How to Get Your Kids to Eat Healthier Foods

This is a guest post from Katie who blogs at Three Blondes and a Redhead.
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Katie is a Christian wife and a stay at home mom to a 4 year old son, a 2 year old daughter and she is due with Baby #3 in October. She blogs about managing her family, frugal living, cooking, organizing and all things homemaking at Three Blondes and a Redhead.
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I often hear parents talk about how picky their kids are.  While I don’t doubt there are plenty of picky eaters out there, I am confident that many of them could and WOULD be open to a larger variety of foods if their parents tried some of the following tips.  Now, if you have a picky eater, don’t tune me out or stop reading just yet.  You’re right, I don’t know your situation and I certainly don’t live with your children every day.  But if you make the decision to pick this battle in your home, I have a feeling that mealtimes won’t be quite as stressful for the majority of you reading this post.  Try just one or two of the following suggestions and see if things lighten up around your dinner table over the next few months.

* What if they won’t try it? I’m sure you’ve all heard it said that it takes some kids 15-20 exposures to a new food before they accept it.  (Personally, that sounds exhausting to me.)  But a while back, I saw a commercial for Oprah where she was interviewing Jon and Kate Gosselin, the parents of twin girls and sextuplet (then) 3 year olds.  In the commercial, Oprah asked Kate, “So, I hear you have the secret to getting your kids to eat organically?”  I set my DVR to record the show because I was dying to know the answer.  Do you know what her response was?  Basically, she said, “I don’t give them a choice.  It’s all I buy and it’s all I serve them.”  It seemed so…simple.  Too simple.  Yet, if I had 8 kids, would I be a short order cook in the kitchen?  Um, NO!  She makes one meal for her entire family and if they don’t like it, they don’t eat.  Amazingly enough, when I tried this in my own home, IT WORKED.  Not at first, of course, but my kids didn’t let themselves starve.  If they are hungry, it’s amazing what they’ll try.  They’re allowed not to like things, to have their preferences and all that, but I don’t cook to cater to their needs.  My 2 year old refused to eat ground beef/ground turkey for months, but in the last few weeks, she’s suddenly eating hamburgers, sloppy joes, chili and meatballs without a fuss.  I think the key was to continue exposing her to a variety of foods.

* What if they won’t touch (fill in the blank here)? When I began allowing my kids to cook with me, they naturally became more curious about the meals we were preparing.  As I chop red peppers, my daughter would sneak a taste.  When it was time to sit down to dinner, I could remind my son that he helped stir the sauce on the chicken.  Suddenly, the “mystery meals” I was making weren’t quite as scary.  It takes a lot more time and even more patience, but getting your kids into the kitchen to cook with you not only gets them to eat better, it teaches them valuable life-long skills.

* What if they only eat (fill in the blank here)? I have a friend whose daughter will only eat graham crackers and french fries.  If given the choice, I would LOVE to eat a diet of graham crackers and french fries, wouldn’t you?  After talking to her, it turns out that she feels so guilty about her daughter refusing “real food,” that when the little girl complains of being hungry, she gives in and hands her graham crackers and/or french fries.  In my mind, she’s contributing to the problem.  If your child only wants chicken nuggets, hot dogs, PB&J or grilled cheese for dinner, try not making those things for a while.  Like I said, they won’t starve themselves.  And unless the child is severely underweight and your doctor has encouraged you to feed them whatever they’ll eat, give this a try.  Pretty soon they’ll be hungry enough to eat what you give them.

* If I serve meals my kids don’t like, they’ll just skip meals and only eat during snack time.  If this is the case, try giving up snacks.  I cut out afternoon snacks in our house when I realized my kids weren’t eating their dinner.  If they seem truly starving or I know they didn’t eat much lunch, I’ll reheat leftovers and feed them their dinner early, even if it’s 3:30pm.  But as a rule, they’ve gotten out of the habit of afternoon snacks.

* I can’t force my kids to eat; what if they refuse to eat vegetables? I will not force my kids to eat.  Personally, I think there are enough eating disorders in the world, so that’s not my thing.  But my rule is this: if they don’t eat dinner, they don’t get dessert and the kitchen is closed for the night.  It’s their choice.  I’ve given up on the “you can get up from the table after you take three more bites” pressure and have allowed them to listen to their bodies to determine when they’re full.  When I noticed they would eat the starchy part of the meal but not the vegetable, I got creative.  I bought Jessica Seinfeld’s book, “Deceptively Delicious” and began sneaking pureed vegetables into everything possible.  Now I know they’re getting good nutrition, even if they don’t eat the hunks of broccoli on the side of their plates.  (By the way, I recommend continuing to offer them the foods they refuse and encouraging them to taste at least one bite.)  By using this cookbook, I’ve learned to sneak veggies into almost every dinner I serve and I don’t feel stressed about urging them to eat, eat, eat.  I spend about an hour every couple of weeks pureeing vegetables to have on hand in the freezer, so it’s no trouble to add them into a meal.  As a rule, I use pureed veggies that are the same color as the dish I’m making.  I add cauliflower or squash into pasta, red pepper, carrots or anything green (broccoli, spinach, zucchini, kale) into spaghetti sauces, stews or chili, orange foods like sweet potatoes and squash can be mixed with shredded cheese and used in quesadillas and grilled cheese, the ideas are endless and the “Deceptively Delicious” cookbook is a great resource.

