Need Help Getting Your Kids to Eat Healthy Foods? Try These Simple Suggestions
(Note from Parker Place: We are pleased to share with you this fantastic guest post from Elizabeth Harris of Elizabeth Harris Nutrition. As a registered dietitian, Elizabeth is an invaluable resource to children and families seeking dedicated support to improving their nutrition. Elizabeth is also presenting an interactive workshop for parents here at Parker Place on November 6th! Click here to register for “Five Big Impact Changes You Can Make Today to Improve Your Eating Habits - and Help Your Family Get Healthier!” and be sure to use promo code ParkerPlace to save $5, now through October 28th!)
There are so many reasons to ensure that children and teens eat a balanced, nutritious diet. For starters, kids need the proper mix of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and other key nutrients in order to grow and develop optimally. Good nutrition is essential for healthy brain development too—which means a diet full of nutrient-rich foods can set kids up to perform their best in school. Several recent studies have even demonstrated an association between diet quality and mental health (including depression and anxiety) among children and adolescents. Plus, getting kids accustomed to reaching for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other healthful foods in their earlier years can set them up for a lifetime of positive eating habits that will promote health.
But let’s face it. Despite our best intentions, it can be a challenge to get kids to choose—and eat—healthful foods. Fortunately, there are several simple strategies you can use to encourage these behaviors.
1. First and foremost, set up for success. You can’t necessarily control the food choices available to your children out in the world, but you can control what comes in and out of your home. Reduce the amount of processed and packaged snack foods and sugary drinks you buy and instead stock up on things like fresh and frozen fruit, low-sugar yogurt, cheese sticks, whole grain crackers, nuts, air-popped popcorn, hummus, veggies, whole grain bread, whole grain and low-sugar cereals, oatmeal, rotisserie chicken, dried fruit, peanut butter, flavored waters or seltzers, and other healthful options. Place them prominently in your fridge or pantry and store them in see-through containers placed at kids’ eye level. Children are more likely choose what’s right in front, especially if it’s presented in an appealing manner.
2. Do a snack swap. So often we fall into the trap of thinking that snack = packaged food. Snacks are really just another opportunity to give kids (and adults) the fuel their bodies need for school, sports, and other daily activities. Think of snacks as mini meals and choose foods from the following groups when offering a snack: fruit and/or vegetables, grains, protein, low-fat dairy items, and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, and healthy oils. Adding in a protein or fat will help fill them up and cut back on grazing.
3. Serve a healthy appetizer. How often have your kids come into the kitchen hungry and wanting a snack while you’re cooking dinner or preparing lunch? Place a bowl of sliced fruit or veggies on the counter for them to munch on while they’re chatting with you, helping cook, or hanging around the kitchen. Kids are more likely to eat these foods when they’re the only option available, especially if they’re hungry. Plus, if they eat some veggies or fruit ahead of time you don’t have to stress about whether they’re getting enough of those nutritious foods during the meal.
4. Kids of all ages love to dip and dunk, so give them what they like. Ranch dressing, oil and vinegar, hummus, guacamole, yogurt or yogurt sauces, and other dips will make fruits, veggies, and whole grains more interesting and taste better. Offer them freely.
5. Mix it up. Serve fruits and vegetables a variety of ways on different days—cooked, raw, skin on, skin off, shredded, chopped, whole, in kabobs, you name it! This will enable them to try a variety of different textures and tastes and keep meals and snacks interesting. Some they’ll like, some they won’t, some they may like one day and not another…it’s all ok, as long as they’re eating a variety of healthful foods throughout each day and week.
6. Educate them on the benefits of various foods—but be sure to speak to your audience. Simple statements like, “carrots help us see in the dark”...”blueberries help our brains work properly”…”fish helps keep our heart healthy”…”milk makes our bones strong so we can play sports or climb on the playground”…”cantaloupe can help heal cuts” may entice your kids to taste or eat certain foods. At the very least, it will help them make the connection that foods impact our health.
7. Finally, remember that exposure is everything and, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. It can take up to 10 exposures or more before a child is ready to try a new food. Plus, kids’ taste preferences change over time. Don’t give up if they reject a new food on the first, second, or even multiple tries. Seeing it at the dinner table, getting used to having a particular food on their plate, picking it up, smelling it, giving it a nibble—all of these steps bring your child one step closer to tasting or enjoying a particular food. Be patient and take the long-game approach.
Most importantly, remember to keep all discussions regarding food positive. Don’t force your children to eat a particular food or to clean their plates. Instead, encourage them to honor their body’s hunger and satiety cues—children are naturally really good at this. And lastly, kids are more likely to eat and enjoy healthful foods if they see you eating them too, so everyone can and should join in on these delicious, nutritious choices.