I am not a purist by any means. Once upon a time, pre-children, I could make what I wanted and spend 3 hours doing it. I could make a true gourmet meal, filled with exotic fruits and vegetables, and not worry about it being flat out rejected with prejudice (and moderate insult). That’s not the case these days. On top of not having copious amounts of time to make my own food, I have to make three little people food AND their health depends on it!
Talk about pressure!
So, with my nutritional training, and personal experience as a mom to three (each spectacularly different in their own right), I have come up with a list of ten tips to help kids eat healthier. Not all will apply, and you may even disagree with some. That being said, I have learned a few things, and I wanted to share what has worked for me, and hopefully will for you, too.
1.) Don’t go cold turkey.
Slowly start reducing salt and sugar intake so the change isn’t so drastic and noticeable (think less protest). Start replacing artificial sweeteners with less processed sugars (like maple syrup, raw honey, or even fruits such as bananas and dried apricots). Also, understand it's all about balance. I used to drive myself crazy being so absolute. As long as health habits are developed at home, it's not as big of a deal to let loose every now and then.
2.) Bargain for treats.
Yes, I said it. It’s a controversial one, but we have the “must have 'x' amount of bites if you want dessert.” Fill up with the good stuff first, then the treats. Even days of birthday parties, they pick what vegetables and fruits they will eat at home before they are able to eat any when we go out.
I never thought I would be a bargainer for treats. Honestly, I thought that you just teach children about the right foods, and Voila!, they eat their vegetables. Then I had kids and was quickly humbled into realizing each child has their own personality and their own will. I don't want food to be a point of struggle. I do not force anyone to eat anything. But, if they want their chocolate ice cream, they are going to eat their broccoli.
3.) Redefine “dessert”.
Homemade gummies, nutrient dense cookies (think oats, seeds and healthy fats - add Super Seed mixture in to pretty much anything!), or vanilla yogurt and fruit frozen into popsicles; all make an excellent treat. You wouldn't believe what the kids do for Avocado Banana Ice Cream (no sugar and just 3 ingredients)!
Click here for other dessert ideas.
4.) Work with your child’s natural preferences and aversions.
If your little one gags at onions, it probably won’t be a realistic expectation for them to gobble a new onion-filled dish. If they love broccoli, try a new stir fry with broccoli and an additional new vegetable. Equally, my 5-year old loves animals and has made the connection with meat and her beloved creatures. She will not eat meat. I will not force her either. However, she knows she has to eat other protein and nutrient rich foods. Recently, we made these Mushroom & Walnut Veggie Meatballs, and she's on board! We keep them in the freezer for nights that I serve meat.
5.) Try to always serve a favored (or known) fruit/vegetable at every meal.
This is two-fold as kids get used to seeing fruits and vegetables at every meal, and they also seek comfort in a known food if there are new ones to try. For example, even simply prepared vegetables can be the most delicious!
Oven Roasted Garlic Green Beans
Crispy Roasted Beet Chips
6.) Don’t be afraid to puree, mash, grate and finely dice foods.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of “hiding” foods, but sometimes it helps kids overlook a textural aversion and still be introduced to new flavors. (In some cases, there might be something else going on, such as true textural issues. It is important to rule out any aspects of sensory processing disorders.)
Additionally, I don't look at it as hiding as much as I look at is substituting. Instead of bulking the dish up with flour or fats, I am able to substitute a fruit or vegetable (seed or nut), that adds nutritional value to the recipe.
Here are some of our favorites:
Swiss Chard & Carrot Calzones - like a pizza, but with veggies packed in!
Whole Wheat Avocado Pancakes - no oil, just avocado!
Spinach, Pear & Oat Muffins -veggies and fruit all in a muffin!
Apple, Pear & Golden Beet Turnovers - fruit and veggies right inside!
7.) Stay firm in your stance, and keep introducing a rejected food multiple times.
It can take 5, 7 or even more times for a child to accept a new taste. We do what we are used to, and new tastes and textures can throw off expectations. Allowing a little time to accept new flavors is just part of the process. Hey, I wasn't on board with Brussels sprouts the first time I tried them. It took some time and different ways of cooking them until I became a fan.
8.) Eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk yourself.
It’s true that kids follow what we do, not what we say. Be the example. It's not always easy, and while I have eaten my fair share of cookies before dinner, we really do set the expectations. It just becomes the norm to see fruits and vegetables at every meal, and healthy snack choices.
Reducing processed food is a great start. Just because an ingredient has a long name doesn't always mean it's a horrible thing. Although, it is an easy rule of thumb to go by ingredients you recognize. Here is a list of unfavorable additives in foods to avoid.
9.) Teach them the benefits and powers of food.
Carrots, which are loaded with beta-carotene, are like super vitamins for your eyes. Kids are smart, and can connect with cool facts. My 5 year old requests some raw garlic (with melted butter) on plain noodles when she feels she's getting sick. Although, I will admit she is a little unusual. Most 5 year-olds (heck, most adults) wouldn't eat raw garlic. My point is, the more kids can understand the reasoning behind the foods, the more likely they are empowered to make healthy choices for their own body.
10.) Include them in the cooking and/or meal preparation.
If they touch the food, prepare it, or even just help pick out recipes, they are more likely to try new things. We sometimes go through cookbooks or check out kids cookbooks from the library. My kids are still on the younger side, by my two older ones have taken turns choosing a family meal. They are given the guidelines of a protein, a vegetable, etc., and choose from a selection of options. I was encouraged by just the idea of this, and was truly even more surprised at the outcome and enthusiasm in participation.
Some other of our favorites:
Butternut Squash & Cauliflower Mac & Cheese (GF, VG)
Honey & Coconut Granola Nests (GF)
BBQ Pulled Chicken with Shredded Carrots (GF, NF)
Goody, Goody Granola Bars (GF, VG)
Golden Coconut & Spinach Granola (GF)
Almond Crusted Chicken (GF)
*This post was originally published May 2015. Updated April 3, 2016.