If you need some ideas to get started, check out the following recipes:
Guilt-Free Bran Flax Muffins
Pink Pancakes
{Healthier} Homemade Mac ‘n’ Cheese
– Bowties with Broccoli and Sausage
– Sloppy Joes
– Spaghetti Carbonara
– Meatball Calzone
– Black Bean Brownies (don’t knock ’em till you try ’em!)

This may sound harsh, but my kids eat what we eat or they don’t eat.  Now, it’s not like I’m serving liver and onions all the time…I incorporate plenty of everyone’s favorites into our meal plan, but I don’t cater to everyone’s personal likes and dislikes.  My son always picks out the tomatoes and red peppers, my daughter consistently eats around the peas, and I’ve learned to sprinkle sun-dried tomatoes and capers only on my plate, since I’m the only one who likes them.  If everyone turns their nose up at a recipe, I won’t make it again, but if one person whines, I just won’t make it quite as often.

All kids will go through picky phases, but don’t back down!  Be consistent for the sake of their health.  If you don’t take responsibility for their eating habits, no one will.  And believe it or not, the habits they develop today WILL carry with them throughout their life.  Best of luck!!!

Comments

  1. And this is why I LOVE Katie. She says it like it is and hits the nail on the head. This is something I address with parents all the time. Amazing….that’s why we are the parents. We determine it. 🙂
    I’ll never forget how my mom helped me early on with this. She came to help when I had my 2nd baby, and my 18 month old wouldn’t eat salad (or at least I thought that he wouldn’t). Ever lunch and dinner, she would give him a little bit of her salad, and by the time she left, he was loving it. Now as a teen, he’ll order a salad bar. 🙂 And the whole family eats huge salads almost every night…they didn’t have a choice when they were little and now they LOVE it. Great post, Katie.
    I do let each child have one odd food that they just “can’t stand” and that is the only thing they are ever exempt from. It has to be a rare thing that I don’t serve often – salmon, brussel sprouts etc.

  2. We already pretty much do this. We do save their plates sometimes and if they complain of hunger, they have a choice to eat what they were served earlier or not eat. No one wants to eat their oatmeal for supper! Great post!! Thanks for the book idea too!

  3. I totally agree with her. Our 2 yr old knows that if she doesn’t eat what she’s served at mealtime, she doesn’t get another option, she waits until the next mealtime. She’s pretty open to most foods and determined to like Tabasco sauce! She asked for it every time she sees me using it even though she knows it will be hot. Also, no dessert until dinner is eaten. If she’s too full to finish dinner, she’s too full to eat dessert. I don’t see how parents let their children dictate the menu….

  4. Jordan says:

    Thanks for posting this as a first time parent of a 1 year old I will use many of these tips!

  5. Brilliant! It really is true that your kids won’t starve. If it’s not in the house, they (and mom and dad too) won’t be tempted to eat unhealthy alternatives.

  6. Not having kids yet, I wonder why kids don’t like to try “healthy” foods. I like what Katie shared — they won’t starve themselves… and they eat what you have on hand!

    I agree with many of Katie’s recipes — the sausage with bowties I snuck beans into as the sauce (my hubby doesn’t care too much for beans), and he loved it! Can’t wait to try the brownies 🙂

  7. I couldn’t agree more!
    My niece is a perfect example. She loves to eat healthy food because that is the only option she had. People have always been amazed at her palette, she will eat tons of things most people say their kids won’t touch.

  8. I’ll speak out as mom of a picky eater.

    What I find a little touchy about this article is its strident assurance that parents of picky eaters should just *try* these tips, and everything will fall into place.

    I am strict, I am frugal, and I have read every cookbook on the subject, made my own unsweetened baby foods and nursed for over a year. Our picky eater remains that way despite all intervention.

    These ARE the right steps, but don’t gnash your teeth if they still don’t work for you. Food can be a complex issue for many families and not everyone resolves (or perpetuate) this problem by slipping them chicken nuggets on the side.

