Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN
We should all aim to eat at least 85% healthy foods. But try convincing a picky kid of that!
Healthy eating can manage blood pressure and cholesterol levels, maintain a healthy weight, prevent some cancers, lower the risk of some eye, skin, and digestive disorders, and keep a steady blood sugar level. All of which means absolutely nothing to a kid.
Scientific studies are starting to catch up to the idea that a child’s diet (and yours) plays a factor in overall mood, attention spans, and in the risk or severity of various mental health disorders.
Children that grow up with a healthy diet are less likely to be obese as adults, lowering their risk of heart disease, stroke diabetes, and certain cancers. But that won’t get your precious little one to JUST EAT THOSE CARROTS!
Neither will talking to your kids in all caps. So what will help?
There are many different tactics to take that can increase the likelihood that your child will start accepting healthy foods. This post mostly focuses on increasing vegetable intake, though the same principles can apply to most dietary changes.
Teach Them About Health (y Foods)
Occasionally (like very occasionally) mention the health benefits of what you are eating.
For example, these beans have protein, this vegetable has vitamins, minerals and fiber, this avocado has healthy fat…..
Then next time…. “This tofu has protein, which helps us grow” “Broccoli has fiber which is good for our heart and helps us poop.” Trust me on this, they’ll love the poop talk.
Doing this too often will make them tune out the conversation or get frustrated. Sprinkled here and there can pique their interest.
Keep Healthy Snacks Available
Have fruit cut, raw veggies readily available and in reach. Small containers can have ranch or hummus with carrots and celery sticks.
Apples can be washed and left on a counter within reach.
On the flip side, don’t keep unhealthy foods in the house. Reserve them for special treats that you have to put effort into obtaining.
Play Goofy Games
We played what Roman called the food game (original, I know, but the dude could barely talk in complete sentences)
“Which is healthier? Broccoli or potato chips?”
“Which is healthier? A giant piece of cake or a little piece of cake?”
Milk or juice? or water? Grilled or fried? And so on.
We would take turns and try to stump each other (banana or apple, fried chicken or fried fish). It would usually devolve into complete goofiness, such as “Which is healthier? Eating a car, or a rock?” “tickling, or pinching cheeks?”
Get them to laugh and it doesn’t feel like a lesson.
Brag on Your Kid
Brag to everyone who’ll listen when your kid tries a new vegetable, or eats his veggies without whining (when they’re in earshot).
Sometimes we do this days later. Sometimes he’ll brag about it himself!
“Mimi, guess what?!? I tried something new a week ago! Carrots mixed with peas! (or whatever – doesn’t matter that he eats them both individually. Mixed is a whole new ball game.”
While they may appreciate the encouragement from us, it means so much more if they think they caught us bragging about them to another adult.
Put things they like on top of things they don’t.
When Roman was little he LOVED goat cheese. Like, LOVED it.
He was a very adventurous eater as a toddler (now, not so much) and rarely turned anything down. But when he did…. Just smear some goat cheese on it. That kid would eat every bite.
Put sugar on it, sometimes.
I actually picked this up from his daycare. They had tuna one time and every dang one of those kids told me how much they hated it. Next week, they had tuna again. Every one of those dang kids ate every bit. The difference? Not a single thing. Except their teacher told them that there was sugar in it this time.
You better believe I took that trick to heart. If he was watching me, I’d sprinkle a couple of granules on. Otherwise, I’d just tell him I did. Either way, it worked. We haven’t done that in a while, we may have to try again!
3 Bite Rule
He has to try 3 bites of everything on his plate.
He never has to clean his plate, and we don’t argue about it. 3 bites and he has to swallow it.
It takes multiple exposures for people to develop a taste for a new food or texture. You can’t get those exposures if you flat-out refuse to try them. And forcing them to eat all of it only leads to resentment, fighting, and long-term aversion to the food.
Make it cute or interesting
Get sandwich cutters. Make rainbows and flowers, or cars, or animals, or whatever they’re into.
This takes some effort that I’m not always willing to go through.
However, it’s always a hit. It’s how I got him excited for kindergarten.
One time, we made a log cabin out of (vegan) sausages, a mountain out of mashed potatoes, and broccoli trees for dinner. It was something a character in a book did for her kid, and he wanted to try. He ate it, but was upset I forgot about the gravy river….
If the only way they’ll eat a carrot is to dip it in ranch, give ‘em ranch. Or ketchup, or yogurt, or hummus. Whatever they like.
Let them plan dinner
Roman used to love this but doesn’t so much anymore. He planned a ninja turtle salad and created a monstrosity of a pizza (think boiled eggs, blackberries, shredded lettuce, and ketchup).
But he ate them!
Get them involved in cooking
This doesn’t work for Roman, but other parents have success. When kids have a part in meal prep, they tend to be more willing to eat the results.
Roman will sit and help me stir, add ingredients to the pot, then refuse to eat it. He’s fascinated by the cooking process, but not so much in trying new things. (I miss the days when he would eat literally any vegetable that was put in front of him, he didn’t particularly like meat at that time).
Start a Garden
One step above cooking dinner. Start a garden, have them help you tend to it, then let them pick the food that will be used for that night’s dinner.
Alternately, visit farms or farmer’s markets (in all of your available free time, lol) to learn how different types of foods are grown or raised.
#1 Most Important Tip
Don’t tell your kid you don’t like vegetables but eat them anyway.
Don’t slather them in butter, and cheese, and ranch dressing.
Just eat them.
Eat a salad before your meal. Make a variety of vegetables throughout the week. Snack on carrots and hummus in front of them. All without making a single comment. Make it normal, not something that is out of the ordinary, or makes you weird or different from them or their friends’ parents.
When is it More than Picky Eating?
ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) is an eating disorder in which a young child consistently fails to meet their nutritional or energy needs.
Pertinent symptoms include significant weight loss (or failure to gain), significant nutritional deficiency, dependence on tube feeds or liquid nutritional supplements, and marked interference with psychosocial functioning, such as refusing to attend social eating events.
Some signs of ARFID include refusing food due to its smell, texture or flavor, or a generalized lack of interest in eating.
Extreme picky eating has been associated with anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
These children should be seen by a doctor, and probably a specialist, such as a therapist or a speech-language therapist that focuses on feeding therapy. A dietitian visit is probably also in order, to pinpoint nutritional deficiencies.
So did I miss anything? What methods have you tried? Which ones do you think will work?
Some kid-friendly recipes:
Easy Fried Rice
Peanut Butter Fruit Dip
Cheesecake Bites – because kids should get some treats too!
Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian, mom, wife, and vegetarian in North Texas. She has dedicated Dietitian Jenn to be a source of information, ideas, and inspiration for people like her, vegetarians that live with people with different dietary beliefs and/or needs in a multivore household.