How to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables and Healthy Foods
Every single day, I deal with picky eaters both big and small. I'm the mother of 7-year-old triplets, all of whom have very different eating habits; I'm also a dietitian who teaches the professional athletes on the Chicago Bears and Chicago Bulls teams how to improve their diets. Although it's tough to convince a towering basketball player or a 300-pound linebacker that junk food is bad for him, trying to get my kids to eat well can be even more of a challenge.
My daughter Kathleen has severe and life-threatening allergies to eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts, and Julia will not eat fresh fruit. Luckily, my son, Marty, will try just about anything. Mothers constantly tell me that they feel guilty about their children's diets; they know how important it is to feed their kids healthy foods, but they're just not sure how to do it. Despite my own background in nutrition, I had to go through some trial and error with my triplets.
Here are the most important lessons I've learned, which should help you guide your kids to eat better.
Schedule meals and snacks. Children need to eat every three to four hours: three meals, two snacks, and lots of fluids. If you plan for these, your child's diet will be much more balanced and they'll be less cranky. I put a cooler in the car when I'm out with my kids and stock it with carrots, pretzels, yogurt, and water so we don't have to rely on fast food.
Plan dinner menus in advance. If planning a weekly menu is too daunting, start with two or three days at a time. A good dinner doesn't have to be fancy, but it should be balanced: whole-grain bread, rice, or pasta; a fruit or a vegetable; and a protein source like lean meat, cheese, or beans. I often make simple entree soups or chili ahead of time and then freeze it; at dinnertime, I heat it up and add whole-grain bread and a bowl of sliced apples or melon to round out the meal.
Make one meal for the whole family. A few years ago, I got into a bad habit. I'd make two suppers—one that I knew the kids would like and one for my husband and me. It was exhausting. Now I prepare one meal for everybody and serve it family-style so the kids can pick and choose what they want. Children often mimic their parents' behavior, so one of these days, they'll eat most of the food I serve them.
Don't comment on your kids' eating habits. As hard as this may be, try not to comment on what or how much your kids are eating. Be as neutral as possible. Remember, you've done your job as a parent by serving balanced meals, and your kids are responsible for eating them. If you play food enforcer—saying things like "eat your vegetables"—your child will only resist.
Introduce new foods slowly. Children are new-food-phobic by nature. I tell my kids that their taste buds must sometimes get used to a flavor before they'll like the taste. If you feel that your child isn't getting enough nutrients, talk to your pediatrician about the possible benefits of adding a nutrition shake to their eating schedule.
Make healthy food fun. If your kids won't eat vegetables, experiment with condiments and dips. Kathleen tried her first vegetable when I served her a thinly cut carrot with some ranch salad dressing. My children also like ketchup, hummus, salsa, and yogurt-based dressing.
Make mornings count. Most families don't eat enough fiber on a daily basis, and breakfast is an easy place to sneak it in. Look for high-fiber cereals as a quick fix. Or make batches of whole-grain pancake and waffle batter that last all week.
Add extra sweetness to get kids to eat vegetables and fruits. Julia eats her cooked carrots with a bit of brown sugar, and I mix a little root beer into her prune juice to make prune-juice soda. Kathleen and Marty like a sprinkle of sugar on their fruit. I know that they'll eventually outgrow this need for extra sweetness, but in the meantime, they're eating fruits and vegetables.
Get your kids cooking. If your children become involved in choosing or preparing meals, they'll be more interested in eating what they've created. Take them to the store, and let them choose produce for you. If they're old enough, allow them to cut up vegetables and mix them into a salad. Although Julia refuses to eat fresh fruit, we make banana or apple muffins together—and she always eats them once they're done.
Cut back on junk. Remember, you—not your kids—are in charge of the foods that enter the house. By having fewer junk foods around, you'll force your children to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products.
Allow treats in moderation. Having less healthy foods occasionally keeps them from becoming forbidden—and thus even more appealing. We call candy, soda, and cookies "sometimes" foods. I generally buy only healthy cereals such as Cheerios and Raisin Bran, but I let my kids have sugary cereals when they visit their grandparents or when we're on vacation. And I treat them to McDonald's for lunch every so often.
Get creative with meals. The more creative the meal is, the greater the variety of foods my kids eat. We make smiley-face pancakes and give food silly names. (Broccoli florets are "baby trees" or "dinosaur food.") Anything mini is always a hit too. I often use cookie cutters to turn toast into hearts and stars, which the children love.
Be a good role model. If you're constantly on a diet or have erratic eating habits, your children will grow up thinking that this sort of behavior is normal. Be honest with yourself about the food messages you're sending. Trust your body to tell you when you're hungry and when you're full, and your kids will learn to do the same.
Above all else, realize that what your kids eat over time is what matters. Having popcorn at the movies or eating an ice-cream sundae are some of life's real pleasures. As long as you balance these times with smart food choices and physical activity, your children will be fine.
I am very strict when it comes to nutrition for kids. I always make sure that my kids eat veggies to get nutrients. very informative article for parents like me.Read More
I love all of the suggestions and tips in this article!I'm going to have to try your pancake batter recipe (love that it's naturally vegan). We always make our smoothies in the morning with soymilk, instead of water, to add in the protein and make it more filling. I have recently stopped being a short order cook, as well, within the past year. My girls are starting to finally understand that I make one dinner. If they are still hungry once it's gone, and if they want something else to eat; they eat their dinner I made first, and then they can grab a piece of fruit or make themselves a second dinner. My 6 year old actually does quite well with this, and my 3 year old is starting to eat what's in front of her more often, because her sister is!Read More
I have the same problem with my four year old son!! We live in Africa as such we don't have the same variety of vegetables as in my own Asian country. the minute he see beans, even before I put the food in his mouth he will vomit!! doctors say he get flue and gas always because he has no fruit and vegi inside him!!!!Read More
I still have similar problems with my seven year old. But we don't have junk food in the house, so even if he doesn't want to eat the good stuff there isn't rubbish for him to eat. Yes, sometimes he's goes hungry (my 4 yr old does a bit), but keep offering the same vegetables and eventually they will eat them. If he won't eat them, save them for you lunch the following day. Work on one vegetable like broccoli. Try it a few different ways (just cooked, over cooked, mashed) try it with a bit of salt on top and keep giving it to him every day for a month, if he doesn't have junk food to eat in the house, then he'll eventually eat it. I also start my kids dinner with a bowl of boiled veg lightly salted. They don't move onto dinner until they've eaten all of these veg. BTW there is nothing wrong with carbs and kids. They say they are good for them!Read More
I'm not sure if anyone will see and/or respond to this but I'd really like some advice/help w/my son's eating. My wife and his pediatrician have said (for years) "bah he'll grow out of being picky eater" but he's 10 now and still eats only/mostly carbs and junk. I'm terrified he'll have health issues in future from having such a bad diet. I'm pretty sure it's 83% a mental/psychological issue vs a taste issue because even normal food like apple and oranges he loses his sh#t when asked to eat a slice. Do I enter battle mode and force things? Let it continue and cross my fingers? Go the "hide nutrition somehow in what he eats" route? When I was little I had a timer and got spanked if I didn't eat "my carrots" or whatever. I'm not really interested in getting that extreme but ... at least I eat healthy today as an adult! Anyhow ... I'd love any help/counsel here from anyone.Read More