DFWChild / Articles / Family Life / Health / How To Get Your Kid To Eat Healthier Foods
Painted image of roast beef and vegetables on the plate

How To Get Your Kid To Eat Healthier Foods

Strategies for weaning your picky eater off the kid’s menu

Night after night, Cindy James’ sons Wyatt, 7, and Iain, 5, would ask for the same meal: chicken nuggets. The Dallas photographer and her husband both work full time, and making two nutritious meals daily was out of the question. “We gave into it in the beginning,” she says, “but I knew they weren’t getting any nutrition.”

It is a common conundrum for parents: In an effort to ensure our children eat, we give them what they want. “Our basic innate parenting instinct is to nourish our children,” says registered dietitian Angela Lemond of Lemond Nutrition, which has locations in Plano and Rockwall. “The problem is that we start worrying when it’s 6pm and they aren’t eating a balanced meal. So we start subbing chicken fingers. Most families try to give their children a healthy food, but when they don’t eat it, that’s when things start going awry.”

Enter the creation of the short-order cook—parents who craft entirely separate meals for their picky kids or hit the freezer for what are often less nutritious options. The desperate haste to get something on the table and into our kids’ stomachs can also lead to less-than-ideal strategies like bribery. (In a well-meaning attempt to encourage adventurousness, my own mother once promised a piece of cherry pie if I would eat an entire blue cheese-topped burger—I did. It took me 20 years to eat blue cheese again.)

If you’re tired of begging, bribing or cooking to order, try a new tactic to break away from the kids menu.

Kids Menu? What Kids Menu?

Children in other countries often eat what their parents eat (lessons can be gleaned from French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon) while convenience foods are a staple in American households. Societal pressures—like seeing what their friends are eating at school—also influence young children’s diets, and the lack of variety on restaurant kids menus makes it easy to stay in the rut; cheeseburger, grilled cheese, chicken nuggets, repeat.

“I wish we didn’t even have kids menus,” Lemond says. She believes that parents should make one meal and serve it to the entire family.

After nightly chicken nugget requests, that’s exactly the process James instituted. “I say, ‘You don’t have to eat what I cook, but I’m not cooking another meal,’” she explains. She does provide two other options: They can eat anything from the counter (always fruit) or make their own dinner as long as it’s not packaged. (She says Wyatt once made a “salad” with carrot slivers and two pieces of spinach—and was thrilled.)

“They don’t have to clear their plates,” James says. “But if they get up from the table once they are excused and didn’t eat, they aren’t allowed to have anything later. Usually they realize they aren’t going to get anything later and eat.”

While it doesn’t work every night—she still serves up chicken nuggets on some busy evenings—it’s successful more often than not, she says. “We’ll sometimes do something easy like sandwich night or breakfast for dinner. It’s not always this sea of nutrition we are eating, but we are realistic. If we do 70-30, then we are good.”

Dallas-based registered dietitian Robin Plotkin suggests including one or two items per meal that your children will eat—as long as it’s part of the family meal and not something special for the child. “If you know your kiddos will always eat blueberries or cucumbers and ranch, then terrific—serve them to the rest of the family too,” she says.

You can also serve meals buffet style, Lemond suggests. But if your kiddos still won’t eat, it really and truly is OK for them to go to bed without emptying their plates. “We have to remember that as parents we are not sending them to bed hungry—they are choosing not to eat,” she says. “Sometimes children pick at food an entire day and others eat like horses. That’s just them listening to their bodies.”

Keep the Family Meal Sacred

Sports practice, schoolwork, laundry, food prep—the list of reasons to grab dinner on the go is extensive. But our harried schedules are equating to a sharp decline in families’ shared mealtimes. In 2013, 86 percent of Americans said they enjoyed a family dinner only once weekly, with 58 percent dining together at least four times weekly, according to a report by The Harris Poll. And 59 percent pointed out that they used to enjoy more dinners together while growing up. With each generation, we gather together less often.

Yet studies consistently tout the benefits of dining as a family five nights a week or more. “It could be cereal; it could be chicken, potatoes and asparagus, but that time together is important and builds a strong foundation,” Plotkin says. “Research shows you how important eating together as a family is—children make better life choices.”

Studies from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse have revealed that kids who regularly eat family dinners receive higher grades and skip school less.

Then there are the nutritional benefits. The 2009 study “Family Dinner and Diet Quality Among Older Children and Adolescents” from the Archives of Family Medicine found that children who ate dinner with their families had healthier diets with more fruits and vegetables and less saturated fats, trans fats, fried foods and soda.

