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Nutrition

Crafty Ways Picky Eaters Can Get Their Nutrients

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These tips from a nutritionist-psychologist will help you (and your kids) get out of a rut.

boy upset with his food

Whether your kid is refusing to eat broccoli or you're sick of your own boring desk salad, healthy eating can sometimes feel like a chore. Rather than slip into unhealthy choices to please picky eaters, try making the act of eating more fun.

Dr. Nicole Beurkens knows a thing or two about how to do this. She's a board-certified nutrition specialist who also has a Ph.D. in psychology and a master's in special education—oh, and four kids. For more than 20 years, she's specialized in working with families to address these types of challenges as the founder and director of Horizons Developmental Resource Center in Caledonia, Michigan. Steal some of her pro tips, below, to make meal time a more pleasant experience for both adults and little ones.  

Change the texture. Dr. Beurkens works with a lot of adults who avoid vegetables because they grew up eating ones that were boiled to death. "Those are gross," she agrees. Instead, try roasting a veggie so it's crispy or sautéing it with breadcrumbs. Not a fan of baked or mashed sweet potatoes? Make sweet potato fries. If zucchini elicits an "ew," heat up a frozen zucchini pancake. Spinach and kale may go down easier when they're mixed with fruits in a sweet smoothie. If soft, cooked carrots aren't for you, replace them with crunchy, raw carrot sticks or sneak carrot purée into muffins. The same theory applies to supplements for you and your partner: if you hate swallowing pills, swap your regular multivitamin for Centrum MultiGummies

Eat it differently. One recent study suggests that when you consume a food in a new way, you may enjoy the experience more. In the study, participants better enjoyed popcorn when eating it with chopsticks than with their hands. Why? The researchers suggest that there's a greater sense of excitement when you feel like you're doing something for the first time. While this was just one study, it certainly can’t hurt to try eating foods in new ways at home. For example, you could try breaking up veggie burgers onto tortillas and serve them like tacos — with all the fixings, obviously.

food decorated to look like a face

Have fun with the presentation. If your kid balks at fruits and veggies, try making a smiley face with them to lighten the mood. The classic "ants on a log" is another favorite: a celery stick with peanut butter and raisins on top. "I'm not saying parents have to go nuts—some of the stuff on Instagram and Pinterest isn't necessary—but you could ask: Do you want your sandwich cut in triangles or circles? Or let's put our water with berries in this cool pink, sparkly cup or let's drink it with a fun straw," Beurkens says. In short, strive for simple and silly. This goes for adults too: get yourself a fun, colorful water bottle and throw in a lemon slice — you’re way more likely to pick it up and carry it around to your meetings than a boring clear cup.

Step up the seasoning. Adding spices like salt, pepper, and garlic can go a long way. "We tend to think 'Oh, kids want things really bland,'" Beurkens says. "Well, when you think about a lot of vegetables—especially cooked vegetables—they're not very tasty without anything on them." And don't hesitate to break out some dipping sauces, like hummus, ranch dressing, ketchup, sour cream, applesauce, buffalo sauce, or barbecue sauce.

family making food fun together

Involve everyone with lunchtime meal prep. On Sundays when you have more time, invite all kids and parents to help and play some upbeat music while you're in the kitchen. The key, Beurkens says, is variety. Instead of making a big batch of one thing and eating it all week (and getting sick of it), prepare lots of ingredients and put them in sealed containers in the fridge so they're ready-to-grab:

 • A few bases (romaine; quinoa; brown rice; zucchini or sweet potato noodles; mashed cauliflower)

 • Fruits and veggies (sliced or diced tomatoes; olives; yellow peppers; strawberries; beets; cucumbers; mandarin oranges)

 • Several types of protein (rinsed and drained chickpeas, red kidney beans, cannellini beans, lentils, or black beans; grilled and chopped chicken, tuna salad, sliced hardboiled eggs)

 • Fun toppings (croutons, dried cranberries, fried onions, sesame sticks, chopped walnuts, almond slices, seeds, tortilla strips, shredded or cubed cheese)

Using this meal plan, each person can mix and match with ease each weekday and experiment with flavor combos that suit their mood. Pick a few different things from each category each week, so you’re regularly changing up the selections. Some of these items even come pre-chopped at the grocery store if you're willing to pay a little extra to save time. And don't forget to have a variety of dressings on hand. Bye bye, boredom.

Get more great health and wellness stories at Parents.com/Strive.