Many parents are worried about how to get their kids to eat healthy without having to battle them at mealtimes. As a mom of two teenagers, I’ve had time to experiment. Here are my tried and true methods for winning the battle between chicken nuggets and broccoli.
1. Make sure fruit and vegetables are always on hand and ready.
When my sons were toddlers and just learning the nuances of self-feeding, I made sure to provide them with a wide variety of bite-sized seasonal fruits and vegetables. By the time they were three and older, we did weekly platters full of fruits, veggies, sliced meats and cheeses that the kids were able to pick and choose from. The platters were always changing depending on what was available and it gave my sons the opportunity to try new foods at their own pace. Eventually, they learned to love everything offered.
2. Let them eat dip!
It may not always be the healthiest option, but the age old wisdom of drowning veggies in cheese sauce wasn’t far off the mark. When I was a child, vegetables were boiled and served swimming in bright orange Velveeta cheese sauce. I learned to like the sauce and the vegetables followed. As a mother, I’m not fond of serving my children processed foods and sauces, so I found an alternative solution: dip. I use good quality sour cream or Greek yogurt and mix it with a dollop of mayonnaise and a tablespoon of buttermilk, and then stir in garlic powder, onion powder, dried parsley and finely minced chives, with a little salt and pepper to taste. Voila, I made my own ranch dip that has less fat and calories than store-bought ranch dressing, and my kids loved being able to dip their veggies (and sometimes fruit!) into the stuff. As their palettes grew, I eventually incorporated new dips, like pesto and hummus, which they loved. Now that they are teenagers, they often don’t even need dip, but enjoy grabbing a handful of whatever offering is available (usually fruit) and heading out the door.
3. Don’t make separate meals for kids.
I see this a lot with friends and I always have to stifle a groan. Unless there’s a medical reason, I don’t think it’s an effective tool to make a child their own dinner outside of what the family eats. Take a look at family dining around the world. In Ethiopia, children eat spicy berbere lentils and robust doro wat, a heavily seasoned, earthy, rich chicken stew (complete with bones), among other traditional foods. In Thailand, children help themselves to fermented fish with noodles, fiery-hot curry and chile-infused salad preparations. In Polynesian cultures, children incorporate raw seafood into their diets, just like the adults. In nearly every culture around the world, children adapt to what their parents eat, and that’s the way it should be. When we prepare a special meal for our child, we send the message that they don’t have to participate in our eating traditions, and can expect to be catered to at mealtimes. Unless you like the extra work, and reinforcing poor eating choices for your children, I recommend serving them the same meals and letting them know there won’t be an alternative. Trust that when they get hungry enough, they’ll eat whatever is in front of them.
4. Model healthy eating.
If you aren’t eating healthy food, your kids definitely won’t develop a taste for it either. Kids don’t follow a “do as I say, not as I do” lifestyle. They will incorporate the same choices you make with food into their own dietary preferences and before long, those choices will be well-ingrained habits. If you want your child to eat healthy, you have to be willing to do the same.
5. Make mealtime interesting.
There are many recipes available on the Internet, so there’s no excuse for boring, repeat dinners. From cost-effective healthy meals to exotic fare, your kitchen is your child’s proverbial oyster and you have the chance to teach them how to explore the world through food. Make healthy eating an adventure that strays far from mundane salads. Once your child learns that food is a gateway to the world, they will have a great time tasting new, healthy recipes.
There are many ways to encourage children to eat healthy, but the key ingredient is parents taking the healthy-food lead. What are your tips for encouraging kids to eat healthy?