Every parent in the world knows that the vast majority of kids would rather eat the “birthday party diet” of pizza, chips, soda, junk food, and hot dogs, as opposed to healthy, nutritious foods.
But guess what? Lucky for the whole human race, what a child eats is controlled in many ways by the parents.
The parents buy the food. The parents prepare the food. Unfortunately, this does not always mean children eat healthy diets. In fact, many adults do not. According to The State of the Plate report, today, 9 out of 10 people in the United States do not get the proper amount of vegetables each day. So what can you do about it? The following are ten ideas to help kids eat healthy.
1. Hide the healthy
While this is a tactic that does not promote lifelong habits of good health, it is a good place to start if your kids are far down the path of a junk food filled life. Start by adding more vegetables and fruits where you can, and hiding healthy sprinklings of chia seed, wheat germ, and other fiber and nutritious rich foods.
Don’t know how? This recipe for secretly healthy pizza is a good place to start. The sauce is made from cooked down and pureed vegetables, and the crust is whole wheat. You can also add vegetables to smoothies at breakfast, into mac and cheese (pureed sweet potato and pumpkin are a great way to keep the color and add health), and at snack time. Try offering apple chips, or sliced apples and peanut butter as opposed to something packaged or processed.
2. Schedule healthy snacks
Kids should be eating every 3-4 hours, according to Julie Burns, R.D. from Parents Magazine, with three meals, snacks, and lots of fluids. Use snack times as an opportunity to make sure their diet is balanced, and they are getting what they need. Keeping things like carrot sticks, apple slices, and other healthy options like whole grain crackers, or homemade granola bars on hand reduces unhealthy snacking and keeps kids happier.
3. Make eating healthy fun
Eating junk food is usually more fun than eating healthy, it comes in fun colors, fun shapes, and fun packaging. Apply this idea to healthy eating and you may find yourself having more success. For example, do some food art, serve them traditional foods in untraditional ways, like this kid-friendly “sushi” sandwich, or create a “make-your-own” toppings bar. Kids love being able to choose, so give them healthy choices. For example, serve something like tacos, baked potatoes, or even Hawaiian haystacks, and let kids customize the toppings according to their personal preference.
4. Load up on what they do like
Kids come with their own set of preferences, just like adults. It is good to expose them to different food types, but it is important to let them eat the healthy things they like instead of forcing them to eat things they may not prefer. Introduce them to new options, but let them eat their fill of what they like, as long as it is healthy. Most kids enjoy cucumbers as they are fairly mild in flavor, or carrots sticks dipped in ranch or hummus.
5. Let kids help
Even though having kids help in the kitchen can be a pain and a mess, the more invested and involved they are in creating a healthy meal, the more likely they are to eat it. No matter how young they are, there is some way they can help, even if it is just picking out the healthy ingredients at the store, or pulling something out of the fridge or freezer.
6. Give them constant exposure
There is a lot of research that shows that kids have to be exposed to a new food at least 8 to 10 times before they will be open to trying a new food. If you want your child to eat healthy, keep exposing them to new foods, no matter how much they turn you down, or turn away. Put healthy foods on their plate at every meal, and every day, whether they eat them or not, keep putting them on the plate. Eventually they may try them.
7. Keep things positive
Positive food experiences will decrease picky eating. This means that no matter how hard it is, keep your mouth shut, or be as neutral as possible. Telling kids to try something because you think they will like it actually sets them up to think they won’t. Enforcing their healthy eating will lead to resistance. According to nutritionist Julie Burns, R.D. from Parents Magazine, “Be as neutral as possible. Remember, you’ve done your job as a parent by serving balanced meals; your kids are responsible for eating them. If you play food enforcer — saying things like “Eat your vegetables” — your child will only resist.”
8. Introduce slowly
It is natural for kids to resist change, especially when it comes to new foods, and it takes time for kids to get used to new flavors. So add new things to the menu regularly, but slowly. Adding a handful of peas into macaroni and cheese is more likely to go over better than putting a bowl of peas in front of the child. Julie Burns, R.D. from Parents Magazine says “Children are new-food-phobic by nature. I tell my kids that their taste buds sometimes have to get used to a flavor before they’ll like the taste.”
9. Use Breakfast to your advantage
Kids love breakfast food. So use that to your advantage to make it as healthy as possible. Not only will this help them start the day off healthy, but give them extra nutrition to boot. Breakfast is a great place to load up on fiber, and do so without bugging your kids. You can buy high-fiber cereals, make whole-grain pancakes or muffins, or use flax seed, chia, and other high fiber awesomeness in smoothies.
10. Make healthy eating easier for kids to understand
Often we give kids too little credit when it comes to making healthy food choices. But this is often because they do not necessarily understand the difference, they only understand the taste. So instead of telling them something is healthy, tell them it will help them grow taller, or run faster, or see better. These are things they understand and can be motivated by.
And remember, eating healthy is often about moderation, making unhealthy or less healthy foods forbidden will only increase their appeal, so instead, let kids enjoy them in moderation, as a treat. The way they were meant to be enjoyed, on occasion, not daily, but certainly not forbidden.