Though encouraging the family to sit at the table might seem daunting, meals don’t have to be long—even 15 minutes with a toddler is enough to instill the routine. Moms who might not need to eat while their children are eating can munch on fruit or a snack, suggests Lindsay Matuson, a Fort Worth-based health and fitness expert who has two young sons. “Make it social so they see happiness and togetherness early,” she says.

Find ways to encourage kids to stay at the table longer. The Family Dinner Project, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit, suggests rounding off the meal with ice pops made from real fruit or fresh juice and offering portions of the meal as courses—for instance serving vegetables as an appetizer and fruit for dessert.

Congregating at the table for breakfast or lunch is just as beneficial. The key is gathering together frequently to reinforce good eating habits, healthy conversation and togetherness. “Even when we get older, the mindfulness—tasting our food— is important,” Lemond says. “People just aren’t taking the time to eat. It’s good all around to take a break and taste your food and connect and keep the mealtime a positive experience.”

Get the Kids Into the Kitchen

From planning weekly menus to browsing farmers markets for ingredients to washing, cooking and serving food, allow children to share in culinary activities for an adventurous, multisensory experience that fosters healthy eating. A 2014 study published in the research journal Appetite found that children who helped with cooking ate more salad, chicken and calories in general. Those children also reported feeling more positive and in control.

“It’s so important for children to be involved in the cooking and at the grocery store, having them pick out a new vegetable or fruit while learning new colors and looking at things the family members have never tried, like jicama,” says Amy Gonzalez, a Fort Worth-based dietitian who specializes in women’s and children’s health.

“Eating has to go beyond simply sitting at the table—food needs to be experiential in nature,” agrees Lemond. She suggests visiting pick-your-own farms to teach children how to select ripe produce from spoiled and explaining the nutrients and benefits of each to encourage taste testing.

Once home, encourage your kids to take part in age-appropriate activities, from rinsing and stirring to seasoning and tossing.

They can feel the texture of broccoli, pound out dough, watch a multigrain muffin rise, or smell and select a spice. “They can very often do more than you think they can—it’s OK to challenge them and set expectations,” says Plotkin, whose son Ben, 8, sets and clears the table, among other activities. Dishes can even be named after children—Sophie’s Salad, for instance—to celebrate their efforts.

While James’ sons typically play catch with their father when she heads to the grocery store on Mondays, she always gives them a rundown of the list. “I ask if they have any requests for the week, let them have input on what we purchase and what’s for dinner—and then I don’t have to come up with it five days a week,” she says.

Hide the Greens (if you Must)

When desperation sets in, it’s tempting to follow Jessica Seinfeld’s lead and go the stealthy route with the vegetables your kids won’t eat—her cookbook Deceptively Delicious contains recipes for inserting pureed veggies into mac and cheese, spaghetti and other kid favorites.

While this approach may make your child healthier with less hassle, nutritionists agree that eating veggies in ignorance shouldn’t be the primary way kids consume them as it discourages exploration. “You can’t always hide foods in dishes because kids have to get comfortable with certain foods,” Lemond says. “It’s not always going to be done at school or the restaurant so it’s more of a Band-Aid. They have to discover food on their own.”

Gonzalez adds that frequently recognizing, feeling and tasting food helps to build confidence, especially when parents describe what their children are eating. “The more they see it, the more likely the children are to have that acceptance—it becomes a normal part of their day-to-day routine,” she says.

Still, there are benefits to creatively concealing vegetables alongside serving them whole. Hiding avocado in pudding, cauliflower in pizza crust or spinach in a green smoothie can bolster your children’s nutrition and be a great supplement to a balanced diet.

Matuson loves to take familiar foods and make them more nutrient dense. She serves her two sons spaghetti with zucchini noodles, muffins with hemp hearts, and after-school energy bites made with cinnamon, almond butter and flax seeds. “Even my pickiest eater will ask if we are making his favorite [cauliflower] pizza,” she says. “The fact that everyone in my family eats it and we can have the same thing—it’s worth it.”

Play with your Food

Trying new foods can be intimidating and is often fraught with pressure and anxiety for both parents and children. “Kids are very intuitive, and if we’re anxious [about getting our kids to eat], that can come off in our language, such as, ‘Look, Daddy’s eating it,’ or trying to rush them,” Gonzalez says. “That can come across as pressure, and for kids who are very sensitive, that can create anxiety or apprehension.”

