When I first became a mom, I had high hopes of my child eating every type of food on the planet. Then I got tired. And had more kids. And it was all I could do to get ANY food on the table, let alone teach them to eat and enjoy a variety of healthy foods.
I’m not content to leave it this way, and I long for the day when my kids will happily (and gratefully!) eat whatever dish is served. I recently stumbled upon a tool that is helping us get there. It came about one day when the kids and I had just finished playing Bingo – for prizes. It was time for lunch, and I set out a few different fruits and vegetables to go along with the main dish. They often turn up their noses at these healthy extras, and in truth, these sides are usually only eaten by my husband and me.
In a moment of brilliance, I grabbed some paper and scratched out a Bingo card for each of them. In every square, I put the name or illustration of a food that was on the table. Once they took a bite of the item, they could cross off that square. I told them they would even get a prize from the Bingo Bag if they got a “Food Bingo” – but to get a Food Bingo they had to cross off every single square on their card!
Without missing a beat, they each grabbed a piece of food, chowed down, then crossed that box off their Bingo card. They were so excited! They used their Bingo card to remind themselves what they had already tasted, and what they needed to eat next. Slowly their card filled up, and at last one of my kids got a blackout and yelled “Bingo!” I made a production out of them choosing a prize which inspired the other child to go for it and finish their card as well.
When the next meal came around, they wanted to play Food Bingo again!
Reflecting on this event, I think it was effective for a few reasons:
- It was fun. Kids love games, and playing at the table was a new treat.
- They were in control. They chose when they ate their food and the order in which they ate it.
- A game took the focus off of the requirement to try each item, which helped keep the mood light and fun. This was especially helpful for my daughter who is just as strong-willed as I am. Often she and I get into food battles where we both dig in our heels. The result is a crabby kid and a crabby mom sitting at the table much longer than needed, waiting for her to eat the last bite of XYZ.
If you want to give food games a try in your own home, you can start with Food Bingo or give one of these others a try. Be creative and silly and have FUN with it!
- Collect the Crayons. Serve a variety of different colored foods. Give your child a crayon matching the color of each food they eat. They can keep all the crayons until the end of the meal when you give them a special coloring sheet. Then, they can use all the crayons they collected during the meal to color their page.
- Space Rockets. Draw a quick illustration on a piece of paper of a few lumpy circles. Each one is an asteroid. Label each one with a food item from the table, and your child can knock out (cross off) each asteroid as they take a bite of the corresponding food so their rocket can safely pass through outer space.
- Roll the Dice. Assign a number on the die to each type of food on the table. Kids roll the dice and eat bites of the corresponding items.
- Graph Race. Make a bar graph for each food item on the table. Have the kids work together to see which food will get the most bites. Color in one segment on the bar graph for every bite taken. You can encourage them with phrases like, “The cauliflower is feeling lonely, let’s take a few bites to get that bar up!” or “Oh no the broccoli is ahead! Quick, what can we eat to get another food in the lead?”
Sometimes I’ll let my kids pick a treat from the prize bag if they win a game. I don’t spend a lot of money on these prizes, but they’re fun little extras that build excitement in our house. To fill my prize bag, I try to swing by the Dollar Spot at Target after a major holiday and get the items half off. I choose pencils, glitter glues, stickers, fun erasers, art supplies, small notepads, etc. For just a few dollars I can get a decent selection in my prize bag, especially when I open up the packages and separate the pencils or cut large sticker sheets into smaller sections.
Please remember that these games are not meant to be a permanent solution. Otherwise, you’re doomed to have mountains of tiny, fun erasers taking over your house! Over time what these games should do is change the culture of food in your home. By using these games as a tool, you’re teaching kids that food can be fun, that trying new things isn’t scary, and you’re also exposing them to so many new foods that they might actually find a few new things they like.
The best reward was when I saw a change in my two-year-old son at breakfast one morning. We didn’t have any food games that meal, and he was served a little bit of scrambled eggs, sausage, and fruit. He was getting ready to leave the table and I said to him, “What did you eat for breakfast today?” (because honestly, I didn’t see what he ate due to all of the usual table chaos happening around me.) He paused, looked at his plate and said, “Ummm…sausage….boo berries….oh! Me not try my eggs yet,” and he proceeded to pick his fork back up, take a bite or two of his eggs, then excuse himself from the table.
I’m pretty sure my jaw hit the ground. I couldn’t believe that without prompting he tasted his scrambled eggs. It wasn’t a battle and it looked so normal and natural. All that effort to lighten the food-mood at our house and expose my kids to a variety of foods was paying off. And not only that, but we were having fun and making memories while working on it!