  9. Yes, they are all good tips, but as a grown-up vegetarian, I have to chime in that I disliked meat as a child. I felt so sorry for the animals that were killed and thought the idea was gross to eat an animal. Yet my parents made me eat what was for dinner. I hated dinnertime more than anything. When I was 13 years old, I rebelled and stopped eating meat. I haven’t touched the stuff since then and I am 41 now. As a result of that, I vowed never to force my children to eat things. Yes, they have to taste it, but that’s it. They always have the option of eating peanut buetter and jelly or a bagel and cream cheese if they don’t like what we are eating. They’ll have time enough to expand their palettes when they get older. Having said that, my children are not nearly as picky as I was.

  10. Oh, I love this post! People were always amazed that our kids shovelled in the salads when they were just wee toddlers, but I do believe that if you offer healthy foods from the get-go, they won’t know any other way (even when they do get junk every now and then). We’ve always had a “you’ll eat what I serve” approach and it’s worked for the most part. BUT, I do think that everyone also has a handful of things that make them simply want to gag. We all have our own tastes, right? Because of this, but each of our kids has a list of three exemptions – things I will never make them eat. It stays on our fridge so there is never any confusion, and it works beautifully! (They have updated their lists a few times over the last couple years — but they can’t want to add asparagus on a night we’re serving asparagus… though they’ve tried). :o)

  11. Denise says:

    This is a FANTASTIC post! (Love your blog Katie!) My son Parker is a P.I.C.K.Y. eater. I make everyone the same meal (including my 11 mo. daughter) and everyone will eat it but him. It’s true that when he is hungry enough, he’ll eat what is put out in front of him, or I’ll wrap it and reheat it for him the next day. I’ll have to peek at the “Deceptively Delicious” cookbook, it sounds neat! 🙂

  12. Great guest post! I really must check out Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook; this is the second recommendation I’ve received for it!

  13. Excellent post!! I could not have said it better. My son will usually eat a little of everything even the things he doesn’t like so much just because they are a part of the meal. He will ask what part of the meal is the protein or vegetable and make sure he eats some of those things no matter what. He knows that is how to be healthy.

  14. Thank you for this post!!! We are currently working with a “picky eater” and just STAYING HOME and NOT EATING OUT is helping TREMENDOUSLY!!! And yes, multiple exposures and having him help out with dinner is helping too… Thanks for the encouragement!

  15. Funny, I just posted about that book this week, too! I made lasagna w/sweet potato and spinach puree tonight, and they ate it up! Sweet potato chocolate chip pancakes are on their way for breakfast tomorrow — yum!

  16. Thanks so much for the encouraging comments, everyone!

    To Meredith – I have a friend with amazing intentions and a VERY stubborn child, who happens to also be a picky eater. I kept her in mind throughout this post, having “heard it all” from her over the last 4 years of her son’s life. (hence the disclaimer at the beginning – I don’t live with your kids so I can’t say I’ve experienced your frustrations) I DO understand that there are some kids that have stronger wills than most adults, so these tips were suggestions for the parents who might not yet have tried setting firm limits and boundaries in certain areas.

  17. I only cook one meal and if my son doesn’t like it then he doesn’t eat, and similarly if he doesn’t finish he doesn’t get dessert. I am sympathetic to his dislikes but my cooking doesn’t completely revolve around him.

  18. loved the black bean brownies!!! it was a big hit at my house!! can’t wait to share this recipe!!

  19. Super post. I am a pediatric nurse in a physician’s office and I give this same advice numerous times during the week.I hear but “he’ll only eat fries and gummy bears” in my sleep.
    I have also always employed this advice at my table. And while I have a child who would prefer junk to veggies, he hasn’t starved yet using these same techniques. Nor have I ever seen a child become malnourished simply because his parents refused to cater to his food whims.

    Everyone has food likes/dislikes (my son wouldn’t eat ground beef in any form, still won’t touch mashed potatoes) but as parents are job is to give them healthy variety in all meals/snacks, setting an example they can choose to follow.

  20. ONe thing that helps us is that when my kids hit about age 6, I allow them to pick one food that they don’t have to eat. My oldest picked carrots and my dd picked bananas. My other 2 haven’t picked yet. It has really helped with the complaints. They know they have to eat everything else I serve.

    Now I do struggle with my youngest who does not like potatoes. From the time she could talk she would say “No me like tatoes” Ugh! I have served potatoes in every shape and form with all kinds of different flavors. She can spot a potato a mile away and no she won’t eat french fries either.

