The other day, I was having a standoff with my oldest child. He was supposed to eat one blueberry and one raspberry before he could get up from the table. Two berries total. He sat there for an hour and a half before he finally did. No amount of cajoling or encouraging was working. It was a long evening.
My kids have come a long way in developing their eating healthy eating habits. Some are much more flexible and willing to try than others (cough, cough, my stubborn oldest son), but over the years, they have grown in their tastes and habits. My 4 year old will try just about anything and usually likes all veggies and fruits. My 6 year old seems to hate all fruit except apples and pineapple, and I’m in the middle of a struggle with my 2 year old to get her to eat anything besides peanut butter, cashews, cheese, and french fries.
We all want our kids to eat well, and we all want them to develop good habits that they will carry into adulthood. That for me is the biggest goal: not that they eat perfectly all the time, but that they understand what healthy eating is. So as you try and instill those habits in your children, I thought I’d share some of the tricks I use to help them eat well.
If At First You Don’t Succeed…
Try, try again. And then again. And then keep trying until they finally get it. It takes a child about 15 times to be exposed to something before they grow accustom to it. Keep putting that piece of broccoli on your child’s plate. Even if she spits it back out again, consider it “try #1” and keep going.
Keep in mind that there will be foods your child just won’t like. I don’t like everything, and I’m sure you don’t. Keep exposing them to different foods, but if after many, many times they still don’t, let it go. Encourage them to taste everything, but don’t harp on them if they still don’t like something. It’s not worth the battle.
Right now is the perfect time to start. If your child is older, I would maybe proceed more slowly in your transition to healthier foods. But the older a child gets, the harder it will be to move to a healthier diet. It’s not impossible, just harder. Remember the whole “expose them to a new food 15 times”? If you start that at age two, you’ll probably have a great eater by age 3-4 (probably). If you start at age 4, you’ll have a better eater by maybe age 6. It takes time, so start immediately.
Get Them Involved
Nothing gives a kid incentive to eat something than giving them ownership in it. Let them help you cook: peeling carrots, mixing potatoes with olive oil and salt, stirring a dressing, mashing potatoes. As they get older and can handle a knife (with mom’s supervision), get them chopping veggies for a salad. Let them pick the veggies they want to eat. Grow a garden and get them outside digging in the dirt for their food. Give them ownership of their food, and they may just respond.
Make It Taste Good
Yeah, Cate that all sounds good, but what do I DO with all of the veggies my kids are suppose to be eating? They don’t like how it tastes. Well, I’d hate veggies too if all I ever ate was a soggy, overcooked pile of green beans or mushy peas. That’s not tasty.
Vegetables are amazing if you cook them properly. Here are some of my favorite ways:
- Roast them – olive oil, salt and pepper, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, mix together, toss in the oven at 415 degrees until golden brown and caramelized.
- Saute them – olive oil, garlic and onion, toss in veg and saute until they are slightly tender with some color on them. (Not mushy!)
- Crudite – cut up a bunch of crunchy veggies (carrots, celery, radishes, peppers, cucumber…) and serve up with homemade hummus or dressing. To really make it tempting, set out a plate of veggies during a time when the kids aren’t supposed to be eating or give the impression they shouldn’t touch it. Watch the veg disappear.
- Steam in chicken stock – add some additional flavor by steaming in chicken stock instead of water.
- Zoodles! – use a spiralizer or peeler to make noodles out of veg. Why is it food tastes better as noodles?
Sneak It In
I have no problem hiding veggies in other foods. In fact, I think of it like a game: “How many veggies can I sneak in to my kids diet?” I don’t see it as the only way I get my kids to eat veggies, but rather a bonus that may help fill some of the gaps.
Some of my favorite tricks are:
- Add some pureed pumpkin or squash to boxed Mac and cheese.
- Add zucchini, carrots, kale, spinach, bananas, (even avocados!) to baked treats.
- Finely chop spinach or other greens to add to spaghetti or pasta sauces.
- Beets in your smoothies.
- Mix steamed cauliflower into your mashed potatoes or cauliflower rice with regular white rice.
Have Regular Favorites
Make things the kids actually like to eat! I’m not talking about making them chicken nuggets. Are there meals your kids enjoy? Vegetables or fruit they will eat? Keep serving them. I will occasionally still introduce new meals or recipes and many times my kids will not be interested (which is when I use bribery – see below). But have some regular favorites that you know you kids will like.
Some of our favorites:
- Roasted chicken drumsticks, with roasted sweet potatoes, and garlic broccoli
- Grilled BBQ pork chops, roasted breakfast potatoes, corn on the cob, and salad
- Chili (my kids LOVE chili)
- Tacos (choose whole grain or wheat wheat tortillas and provide a lot of toppings: cheese, lettuce, onion, cilantro, sour cream or plain whole milk yogurt, homemade salsa, olives, peppers, black beans, corn)
- Grilled steak, sweet potato “chips”, roasted asparagas, and salad
- Homemade chicken noodle soup – load it up with veggies! (carrots, celery, corn, peas, green beans, spinach)
Be Like the French
I’ve always been pretty rigid about eating times; I actually thought it was common sense. We have three meals a day and two snacks in between meals. They are at set times during the day and those times really haven’t change over the 6 years I’ve had kids. I also don’t make several meals and snacks throughout the day. (The exception would be lunch. Lunch is often something kid-friendly like quesadillas or grilled cheese, and I’ll make myself a salad.)
Turns out this is very common with French parents. (I never realized it was French; I thought it was common sense.) There is no such thing as “kid food” and “adult food”, there is just food. What I make for supper is what we eat. If you choose not to eat it, you don’t have to, but you don’t get anything else.
I shamelessly use bribery all the time. Especially in the beginning. Now, some may frown on that and that’s cool, do your own thing. But I found great success by offering 2 chocolate chips after supper if they ate some of their veggies. Notice that I said some. That goes back to the former points: allow them to taste, get them exposed to it, and if they didn’t eat it, no bigs. That just means they don’t get the chocolate. (And be prepared to stand firm on that.)
Find the Balance
Since my goal is to help my kids grow into healthy eaters, that means there is plenty of room in a healthy diet for treats and indulging. The LAST thing I want is to be so strict on my food rules, that when they are left on their own (say at a birthday party), they don’t know how to regulate themselves or make a better choice. If they are NEVER allowed to eat pizza or candy at home where you can control the amount and instruct them, when they are outside of your control, they may go NUTS and gorge themselves on pizza or candy or cake or whatever. Teaching them how to handle treats and junk food is an important step in creating healthy eating habits.
You knew this was coming. As I explained in a previous post, kids learn by imitating adults. If you eat healthfully, and only occasionally indulge in treats, your kids will more likely do the same. For example, growing up, I remember my dad filling a giant green plastic cup full with ice water for supper every night. I watched him drink water, and lots of it. Guess what? I basically drink water. (And when I visit my parents, I’m constantly grabbing one of the giant plastic cups and filling it with water.) My kids have starting asking for salads every day. Why? Not because I have genetically blessed children who love salads, but because my husband and I eat A LOT of salad and they see that.
Healthy eating is something that needs to be taught. But once kids learn, it’s really not that hard. As they get older, you can start having conversations about why we eat a lot of veggies, and not as many treats. Kids might surprise you with how willing they are to learn and eat well. And if you have a stubborn child who only eats a handful or things, be consistent and persistent; he will come around eventually.