How to Get Your Kids to Eat Healthy

I write about food. A lot. Not just at Proverbs 31 Woman, but also in magazines and in other professional capacities. And I can't tell you how often I write an article about feeding children only to hear: "But children don't like that type of food!"

Ideally, of course, we start our babies out with mashed veggies and fruit and as they grow, offer them the theoretically healthy food we are eating. But we don't live in an ideal world - and a great many parents clearly find that somewhere along the line, their children's eating habits become atrocious.

I actually have a personal understanding of this. My eldest was a "micro-preemie" born at 25 weeks gestation. Due to her life-saving treatment, she has real issues with food - and there are some things she literally cannot eat. And it's true, she doesn't eat as healthfully as I wish.

But have no fear. While it's easier to change the eating habits of younger children, even older kids can learn to eat right. Here's how:

They Won't Starve

I'm convinced the number one reason so many American children have bad eating habits is their parents are afraid they will starve. That is to say, when children reach that picky eater stage, many parents give their child pretty much whatever they want to eat - as long as they eat something. But unless your child has a disability linked to eating disorders or your pediatrician says your child is underweight, giving them whatever they want is unnecessary - and potentially harmful.

Children know when they are hungry - and, especially when they are young, they are often not hungry at regular meal times. There are two things we can do about this:

1. Cut back on snacking.
2. Let our children go without eating when he or she isn't hungry.

I guarantee you that back in the old days moms didn't whip out the chicken nuggets because their child picked at his food and didn't actually eat anything. Trust me. Your child will not starve or be malnourished.

Learning to Eat Healthy Food

If you're determined to teach your child to eat healthy foods (and I hope we all are), don't try to make a sudden switch. If previously your child only ate "kid food" and you suddenly only make vegetables and unbreaded chicken breast available, your child is going to rebel. (Wouldn't you if someone tried to force you to change your eating habits?) Instead, gradually begin adding healthy foods to your child's diet. For instance, if your daughter typically eats chicken nuggets and French fries for dinner, tonight, put peas on her plate, too. Let her know she doesn't have to eat them all - but she does need to take at least one bite. Most children will take that one bite without causing WWIII.

If your child claims to hate the food, don't make a big deal out of it. But do continue offering her peas once a week or every other week.

Gradually, replace the French fries with something more healthy. Again, if your child won't eat what you put before her, that's okay. Next, you can replace the chicken nuggets. Eventually, the goal is to have your child eat what you do - but it's important to take baby steps.

Once a week or so, cook only one meal for the family. Choose something healthy, but also something likely to please your children. For example, you might serve chicken breast and a familiar vegetable. Over time, your child will grow more and more comfortable with "grown up" food.

Try it Different

Oftentimes, children (or adults!) don't like a particular food cooked one way, but might love it cooked another way. So be sure to offer healthy foods in a variety of ways. 

Lilongwe, Malawi. Source: Wikipedia.
Talk about the Needy

I'm not suggesting you use the old "starving children in Africa would love to eat your dinner" line - but it does make sense to talk about how the rest of the world eats. Ideally, this is done when your child isn't sitting at the table. Make it a family project instead: Find images online of people around the world and their favorite foods. (Tip: Don't spend a lot of time on Canada or Europe. Head over to more interesting countries like Turkey, Africa, or Iran.) Talk about the fact that most of the world eats rice and beans and not much else. Ask your children what would happen if there was a famine, like in the Old Testament. What if the grocery stores were depleted? What would your family eat?

Grow Your Own

I also find my children are much more receptive to vegetables if we grow them ourselves. So think about starting a garden next spring. In the meantime, you might take your children to a U-Pick farm. This, too, can get them more interested in the food.

Portions Matter

According to Brian Wansink, Ph.D. of Cornell University portions really do matter. He's found that if you offer a child a larger cup, she will drink more than if you give her a smaller cup. Translation: Give your children a larger cup of water than you think they will drink. The same is true with food. "I know a lot of parents who put a couple of carrots or green beans on their kid's plate and tell him just to eat these few," he says. "What happens? He ends up eating one or two. Don't be afraid to pile on one-quarter or even one-third cup of veggies - that's the proper portion range for young kids. But you don't want to put on more than that amount because you want children to get to know what a proper serving looks like."

The opposite is true as well. If you want your children to eat less of something, put it in a smaller bowl or on a smaller plate.

Save it For Later or Hide It?

If your child refuses to eat her peas, I don't think it's effective to refrigerate them and offer them at the next meal. This just makes my kids more stubborn - plus the food is less palatable. The goal, after all, is to help my kids learn to love healthy food. If I make them eat mushy peas, chances are they will hate peas for the rest of their lives.

Hiding healthy foods in familiar favorites (like putting shredded zucchini in spaghetti sauce) is fine, but don't rely on it. Remember the end goal: To teach our kids to eat healthy. If the food is "hidden," there's no way for your child to develop a relationship with that food.

Gone Forever?

In my opinion, another mistake is to completely ban "bad" food. This can lead children to sneak forbidden food - and may actually lead to a fixation on certain foods. Instead, I suggest occasionally indulging in favorite foods that aren't totally healthy. Once a week is often enough; once every few months is even better for true junk food. And if you can find a way to make the food more healthful, all the better. For instance, if your child adores shelf stable pudding cups, you might serve homemade pudding once in a while.

Converting your child from a potato chip munching kid to a child who relishes fresh green beans isn't going to happen overnight. Patience is important - and so is persistence. Doctors say that generally, children must be offered a food up to 15 times before they will eat it! So keep looking toward the long-term goal.

This post featured Wellness Wednesday Blog Hop.

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1 comment

  1. Also having children help prep. veggies, meats, etc. and cook the meal exposes them to the various foods as well. Great tips here!!