Getting kids to eat healthy has become the Mount Everest of parenthood. Every day is a rocky, uphill battle with daily obstacles thwarting parents’ best intentions: bake sales, kiddie menus, birthday parties and vending machines are everywhere. It doesn’t help that kids are still wired like their early ancestors to gravitate towards sweet foods to maintain their weight in case of a famine and avoid unfamiliar foods that may be poisonous. Fast forward to the twenty-first century with easy access to store-bought processed products and introducing kids to cauliflower can sound as daunting as climbing a mountain.
The good news is that there are plenty of tactics to encourage healthier eating habits in kids.
Involve kids in the meal preparation. When kids help make the meal, they are more likely to eat it. Ask them to wash produce, chop vegetables with a safe butter knife, and help with other kid-friendly tasks like whisking, mashing, mincing, grating, seasoning and garnishing.
Modify recipes. In order to make foods more palatable, modify recipes to be kid-friendly but still sophisticated enough for adult eaters to enjoy. Offer new foods as miniature versions, on a skewer, or in taco shells and Asian wrappers. Add naturally sweet foods like mangos and limit spicy flavors by allowing adventurous eaters to add their own hot sauce or spices directly to their dish.
Schedule structured meals at the same time every day. If kids don’t graze all day or eat a snack right before dinner time, they’ll be more likely to try something new. Hungry kids are much more experimental than satiated children.
Expand their palates. Eating an entire portion of any food can be daunting. Ask them to try just one bite — no pleading or bribing. Even if they say they don’t like it, they have still introduced a new flavor to their taste buds.
Reintroduce foods often. Many kids must be exposed to a new food several times before developing a taste for it. Sometimes they will surprise you and suddenly like something they previously disliked. Keep in mind that children’s taste buds and food preferences fluctuate as they age.
Stay relaxed. Don’t give kids a strong emotional reaction when they are trying a new food. Staying positive and low key keeps the process relaxed instead of escalating into a power struggle. If they start using food as a way to rebel, break the cycle and stop offering new foods for a few months. Then start it back up again casually (without announcing what you’re doing) when things have been calm at the dinner table
Serve as a role model. Let them see how much you enjoy a wide variety of foods. Make exaggerated comments like “This is soooooo good—I LOVE roasted cauliflower. I could eat it all day long.” Rub your stomach, moan and make it really obvious how much you love the foods you are serving. You can also take advantage of peer pressure by offering new foods around kids who are adventurous eaters who are modeling good eating habits.
Create your Family Food Rules. Don’t be afraid to set rules. Telling kids that they can’t eat a snack after dinner or that they must eat part of their dinner will not traumatize them for life. Rather, giving them boundaries and rules allows them to learn healthy eating habits so that they can make smart decisions as they get older and eat on their own. If they ask for some flexibility on the rule, say yes sometimes and no other times. They need to learn how to say yes and no to themselves when you’re no longer there to guide them.
Don’t give up. They will eventually eat like the rest of the family. It may not happen until they are 10 years old, 15 years old, or sometimes after they’ve been away at college and miss your home cooking. But one day, your perseverance will pay off. They might even surprise you and offer to cook dinner for you!
Julie Negrin, M.S. is a nutritionist, kids cooking instructor, and author of Easy Meals to Cook with Kids. Her new book, How to Teach Cooking to Kids, will be available later this year. Her website is www.julienegrin.com; you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.