While attending a fitness training recently, someone asked me if I know any good tricks to getting kids to eat healthy food. While I woudn't call them "tricks", there are definitely things that I do to encourage and promote healthy eating in my home. Here are a few of them:
1. Only Give Healthy Options. If your child looks in the cupboard or fridge and sees that he can choose between a piece of fresh fruit or a package of fruit snacks, he might opt for the fruit snacks, which is definitely not the same thing as actual fruit. So my first word of advice is to ditch the unnecessary, sweet, packaged "treats". There really is no need for them at all. I decided about 6 years ago to rid our house of as many pre-packaged foods as possible (including juices and drinks other than milk). This means less processed sugar intake, less preservatives, less food dyes, less empty calories. I truly believe this is the first step to building healthy eaters. It's just as easy to grab a fresh apple from the kitchen as it is to grab a pack of fruit snacks. Maybe even easier. Now the options consist of fresh, real food. At our house we have a snack drawer. It contains apples, bananas, oranges, and sometimes kiwi, peaches, nectarines, etc. My kids know that they may choose up to two apples and one other fruit per day, whenever they want. A drawer in the fridge also contains carrots, cucumbers, and bell peppers that they may eat at any time. When the question is, "would you like a banana, an apple, a carrot, or some cucumber?" there is no wrong answer.
2. Let Them Help in the Kitchen. Get your kids involved in the preparing of food. Let them wash fruit and veggies, use a salad spinner, peel the potatoes and carrots, measure ingredients, mash the bananas, whisk the eggs, etc. If they are part of the process they will value their food more and take pride in what they have prepared. If you have more than one child, you may want to have assigned shifts, or a chart to keep track of who gets to help on which days and for which meals.
3. Create a Menu. Have a Plan. This has been so helpful for my family. Have your kids ever complained about what they're fed and blamed YOU for feeding it to them? Creating a written menu takes you out of the equation. You are simply preparing what is written on the menu. It becomes the menus fault and not yours. If there is any negative feedback you can simply say, "Well, it's what's on the menu...". This works best with younger children. Kids also tend to love being able to see what to expect that day, so having it written out and posted somewhere within their field of vision is nice. I used to post it on the fridge, but recently I just write it out on a little easel chalkboard that is kept in the dining room.
Keeping food simple helps too. While extravagant dishes and casseroles can be fun sometimes, our day-to-day meals are very simplistic and easy to understand. Here's an example: a whole grain, dairy, fruit, and veggie are all covered, and easy to identify.
4. Plant a Garden. There is something so special about seeing where our food comes from. Growing your own food can be super helpful when it comes to motivating your kiddos to eat more vegetables. If you don't feel you have the space for a full scale garden, start small with some potted plants in your kitchen or on the porch. Or do what Mary and I have done and select a portion of your yard to devote to a small garden. You can read all about Mary's yard transformation HERE. Raising chickens also helps children recognize and appreciate where their food comes from. Gathering eggs daily is a fabulous chore. You can compare the size, shape, and coloration of each egg before eating it. You can compare the taste of a store bought egg vs. a home grown egg. Again, if they take pride in their food, and feel as though they've accomplished something amazing by growing and gathering it, it can make such a huge difference in their willingness to eat it.
5. Teach Them How Lucky They Are to Have Food. This may seem a bit extreme to some, but I love teaching my kids about what life is like for children in other countries. I even show them videos and images of starving children around the world. It can help them appreciate what they have and view it as a blessing. Another thing my kids like to do is buy an extra bag of apples at the store when we go grocery shopping. Then they find a homeless person to give it to. It brings them so much joy and teaches them that they can help and serve those less fortunate. I think most parents, at some point, encounter a child that is super picky and JUST WON'T EAT! This "starving people" lesson helped me so much when struggling with MY picky eater. It might just work for you too.
6. Discuss the Food Pyramid. During our meals we talk about what we are eating and which food groups are on our plates. In the past we have kept food journals so they can look back on what they've eaten over a longer period of time and analyze it. They also enjoy making food collages. When teaching about the food pyramid, serving sizes, and what our bodies need each day, there are some great tools to help you out. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/ is one of my favorite resources. Children can go onto the website and "fill up" their pretend plates with foods from each food group. It helps them learn which foods belong in each of the food groups. It's very interactive and visual. I highly recommend it. Giving kids the knowledge and tools to make their own healthy diet choices empowers them for the rest of their lives.
7. Be An Example of Health. Our children will likely follow in our footsteps when it comes to nutrition. Try to eat what they eat. If you're making them cover all the food groups, then you need to do it too. If you're relaxing with a bowl of ice cream after sending them to bed, they'll probably grow up to do the same thing. I'm laughing right now as I type this because I am so guilty. It doesn't mean it's not good advice though. We want our kids to be better than we are, right? I think this is a major part of it.
In conclusion.....I'm not an expert, but my kids enjoy healthy, whole foods with minimal amounts of whining or complaining. And I like to think I had a hand in that (pausing to laugh again). I hope you can use some of these pointers to motivate your little ones to put good things in their bellies and be happy about it. It's never too late to make a change. Parent on, my friends!