Getting Your Kids to Eat Healthy Food

May 5, 2010

If I had to pick the biggest complaint (uhm . . . er. . . concern) I hear from my “mom friends,” it would be how hard it is to get their children to eat healthy foods – and a variety of them.
Now, I am no expert in this area, but since we have had a pretty good rate of success with this battle in our family, I thought I’d share some of our “tricks” (for lack of a better word).

I think it may almost be unfair to include my daughter in this discussion because, from day one, she has been a fabulous eater. She’ll eat anything – from shrimp to asparagus to brussel sprouts. When she was a newborn, she was actually diagnosed with “failure to thrive” – we didn’t realize that she wasn’t getting enough breast milk and was thus, losing weight. Once we began supplementing her diet with formula, however, she became a “zealous” eater and hasn’t slowed down since. We often joke that once we stopped accidentally “starving” her, she wasn’t going to turn down a single food item offered to her!

My boys, on the other hand, are not quite as easy. They have an opinion about all things, especially food, and aren’t scared to voice it. Thus, I’d had to be a bit more creative with the way I approach their meals.

This is what I have found works for us:

Take your kids shopping with you: Okay, I admit, I hate doing this. I hate, hate, hate taking my kids to the grocery store with me. If you need proof, read this blog post I wrote last year. Having said that, on occasion, I will bring the boys with me when I need to run into a store to get a few items and I let them “help” me pick out some of the veggies. In our grocery store, when you weigh it, you push a button on the scale and it prints a price label for you to stick on the produce bag. The boys like to push the buttons and bag the vegetables. I feel that picking out the food gives them a sort of “ownership” over it.
Plant a garden: If you know me, you know that gardening (and sweating in the hot sun) is not my “thing.” Good thing, then, that I have my husband! He plants a pretty big garden on the side of our house every year and gets the kids actively involved in the whole process. They help him plant the seeds and small plants, they dump our kitchen leftovers onto the compost pile and then get to “pick” the lettuce and tomatoes and radishes. Rob also allows them the joy of running into the kitchen to me, with their produce, screaming, “Mommy! Look what I grew!” We’ve found that if the kids “grow” the vegetables, they will almost always eat them.
Let your kids help you make dinner: My children love, love, love to help me prepare dinner. And, to be honest, I really enjoy this time, too (despite the inevitable food that ends up on the floor and all over them – and often, me). If I’m making a crock pot meal, I let them pour the ingredients into the pot and turn it on. If I’m making a salad, I give my 3-yr-old a butter knife and permit him to cut up a few cucumbers, carrots and peppers. If we’re making enchiladas, they get to layer the dish. Once again, if the kids make it themselves, they are more likely to at least “try” it when dinnertime arrives.

Never make them a separate meal: This is a cardinal rule we never, ever break. I make one dinner. ONE! If they don’t like it – that’s too bad. If they don’t eat it, they don’t get anything else. Some parents worry that their children just won’t eat the food that’s prepared for the parents for dinner. Trust me. They will not allow themselves to starve. When they get hungry, they’ll eat. We’ve even gone so far, when one child has refused to eat anything, to put the meal in the fridge and when they were hungry a few hours later, pull it back out again. That’s dinner. Eat it or go hungry – and then eat it when you can’t stand the hunger any longer.
Along those same lines, if we are invited to someone’s house for dinner, my kids are expected to eat whatever it is the host prepares. I do not preheat chicken nuggets to take with me. They need to learn to eat the meal that is provided. And, trust me, they do!

Reintroduce foods, reintroduce foods, reintroduce foods: I have heard that it may take presenting certain food items up to 21 times before a child will eat them. It certainly took that long (if not longer) to get my boys to eat asparagus. Rob and love asparagus and so I make it about once a week. Thus, my boys have it presented to them at least 52 times a year. They would occasionally stick it in their mouth and munch on it, but it inevitably always ended up back on their plate. Last week, however, I don’t know what changed, but something did! Not only did both boys chew on it and swallow it, but they both asked for more! Never give up!
Watch the Food Network: My kids love the Food Network and I love that they want to watch it. As a family, we watch the chefs prepare delectable-looking dishes and then, when something seems particularly appealing, we go over to our computer and find the recipe on their website, saving it in our “recipe box” on the Food Network’s site. My kids are anxious to make meals (and eat them) if they see the chefs on TV prepare them first!
For younger kids, Sesame Street has a great DVD about eating your vegetables (I bet other shows have them, too.) If you can teach them, at an early age, about the joy of zucchini (in song) they will be more likely to be excited about it when they see that veggie on their dinner plate.
Never underestimate the power of a good dip: Doesn’t everything taste better with some dip? Well, kids usually feel the same way, too. I often have a plate of veggies (cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, cucumbers, green and red peppers) on the table after school for them to munch on – accompanied by a bowl of lowfat dip. The dip varies: onion, ranch, hummus (I’m still trying to get the boys to love that last one as much as the rest of us do). And, of course, I have to teach the boys that yes, you do have to actually eat the carrot.  You can’t just keep re-dipping it and sucking off the “good stuff.” But, if the veggies are around and easy to grab, more times than not, the kids do just that.
I say all of this to give you hope in the battle against chicken nuggets and PB&J!!

You can get your kids to eat healthy. It just takes patience (and a little creativity!)


Kim said...

Awesome post, Kell! Finally, a mom who is as "mean" as I am about kids eating what's put in front of them. Our rule is if it's new to them they don't get anything else unless they take a substantial bite and swallow it. Eight times out of ten they will realize that it's not horrible, poisonous swill and actually eat the rest of it. We've told them that it's okay not to like something but you MUST try it. We also save their uneaten dinners (especially when they refuse to eat something we know they like) for when they tell us they are hungry later in the evening. Like you said, they won't starve to death. Often I find that my kids aren't genuinely hungry when they say they want a snack. So, I have started saying, "You can have a carrot." If they say, "No, thanks." I know they aren't really hungry, just bored. If they say, "OKAY!" then they really were hungry and will eat almost all of the carrot.

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