Virginia Woolf once wrote, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” It’s a nice thought, but we bet Mrs. Woolf didn’t have a picky toddler at her table.

We all want mealtimes to be peaceful and enjoyable–they are, after all, great mediums through which we can experience meaningful conversation with our children. But picky eater attitudes have the tendency to ruin a meal. And who wants to cringe at the thought of an afternoon snack?

So, how can you create a mealtime that’s pleasant for all? These three easy tips can help turn your food critic into a happy eater.

Take the Presentation up a Notch

The way food is presented to us makes all the difference. For any meal, instead of handing them an already-made plate you prepped at the counter, try giving them an empty one. Bring the family meal to the table and let them choose what they want to eat.

One thing here is a must: among the family meal, be sure that some of the prepared food are choices that you know they already like. If they don’t choose a new food at first, don’t sweat it. Keep it as casual and as open as possible to avoid stress, which will only create more aversions.

We know what you’re thinking: “This sounds messy.”  And we’d agree with you. But giving them the ability to choose what they want instead of being told what they want naturally allows them to explore different foods. When using this method, expect your child to inquire about the food and what others have chosen for their own plate.

One mom commented, “I did this with my daughter a few weeks ago. I brought dinner to the table and let her choose what she wanted. The first night, she didn’t eat any vegetables. The second night, she inquired about ‘those red things’ on the table, which were peppers. On the third night, she tried one!”

Aside from where the food is presented to them, try cutting sandwiches into different shapes for a fun variant on the classic PBJ. If yogurt cups are getting boring, mix in granola or chocolate chips as a special treat. Consider having your toddler pick out some of his or her favorite cookie cutter shapes for lunchtime entertaining.

Hire Your Child as Sous-Chef

One of the best ways to transform a toddler’s taste buds is to invite them to cook with you. Yeah–we know–messy. Again. But the outcome of involving them in the process of preparation far outweighs doing a few more kitchen counter wipe-downs.

To start, have your child prep the meal with you and allow them to feel the textures of new foods and learn about them. Cut the carrots and say, “Did you know carrots grow from the ground? Maybe we could plant a garden next summer.” Or while slicing into a juicy pear, “Pears come from trees. How crazy is it that food can grow on trees? I bet you wished cookies grew on trees!”

Not only is meal prep a great way to get your toddler interested in learning about food, but it’s a great way to spend time together. By involving them, your child can see that foods that were previously questionable aren’t as scary.

For example, when they’re involved in the preparation, they can plainly see that taco meat is just ground beef with some spices and that, no, isn’t dog food.

You can even get older children involved in their own lunchbox meal prep!

A Food by Any Other Name

Change the actual names of foods they have an aversion to. For example, apples can become crimson crunchies. Boring old corn turns into sunshine bites. Fresh broccoli takes on a new flavor when they’re referred to as tasty trees (subtle side note here: no one likes plain broccoli. Allow them to explore fun dips!) Even traditional names like ants on a log can pique their interest.

One mom got creative. “My daughter tried yogurt once and didn’t like it. Each time I gave it to her, she claimed she ‘still didn’t like yogurt.’  Well, she happens to love the Pinkalicious books. So, one night at dinner as it was spread out on the table, she asked what that pink stuff was.  I told her it was Pinkalicious swirl. She ate the entire thing!”

Get as creative as you can with foods they’re not immediately taken to—we just recommend not calling spaghetti slimy worms.

With these three tips, you can encourage your child to try and explore new foods. And if you feel compelled to cut your own turkey and cheese sandwich into a teddy bear shape, well, bon appetit!

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