Many parents I talk with have a common concern. They want their kids to eat better. That is, eat healthier. When we drill down, their desire is that their child eat more vegetables, or more whole grains, more fruit, or fewer items they deem unhealthy.
Luckily, eating healthier isn’t just about vegetables. Or healthier food, for that matter. Helping kids eat healthier can include this, of course, but it can also be helped along through how you handle feeding.
10 Tips to Help Kids Develop Healthy Eating Habits
I asked 9 nutrition professionals for their top tips for encouraging kids (even their own children) to eat healthier. You might be surprised at the breadth of actions you can take to tilt your child’s eating to a healthier place.
1. Get a handle on pre-dinner snacking.
Kids who come to the table already filled up on snacks aren’t going to be hungry, much less receptive to new foods or less-than-favorite foods. One of the best things I did was to place a rule around snacks in the hour before dinner: only veggies. One of my kids happily eats veggies before mealtime (everything from a bowl of romaine leaves to some pepper strips), and the other just holds out for dinner. But the result is two kids who are hungry at dinnertime (and one kid who already got a serving or two of veggies in before the meal even started!). Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, Real Mom Nutrition
2. Boost produce at meal time to increase fiber, provide low sodium nutrient dense foods packed with plant compounds important for disease prevention and good health.
Serve veggies when kids are hungry as an appetizer before dinner. Try garlic string beans with low-sodium soy sauce, julienne style jicama or breaded zucchini coins. Work fruit into appetizers, side dishes, and main courses. Try a fruit and cheese plate or serve chopped fruit in salads or rice dishes – mandarin oranges are always a hit. Try adding mango to salsa to serve on top of chicken or with fish tacos. Melissa Halas-Liang, MA RDN CDE, www.SuperKidsNutrition.com
3. Offer kids a wide variety of healthy foods throughout the day.
When parents tell me about the challenge to get their kids to try new foods and break free from the mac & cheese and chicken nugget rut, I encourage them to turn to the produce aisle for inspiration. To remove the intimidation factor that some kids may experience when new foods land on the dinner table (especially vegetables!), parents can take baby steps by first offering one fruit and vegetable with every meal. An example would be a few sliced strawberries and some baby carrots with dip as a side dish. To expand upon that strategy, I also suggest parents offer two veggies when possible (perhaps carrots and broccoli) and say something like: “Do you want broccoli or carrots with dinner or both?!” Giving children a variety of choices and making those choices healthy provides them with the control they crave, and it keeps parents in the driver’s seat allowing them to ultimately decide what ends up on the family table. Liz Weiss, www.mealmakeovermoms.com
4. Don’t allow grazing — instead serve planned meals and snacks on a routine.
This helps kids have an appetite for the nutritious meals you serve, helps regulate their hunger and fullness, teaches them eating is an important self-care ritual, and prevents cavities! Adina Pearson, RD, www.HealthyLittleEaters.com
5. Incorporate one or two food groups into snacks.
Instead of serving sweets or junk foods for snacks, incorporate fruit, veggies, whole grains or protein. Try sliced apples drizzled with melted peanut butter and a sprinkling of granola, or celery sticks stuffed with hummus. Sylvia White RD CDE, www.ParentingDiabetes.com
6. Ask your kids how you can make food taste better for them.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, many kids, even those with choosy palates, do not like bland foods. My most challenging eater once complained that my broccoli was always “tasteless” (I like it steamed). I tried adding a little lemon and olive oil to it and it made the world of difference. If I had not asked, it would have been easy to assume that she did not like broccoli. If the feeding relationship between children and parents is based on trust, kids will be willing to share their input to make healthy meals more appealing to them. Natalia Stasenko, MS, RD, www.tribecanutrition.com
7. Practice the art of patience.
My son derailed me. He rejected most of the food I offered him. He put up fights at mealtimes like you wouldn’t believe. My fear of having a picky eater came true. Despite being a Registered Dietitian and Pediatric Feeding Therapist, I was totally unprepared for the rigors of feeding my son. A child is constantly evolving and one of the first places this occurs is with food choices. It takes years to learn how to read. I encourage parents to invest the same amount of patience, care, love, creativity and time introducing new foods as they do teaching a child to read. Clancy Cash Harrison, MS, RD, Teaching Taste
8. Repeated exposure is key.
This is making a conscious effort to expose kids to nutritious foods throughout their lives. According to one study, the foods college students preferred were the same ones they were exposed to as children — even when they didn’t prefer them as kids. In short: the foods you serve day in and out have great power, even when kids seem less than enthused. Of course, finding kid-friendly ways to prepare them helps, but its the normalizing of healthy foods that makes them stick. Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RDN, www.maryannjacobsen.com
9. Grow food with your child.
If they grow it, they will eat it. A child’s garden can be very small, in fact child-size may be even better. Start toddlers with a single plant, like cherry or grape tomatoes, in pot. There are lots of “mini” veggie seeds these days, like squash, carrots and spinach. They are designed to grow quickly and be eaten when child-sized. Let kids play in the dirt. Seriously, children often prefer messy garden areas and you do not actually have to grow food in rows. Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, School Meals that Rock
10. Be the Food Leader.
A leader has a vision and a plan. This is true for food parenting, too. Feeding kids in a lot of ways is like running a business. You have a job: planning, procuring and preparing nutritious meals. Your child has a job, too: eating (or not) what you chose to provide. As the food “boss,” you set the groud rules and provide guidance in positive ways to get the best outcomes. Don’t be afraid to lay down the ground rules, provide guidance and nurture your child to a healthy lifestyle. Your child will follow the leader: you. ~Yours truly :).