogs/pre-cooked frozen chicken nuggets in the house (although, we do love lunch dates at Portillo's, hello--we are normal people and live in Chicago), and have been trying to cut down on boxed snacks (but definitely still have a bunch in the house). My rule of thumb is: if I don't like giving my kids XYZ, don't buy it--it's the easiest way to not serve it to them. Side note: both of the kids used pacifiers and the only way for me not to give them one was to not have one available. I think I have sold the point, but as parents, we are weak, I tell ya.
**it's judgment free zone here; my kids will gladly eat boxed mac n' cheese and chicken nuggets if served.
Instead of boxed mac n' cheese - try buttered noodles with pre-grated parmesan, it's just as quick (Trader Joe's has awesome parmesan cheese)
Instead of hot dogs - get extra meat to cook at each dinner and then you'll have that to serve the next day
Instead of boxed snacks - try trail mix (we do dried cherries and walnuts, and sometimes chocolate chips), popcorn, homemade banana bread, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, string cheese, peanut butter toast with honey, etc.
On trying new things and positive food talk
Continue to show them new food--don't be afraid to take them to the Thai, or sushi restaurant (even if they are just eating avocados and noodles). Make it fun. Talk about food. Let them hang out while you are cooking (Nora sits on the counter and it's our best time to gab). Take them to the grocery store--even let them pick out a new fruit or veggie to try. I think the more you introduce them to, the more they will like. It is a rocky journey (no doubt), but worth it. Believe me not every restaurant outing is fun, but we keep at it.
On the reward system and breaking down
We do use the reward system...a lot--eat a good dinner and you can have dessert (even if it's the world's smallest piece of chocolate--it feels like a treat). And when all else fails, we occasionally invite them on our lap or sit next to them to help them along (literally feeding them like a baby--we need to find a new 'break down' tactic, Nora is getting too old for this). Sometimes you do what you need to do.
The road to a good eater is sometimes chance, sometimes luck, but always hard work. What are your tricks of the trade?