Since 2015 is here, I thought I'd put together a list of some great ideas to help you help your kids eat better during the upcoming year.
Don't worry—I'm not suggesting any kind of complete dietary overhaul. But I do recommend all of these no-fuss strategies suggested by some top dietitians to help move kids' diets and habits in a more healthful direction.
Whether you choose several strategies at once or one for each month in 2015, all are sure to help your kids incorporate more nutrients in their diets. And they'll certainly make your meals even more delicious.
Read on for 12 expert tips to help your kids eat better in the New Year and beyond.
1. Create a produce calendar. Creating a produce calendar can help organize meal planning and help kids feel like they're part of the process. It can also help them feel like they have some control over what is served and get them excited about produce. To do this, you can assign each family member one or two days a week to choose the daily fruit and veggie meal stars. For instance, Mom might have Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Bobby might have Wednesdays and Fridays (you get the drift). You can then write up a calendar and let each person choose the fruit and veggie star for his or her day. You can choose whatever fruit or vegetable you like or use a seasonal list like this one to guide your choices. Kids can help wash the fruit or vegetable and observe or help with their preparation depending on their age.
2. "Cook" in class. You can volunteer at your kids' school by offering a hands-on no-cook cooking class. It's a great way to highlight the fun you can have even if you're not baking, but instead making nutritious items like fruit kebabs with yogurt dip or an edamame salad.
3. Take the rainbow challenge. For the game lover in all of us, Healthy Kids Concepts (HKC)*, a non-profit that encourages healthy eating habits through color-inspired lessons in pre-K and grade school children, offers check sheets (they can be downloaded for free here) to help kids keep track of how many different colors of fruits and veggies they eat each day. The goal is to eat the rainbow every day for an entire month.
4. Just dip it. Kids love to dip things, and studies suggest they may eat even more vegetables if they use them as dippers. So, why not make some tasty and affordable dips to offer the kids with their meals and snacks. You can buy canned chickpeas or garbanzo beans, rinse, and whir in a blender or food processor with some olive oil and a squirt of lemon. Frozen, thawed green peas plus olive oil, lemon juice and some minced garlic, salt and pepper can also work. You can also serve new dishes or foods previously disliked with a dipping sauce. For example, you can serve steak strips with no sugar added cranberry sauce or grilled chicken strips with some honey mustard.
5. Make your own fruit fantasy. Create your own edible fruit arrangement by slicing watermelon into popsicle shapes on popsicle sticks or fan orange segments out on a plate in a pattern that looks like the sun with a banana circle center. Making fruit look good can certainly make it more appealing to kids.
6. Let 'em eat with their hands. Add edamame sprinkled with a little sea salt to your kid's lunchbox. It's a fun, hand-held, easy to eat food that's rich in filling protein not to mention other key nutrients (it also counts as a vegetable).
7. How 'bout veggies before dinner? Because so few kids meet their daily quota for vegetables, how about making it a rule to eat veggies in the hour leading up to dinner? Noshing on baby carrots, cucumber slices, celery sticks, plum or cherry tomatoes, plain or with a little Italian dressing or a tablespoon or two of dip can help kids eat enough vegetables to meet their needs and prevent them from noshing on nutrient-poor snacks that will fill them up and spoil their appetite before you can even say, "Dinner's ready."
8. Plant a garden. You can do this in your backyard or, if you live in an apartment, in a box on your terrace. Planting, watering, and picking vegetables, herbs and spices can teach your kids where food comes from and give them a sense of ownership and pride when the planted items are ready to be incorporated into meals.
9. Swap some usual foods. Once in a while, instead of offering the same old same old, mix things up a bit. For example, instead of carrots, offer parsnips. They offer myriad nutrients and have a similar taste and texture to carrots. Try them anywhere you'd use carrots, like in a stir fry dish or in a winter vegetable chili. And how about replacing some of the broccoli in dishes with cauliflower. You can buy it fresh or frozen and serve it in a mixed dish or by itself, chopped and steamed.
10. Rate your plate. Ask your kids to do a taste test at one meal each week. You can offer them several food options and have them give each a score of 1 to 5 on their color and taste.
11. Shape 'em up. Because kids love pizza, spaghetti, French fries and pancakes, why not encourage them to try more vegetables by having them help you make new versions of each of these. For example, you can make matchstick parsnip fries; portabello mushroom, eggplant or cauliflower-crusted pizza; beet or carrot pancakes; or zucchini muffins. You can also use a veggie spiralizer (the kids can even help) to make colorful, nutrient-rich "pasta" out of steamed or grilled zucchini, baked sweet potatoes or fresh cucumber. If you don't want to make the switch to all veggie noodles, try mixing some in with pasta noodles.
12. Go fish! Kids and parents tend to not eat recommended amounts of fish in their daily diet. That's a shame, especially since fish is a key source of high quality protein and potent omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These essential fatty acids are important for development and health of the brain, nervous system, heart, skin, and immune system. Current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend anywhere from 3 to 8 or more ounces of fish weekly depending on kids' needs and total calorie intake (see my recent Scoop on Food post for more information). Because that really isn't that much, why not simply replace one or two of your family's weekly meat dishes or one family meal and one of your child's lunches with fish. Lower mercury fish options include salmon, shrimp, pollock, tuna (light canned), tilapia, catfish, and cod. White (albacore) tuna can also be consumed, but should be limited to no more than 6 ounces a week.
Sources: Patricia Bannan, MS, RD; Stephanie Clarke, MS, RD & Willow Jarosh, MS, RD co-owners of C&J Nutrition and board members of HKC*; Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RDN, CDN founder of Nutritioulicious; Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide; Lindsay Livingston, RD; Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CFT and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CFT, a.k.a. The Nutrition Twins, authors of The Nutrition Twins' Veggie Cure; Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD, LD, author of The Slim Down South Cookbook and nutrition advisor to www.BestFoodFacts.org; Rebecca Scritchfield, MA, RD, HFS; and Rebecca Subbiah, RDN.
Image of 2015 written with food via shutterstock.