Spending a week with a toddler reminded me of exactly how valuable knowledge of basic psychology can be when it comes to mealtime with a 'picky' two-year old. They are notoriously picky about what they'll eat, but rather than giving in and catering to it, parents can use a few psychological tricks to get kids munching on healthy foods.
One easy one is to give kids a concrete goal and a reward. The reward doesn't have to be sugary treat like a cookie or candy either; it can be whatever the child wants to do more than eat. In psychology, this is known as Premack's principle. For my little charge, it was a newspaper ad insert for Toys-R-Us. With obvious enjoyment, he pages through it and points out toys he likes, naming each one, and can occupy himself for a good long time. So, when he got distracted at mealtime by its presence at the corner of the table, I used that as an opportunity. I eyed his plate and estimated he had about 6 bites left (about two less than he started the meal with) and told him he could look at the flier after he ate 6 bites. He knows numbers so he knows what that meant, roughly. After each bite I told him what a good job he'd done and made a rather embarrassingly big deal of it, exclaimed how many bites he had successfully eaten. I switched to the number of bites left when he had already eaten half of them. This way, he got 'social rewards' right away for doing some of the work and when he got close to being done, he had only a small, easily met problem ahead of him. Once he ate all the bites, I gave him the toy catalog. You have to follow through if you want this incentive-reward strategy to work, and you have to be imaginative with non-sugary rewards. The goal also has to be concrete and reasonably easy to meet.
Another trick is to make eating a game. "Airplaning" food in is an obvious trick, but food can also be animated. He had dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets one day that he didn't want to eat. So I stabbed one with a fork and walked it across the plate and made a game of him biting off the dino's head, then its tail, feet and so on. Toothpicks can be used to make little men out of food too. A grape head, cooked mini carrots for arms and legs, etc. One of his forklift trucks delivered a bite of sandwich.
Both goals and games work well for getting kids to eat food they don't want to eat, but there are a few things that can be done beforehand to prevent even getting to that point.
Arranging small amounts of different kinds of foods on their plate can help kids eat more and also eat a more well-rounded diet. If one type doesn't go over well, they only have to eat a few bites of it. Yes, it takes more time to prepare, but the extra effort I think is worth it and it sets up the habit of a lifetime of eating a well-balanced meal.
Color is a good one to use to advantage too. Colorful foods are also likely to be more nutritious and can be arranged in an artful way: faces are a good choice because they have concrete 'goal' parts that can be eaten. An ear here, an eye there and soon enough the meal will be in the tummy rather than on the plate still, or worse, the floor.
Kids can and should also help make their meal. It teaches them parents and others aren't there simply to wait on them, and it gives kids an opportunity to make decisions and take ownership of their food. If so inclined, kids can also help grow the food by starting a garden or helping maintain one. Every little bit of involvement can help.
When we get to the point of having li'l Baby Field Notes eat with us, I really hope some advance planning will help us avoid having a picky eater. I like the idea of never giving her an option to eat something different from what we're having. I think our little charge always had something different at dinner, and it was always less nutritious, which struck me as weird. If I ever need to babysit again for a stretch of time, for crying out loud, I am going to the freaking grocery store and buying fruits and vegetables! And I will cut them up into little tooth pick stick men and drive them in on a dump truck if that's what it takes.