Getting Kids to Eat Healthy
January 14, 2015
It’s no secret that today’s kids eat way more junk food than parents would like to admit. In the morning before school it’s easier to simply hand kid a PopTart than to get up extra early and prepare a full balanced meal. For lunch, it’s all too tempting to pack a Little Debbie in alongside that sandwich. Even after school snacks are often left up to the types of food that kids can find or prepare themselves. Unfortunately those kinds of snacks are typically high in sugars, salt and preservatives.
There’s certainly no shame in kids having a treat here and there. But the younger years of development are also a vital time to train a child’s body to crave healthy snacks. For a lot of parents, getting their children to eat healthier is high on the priority list for this year. But without a little thought, time and creativity it’s also a difficult item to check off the list.
Six tips to get kids to eat healthy:
1. Buy more fresh produce, fewer pre-packaged goods.
The grocery store is where your healthy food choices take place. If you don’t buy unhealthy foods, your children will have less opportunity to eat them. When grocery shopping, try to be cautious about what kinds of food you purchase and in what quantities. Of course it’s okay to have a few pre-packaged around the house for when you get cravings- but don’t overdo it.
If you truly want your kids to eat healthier, try buying more nuts, fruits and vegetables that can be grabbed on the go. Items like almonds, peanuts, bananas, apples, oranges, grapes, raisins, carrots, celery, tomatoes, and broccoli are easy for kids to munch on straight from the fridge or counter- making them just as convenient as less healthy pre-packaged alternatives. Try combining some of these ingredients with a mixture of honey, butter, vanilla, sugar and oats to make home-made granola bars! The same dry ingredients can be thrown together in a bag for a healthy snack mix!
2. Stop giving your child special meal exceptions. Instead, start expanding the menu.
In many households, the adults are eating completely separate meals from the children. When items like brussel sprouts, seafood, and foreign dishes make an appearance on the menu, adults often give into a child’s complaints. For parents that are busy all day- it’s easy to think “as long as my child eats something” when confronted by these complaints. But instead of throwing together a separate meal out of microwavable and prepackaged foods, try simply expanding the adult dinner menu by one or two items the child will eat. Unless there is a potential food allergy, the added meal variety is a healthier alternative for everyone. This way your child still gets to eat something nutritious.
3. Set a good example at the table.
A lot of children’s negative reactions to foods are learned. Many picky eaters come from a long line of picky eaters. If you make a big deal out of something, children do too. They learn acceptable behaviors by mimicking what they see. As the adult role model, try to avoid making faces or openly refusing to eat food someone has prepared for you. Your food choices and behaviors are being observed. Lead by example.
In my family- we always settled for the one scoop rule at family meals; as long as the food prepared doesn’t make you physically ill, you were expected to eat at least one scoop of everything prepared for the meal. Parents included. In return, we were allowed to openly talk about what it was we did or didn't like about the food and that would be taken into consideration for the next time those ingredients or dishes came across the table.
4. Try cooking or presenting ‘gross out’ foods in new and creative ways.
Even if you have enforced the one scoop rule at your dinner table, odds are that your child will come across one or two items they simply don’t care for. But instead of giving up on a food item the first time out, try bringing in new recipes or variations first. The way a food is prepared in either taste or presentation can have a dramatic effect on the taste buds.
For example, my niece loves fresh cherry or grape tomatoes, but she really doesn’t care for the texture of fresh large or beef steak tomatoes in foods. As for myself, I’m not a fan of eating olives. The flavor is simply too strong. However, if the olives are sliced up and spread out over another food like tacos, pizza, or pasta- I find them much more palatable. They still aren’t my favorite food, but finding that I like them better this way opened me up to a lot more meal options at restaurants and as a guest at a friend’s table.
5. Where possible, involve kids when cooking family meals and new types of food.
Getting kids involved in the kitchen is a lost art. When I talk to my mom about her parents, some of the best memories she has is helping them out with cooking meals for the family. Granted, my mom has eight siblings- so making enough dinner to go around was practically a family event.
Many of us have good memories about learning a recipe, cooking or baking goodies with a relative. Due to safety risks and fewer meals being made from scratch in the home- this tradition is becoming less and less common. But for children, cooking with adults is not just about making memories. Time spent in the kitchen is a prime opportunity for learning about nutrition and ingredients, basic food prep, kitchen safety, and even basic math and science skills. Plus, children get excited about trying their own creations!
6. Educate children from a young age about healthy food choices.
Got milk? Perhaps one of the most successful healthy food campaigns in history, this popular phrase actually turned the numbers in milk industry upside down. Schools everywhere hung posters of celebrity photos sporting milk mustaches and suddenly drinking milk had become cool. It was a status symbol and milk mustache competitions ran rampant.
What have we learned from this? First, that children are clearly impressionable. And second, that changing the way that kids (and even adults) think about their food choices is possible. Even if they’re too young to understand the science, you can start with something as simple as “Drinking milk helps build strong bones so you don't get hurt.”