So relax, create a stress-free environment and set an example by eating the food yourself—but don’t add pressure by pointing out to your child that others are eating a food they’re resisting. “Say, ‘Wow, this is tasty,’ but don’t guilt them into it,” Lemond says.

Gonzalez’s 3 1/2-year-old son, Jude, developed food neophobia, or the resistance to try unfamiliar foods, when he was 18 months old, which is common. Now if she offers something and he refuses, her go-to phrase is, “You don’t have to eat it.”

“I’m not going to offer him a different meal, but that takes off the pressure,” she explains. “It takes the pressure off me too because I don’t have to jump through hoops to get him to eat it.”

Both Gonzalez and Lemond have found games to be a useful tool for combating apprehension. “When it’s a game, the majority of picky eaters will try the food,” Lemond says from experience. Gonzalez’s son loves trying samples at Costco, so after reading a tip from It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating by Dina Rose, Gonzalez re-created the Costco setting by filling cups with foods—some he loves, some new—and asking him to describe the taste, texture and temperature. “That engages his senses so he can develop that terminology and describe what he doesn’t like about it,” she explains.

She provides context too. “If they are trying a new dip, you can say that the dip tastes like what they had at their grandmother’s house,” she says. “Compare it to something else they had so they know what to expect.”

When Gonzalez stumbles upon a food her son enjoys, she offers it daily but in different forms. He loves yogurt, for instance, so she might serve plain yogurt and honey one day, blend it with strawberries the next and offer a smoothie another day. “He’s still getting something he likes and will accept it, but it’s encouraging variety,” she says. The goal is to enable her son to be in tune with his body. “Children are learning conscious eating. They have the ability to accept or reject something, and they learn to eat when they are hungry or stop when they are full. That mindfulness will carry them into adulthood to help avoid emotional eating and overeating,” she says.

Matuson’s oldest son still has high anxiety trying new foods, something she feels she was able to avoid with her second son by allowing a little revelry. “Let your children play with their food—from 6 months on let it be messy, let them get it on the floor, let them build trees out of broccoli,” she says. “It makes them comfortable. It’s completely exhausting, but my son is now a food champion.”

But, if after all you’ve tried your children still won’t touch that asparagus, don’t despair. “You have to remember that you as an adult might only want to eat cereal for dinner, and that’s OK,” Plotkin says. “Take a deep breath and relax. As long as you are offering a wide variety of foods, colors and textures, you are doing your job.” Lemond adds, “Any experience is forward progress.”

Quick & Healthy Tips

More ways to avoid the food fight and broaden your kids’ palates. 

Make the food taste good. Tap into your own culinary creativity and try slicing vegetables in new ways or adding a variety of spices, says Dallas dietitian Angela Lemond. Try roasting instead of steaming and add healthy oils. Another tip: Make one veggie three different ways. “You can explain how the flavors are different based on how they are prepared,” Lemond says. “That’s why cooking is so important—the kitchen is like a lab, and the same food can taste different three different ways.”

Offer healthy snacks. Dallas mom Cindy James offers a “buffet” of healthful foods—such as carrots, hummus, fruit and cheese—when her two boys arrive home from school. “They were going to the pantry and getting a granola bar so by dinnertime they weren’t hungry,” she says. “So now if they don’t eat dinner because they had a snack, at least they are filling up on healthy foods not junk foods.”

Deconstruct multi-ingredient meals. Serve spaghetti noodles and sauce separately, for instance, to make them less overwhelming. “Too many foods mixed together can be intimidating, so have them separated so kids can choose how to combine them,” Lemond says.

Create a weekly menu with your kids. Lemond hangs a menu for her children, Hannah, 14, and Evan, 11. “I let them help with the menu and put some of their favorite foods on it so it’s not a battle when they sit down to the table. Even if Evan doesn’t like Monday’s menu, he knows that on Thursday his favorite meal is coming.”

Close the kitchen apart from mealtimes and snack times. Provide structure by setting a schedule for snacks and meals. “It’s good to get an idea of what a typical day is like for a toddler versus a school-age kid, what is realistic, when they are going to be hungry,” says Lemond. For example, toddlers typically need three meals plus two to three snacks, whereas school-age kids can get by with fewer snacks. If your kiddos choose to skip, don’t make dinner on-demand for them later.

Illustration: iStock