Tips for teaching kids healthy eating habits and keeping your sanity. This post contains affiliate links.
Feeding kids can be exhausting, frustrating, and confusing. I’ve felt all of these things after working hard to make a nice dinner, only to have the kids say, “yuck!” It’s easy to give up trying to give them the best foods we can and instead give them processed foods we know they won’t complain about. It doesn’t have to be that way though. I reject the idea that kids innately don’t like vegetables or other particular foods. Our preschool was filled with 2 year-olds happily munching on kale strawberry salad and chia pudding at snack time. Kids in Japan happily eat sushi, while French kids eat escargot and boeuf bourguignon. These children don’t have genetically different taste buds than American fast food loving kids. The difference is that they were taught how to eat, and never expected to eat from a kids menu of nuggets and hot dogs. While my kids won’t eat everything, and I’m far from perfect, here are a few things I have learned. My goal with this blog is to help families live healthier happier lives, so I hope you’ll find these tips helpful!
Let the Kids Cook
Some families with older children designate one night per week as “kids cook” nights. Smaller kids can help by stirring, squeezing, rolling, and assembling. When kids have a stake in the meal, they are more likely to eat it. Learning to prepare simple whole food recipes is a skill and art your kids will use for the rest of their life. One of my girls’ favorite “kids cook” meals is hummus wraps loaded with veggies, hummus, and chickpeas.
Offer Mostly Plants
If your house is filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, that’s what your family will eat. If it’s filled with processed foods with little nutrition, that’s what your family will eat! A big bowl of fruit on the counter, prepped carrot sticks in the fridge, and smoothies in the freezer are better than boxes of fruit rolls and chips in the pantry.
I have been asked if I feed my kids the same dinner I make for my husband and myself. The answer is absolutely YES, although I make sure they are family friendly (ie. not too spicy, soups with small veggies for toddlers, etc.). One friend replied with, “Well if my husband and I ate what our kids had for dinner, we’d be having frozen animal shaped chicken nuggets every night.” The only way that is happening is if you buy the nuggets – our kids have never heard of them, so they’ve never asked for them. I usually make the vegetables the star of the (dinner) show and then add in protein, rather than the other way around. For example, some of our usual dinners are: stir fried veggies with teriyaki sauce, pasta with veggies, vegetable minestrone soup, burritos with beans, rice, veggies and guac, quiche/frittata loaded with spinach, and that Brussels sprouts with mashed white bean dish I posted a week back. These are veggie-based dinners I know my kids will gobble.
Show them the Beauty of Real Food
Nature is amazing and fresh fruits and veggies are beautiful. Kids are mesmerized by watching flowers get pollinated by insects and bear fruit. Growing your own food is a surefire way to get your kids to eat their veggies. Our girls love plucking tomatoes straight from the plant and eating them for a sweet snack. Carrots are even more fun, as kids wonder what is happening below ground. I’ve even seen my 7 year old eat kale straight from the plant. After a lesson in her school garden, my 1st grader excitedly told me how delicious the Cabbage Tacos her class made were – even I was impressed that a class full of 6 year-olds loved cabbage filled with garden veggies.
Not everyone has the space for a backyard garden, but luckily most towns have a farmers market, and that’s the next best thing. The beauty of nutritious fruits and veggies is on full display at the farmers market and it is a great place for kids to explore new flavors in a non-threatening environment.
Don’t Give Up – Persistence Pays Off
Kids often reject new foods. Parents then assume the child doesn’t like the particular food and stops serving it. This is a mistake, as often children will like the food once it is not “new” any longer. Studies have found that it takes 10 to 15 tries before a given food is no longer novel. So if your kiddo says “no!” to veggies at first, keep trying different ways of serving them until she accepts the taste. Try them raw, with their favorite dip, roasted with a maple glaze, creamy in a pot pie, baked in a quiche, diced small in soup, tossed into a baked pasta… I add veggies to every main dish we have.
Blend it Up!
There is so much goodness you can sneak into a smoothie. If we haven’t been eating very well, I know I can always get in lots of healthy nutrition in with a smoothie. I sneak in some Bio-K probiotics for a major immune boost, and sneak a handful of greens into dark berry smoothies, or mint chip smoothies like this one.
When they were toddlers I used to make mini “salad bars” in muffin tins or baby food freezer trays. Kids like to feel like they are in control by making decisions, and I noticed my girls loved choosing their own foods at grocery store salad bars. Now that they are in school, we love PlanetBox lunch systems because they are a similar concept – many divided sections for a variety of foods. I post many of our healthy packed lunch ideas on Instagram – feel free to come visit me @yummymummykitchen.
Relax and Avoid the Dinnertime Battle
Dinnertime can be tense and frustrating when kids strongly proclaim, “I’m not hungry!” or “I don’t want this!” I have friends who make their kids clean their plates at dinner, and while I don’t ever judge friends’ parenting or feeding styles, here are 2 reasons I don’t make my kids eat their dinners.
1. Dinnertime is about so much more than eating. It’s a time to regroup after a busy day and spend quality family time. A frustrating battle over the food should not be part of the equation. Our kids do have to sit at the table and I do not make them something special – as I tell them, this is not a restaurant. The kids have their nutritional needs met. They have a wholesome breakfast, lunch and snacks. So if they don’t want to eat, they don’t have to, although they usually will. When pushed to eat, kids often push back even harder.
2. Learning to gauge hunger and satiety is a good thing. Many adults have a hard time knowing when to stop eating (I know I do when it comes to pizza night!), so I don’t see forcing kids to eat when they are full as a good idea.
A Note about Body Image
In my opinion, we should talk to children about what food does for our bodies and minds. It is our fuel that has the power to make us feel good or bad. It can be like medicine and keep us healthy, or like poison, and make us sick. It can make us grow strong and happy, or weak and grumpy.
We should not concern kids with talk of limiting calories or being thin vs fat. When we eat well to be well, we will be the right weight anyway. I have seen kids asking if their skin wrinkles mean they are fat and they need to eat less, and that concerns me. Let’s keep our girls and boys confident in themselves and knowing that healthy beautiful bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
That’s it for now! Any tips I missed?
My next read:
“French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters” for ages.
I'm so glad you're here! I'm a busy mama to two sweet girls and a bunch of funny animals. I'm passionate about sharing the beauty of real food through plant based recipes. I hope you find many easy, nourishing, delicious recipes your family will love.