I'm by no means a dietitian or a doctor who can tell you what is right for your family, but I am a mom to 5 young kids who has served a heck-of-a-lot of meals to kids. I feel like my experience with feeding young people has been a great teacher and I'd love to share some of my best tips and tricks on how to get kids to eat healthy food.
There is no secret potion, no magical wand to wave, and my own dinner times aren't without their share of whining over food or cries of disgust. For the most part though, my kids are pretty great eaters.
Tips and Tricks on How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy Food
- You Control the Supply Lines - You are the parent. Remember that! It's you who does the shopping, it's you who prepares the meals, and it's you, friend, who has the ultimate say in what your kids are offered to eat. Just remember though, you can lead a kid to broccoli but you can't make him eat (more on that below).
- Be the Example - I feel like this goes without saying but little people are more likely to do what they see you doing than do what you tell them to do. They watch your every move and seem to listen to very few of your words (am I right?!). Lead by example you amazing parents, your little people are watching.
- Give them choices, Let them make choices - I think it's a great idea to serve a variety of things to your family at the dinner table. I like to make sure there's at least one thing that each person likes and a variety of things that some will and won't eat. The idea here is that you by giving your children lots of choices you are giving them chances to try new things, see their family enjoying things they might not like yet, and giving them the chance to eat what they will choose. It's up to you to provide the food and decide when food/meals are served and up to them to choose what and how much of what you are offering is eaten.
- Start them Young - it's never too late to get on the healthy food band wagon but the earlier you start, the easier your journey will be. Rewrite the kids menu! Who says that sushi, curry, and hummus platters are just for adults? Not this mom! I'm on team, let them try all the things.
- Food is Just Food - It's so easy to turn food into more than food. It's a reward, it's a bribe, it's a means to an end. When it comes down to it, your best option is to think of food as what it is, simply food. It's meant to fuel a body, so let's not turn it into more than that. We live in a culture where we celebrate with ice cream, we reward with dinners out, and we bargain token bites of vegetable for dessert. You'll be better off if you stop labeling food good and bad, and call it what it is... food! I promise that you're little people will not wither away by missing a meal here and there because their stubborness was stronger than their hunger. Give those babies lots of options, help them to make good choices, and be a confident enough parent that you can support them in those choices (which might mean they didn't eat as much as you thought they should.).
- Involve your Children - eat with them, cook with them, plan your menu with them, make a chart of new fruits and vegetables to try, let them pick out a new-to-them item at the farmer market, let them grow a garden. Creating a family-oriented food culture in my home is one of the best ways I've been able to stay connected to my children all while encouraging them to eat delicious healthy whole foods. Win-win!
I loved this article from from Kidshealth.org and am sharing some of it here. You can find the whole article titled Toddlers at the Table: Avoiding Power Struggles by following the link. It's a great read and worth the time if you are struggling with getting you kids to eat healthy food.
Here's my favorite excerpt from the article.
Don't Bargain for Bites
You want your child to eat the spinach you serve; your child drops it on the floor. Your well-meaning impulse may be to start talking up nutritious foods, saying how big and strong spinach will make your child. Or you might start bargaining: "Well, if you eat three more bites, I'll give you a cookie." The problem is that these tactics don't work in the long run.
Who hasn't used the line about spinach making you strong? But this approach may build dislike for the healthy food rather than acceptance. This doesn't mean you shouldn't teach kids about the benefits of healthy foods, but don't push too much by celebrating every bite of spinach your toddler eats or disapproving when he or she refuses.
For some kids, dinner becomes a negotiation session from the very start, and parents have been using dessert as an incentive for decades. But this doesn't encourage healthy eating. Instead it creates the impression that "treats" are more valuable than mealtime food. Foods like candy and cookies are not essential to a child's diet and it's not a deprivation to not serve them during the toddler years.
Threatening a punishment, much like bribing a child with dessert, ultimately isn't effective either. It creates a power struggle.
- To encourage healthy eating, continue offering your child an array of nutritious choices — and keep the mealtime mood upbeat. Also try these tips:
- Serve right-sized portions. Parents often overestimate how much food a child should eat. Especially with foods that aren't yet favorites, a couple of tablespoons is plenty to start with. Small portions are less overwhelming, while bigger portions may encourage overeating.
- Don't negotiate. It's fine to encourage kids to "try one bite" but don't fall into the negotiating trap. Prepare and serve healthy meals and let them decide what to eat.
- Have family meals together. Set your toddler's place at the family table — it's good for kids of this age to see their parents and siblings eating together and eating healthy foods. Kids eat a more nutritious diet, with more fruits and vegetables, when they regularly have family meals.
- Create positive peer pressure. Toddlers are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they see their peers eating them, so look for opportunities where they can eat healthy with friends.
Fellow parents you are struggling to get your kids to eat. You are not alone. Take courage and continue feeding your family foods that make you feel good inside. I promise that one day, soon than later, they'll be eating those foods right along with you. You can do this!