    I do make her take a few bites every time we have potatoes (which is often) in hopes of getting her used to the taste. but really, this has been going on for almost 4 years. Soon she will be old enough to decide that potatoes are the food she will not ever have to eat and they are a main staple in my house. I mean I can avoid bananas and carrots pretty easily, but not potatoes. Any ideas? For the most part my kids will eat a very good variety of things and eat plenty of foods that are not really kid friendly. but I am stuck on the potato issue.

  21. Suzanne says:

    This was a great post! I also realize that not everything works for everyone. My son has always been extremely picky. For a while I would make him a pb&j sandwich for dinner because he never wanted to try anything I made. After a short while I realized that I was being ridiculous. So, we started telling him he could eat what I served or nothing at all. At first he skipped dinner nearly every single night. But now, after many many months, he is finally starting to taste things and occasionally he even likes it. At first I felt really guilty about letting him go to bed hungry. But then I reminded myself that he’s the one choosing to not eat the food offered to him.

    I also recently cut out the afternoon (“after nap”) snack and that has really helped, too because he is really hungry at dinner time.

    I can’t wait to try those black bean brownies!

  22. I think you, Katie, should get a lot of kudos for braving to write on such a topic.

    Another good book is The Sneaky Chef. Since reading that, I have been able to modify and sneak more things into my children’s diets. And once they have gobbled down the sneaky ingredients a few times, I start revealing the ingredients to them.

  23. My children tend to eat what we eat but minus the spices or seasonings. This may be another tip. I may use a few more pots or pans to keep their things plain tasting but the food is all the same. There are varying degrees of interest in seasoning and spices and if they want ours they can.

  24. Brandy says:

    I personally have a real problem with the idea of hiding vegetables in other foods as a way to get your child to eat vegetables. I think that part of our jobs as parents is to teach our children how to eat healthy and if they don’t realize they are eating those things, how do they know that they need to?

    The rule in my house is that you have to have one bite of everything before you are allowed to leave the table. I don’t feel like I’m forcing my son into bad eating habits (one bite is not going to make him overeat) but he can’t claim he doesn’t like something without trying it. I always make sure that I tell him how proud I am of him for trying it even if he didn’t like it. It often takes a dozen tries before he starts to like certain things but he does come around eventually. The result of this is that at four years old he eats almost anything I put in front of him and he’s always willing to try new things.

  25. Great article! I’ve never been a short order cook. They eat what is on their plate or not at all. They must try 1 bite of everything, but I don’t make them eat more than that. If they don’t eat what is on their plate, they don’t get dessert. My son still sometimes refuses to finish but my daughter (13) will sometimes eat things just to get dessert. LOL! 😀 I remember years ago a recipe for brownies that had spinach in them. The kids never knew neither did dh and he hates spinach, too.

  26. This is a great article. I may have to cut out afternoon snacks. That may help with my boys eating their dinner. They are my picky eaters.

    I agree with “if you don’t like what I serve, and don’t eat it, you go hungry” bit, but at the same time I struggle with it because I think it’s unhealthy for my kids to consistently be skipping meals.

    I’m beginning to lean toward, “my way, no highway option.” It may sound harsh, but really, my kids need to be eating. It is important for their development and even their moods. My boys consistently eat nothing for dinner because they won’t eat what I make. The food I make is basic and there should be no reason to have noses turned up at it, other than trying to get me to give them something else. lol (Kids are sneaky like that). Of course I don’t give in. But then my kids have nothing.

    It’s not that I have pity on them being hungry, it’s just that they need their vitamins. (And I question whether taking a supplement is even worth it. Is it really packed with what they need or is it just a hoax? Seriously.)

    They love spaghetti, but we can’t eat that every night.

    Thank you for all the great tips!

  27. I have three kids. 9, 7 & 5. My oldest is picky. He cooks with me-won’t eat. He’s not allowed to eat a separate dinner from anyone else-he still won’t eat. Hide the veggies in his food-he can taste them.
    My youngest eats salads, veggies, fruits, beef, lamb, chicken, ham, bacon-asking which animal they come from and still eating them. Her favorite foods are mushrooms, broccoli & olives. She’ll try anything once. According to her curry is ok, but a burrito is better.
    My middle child is developmentally challenged and is sometimes picky and other times he refuses to eat anything except refried beans & rice and yogurt.
    My point is sometimes you can try all the tricks but there is at least one child out there who will still refuse-and lucky me he’s mine. Oh well, the battle continues.

  28. Brittany says:

    Our kids love to snack on YoCrunch yogurt. The candy topping kind of tricks them into think that they’re eating dessert, but they’re still getting all the health benefits of lowfat yogurt. Plus, with so many different flavors, it’s easy to mix things up!

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