Teaching Kids to Eat Healthy Foods: Yes, There Is Hope

Take heart: your child will not have a peanut butter and jelly buffet at his wedding.
photo: Evan Amos


At some point when your child is around one-year-old and is downing broccoli and cauliflower puree followed by chicken and vegetables and a pear blueberry fruit combination for dessert, you are smug. You secretly tell yourself you are an amazing mother and you can't understand why other people are unable to get their children to eat their fruits and vegetables with such abandon.

Then your child turns two.

The balanced meals are a distant memory and you can't remember the last time a green food object passed your child's lips. In fact, it is so bad that he has a constipation problem and needs a laxative to remain regular.

Where did things go wrong?

First, let me ease your mind. Most children stop eating an array of foods just when you thought they were great eaters. Think of this as mommy training. Your child is testing you, and after you get through this, he'll test you again, about something else. So stop stressing. You can get through this, and there can be a happy ending.

I am not through it yet. In fact, I am in the middle of it. But I am starting to see good results. I'm even starting to feel good about how I've approached the problem. So, dear reader, I want to share some ideas with you. Take them directly or use them as inspiration to come up with your own solutions. And, good luck. (Yes, we all need it these days!)

Don't Buy Junk

This may seem obvious, but somehow we stubborn Americans often don't understand that if we don't want our children to do something, we shouldn't facilitate it. (I know you've seen that episode of Geraldo, Oprah, Dr. Phil, whoever, where the parent comes with her toddler and states, "she dresses like a whore." Hello, who bought her those clothes?!?!) If you don't want your child to eat twinkies, don't buy them, even if you like to secretly eat them yourself.

I personally don't want my house to be devoid of treats, so I let my kids select one at a time: pretzels, teddy grahams, bunny crackers, or the like. This way we have one yummy treat in the house that the kids look forward to indulging in. We intersperse our indulgences with healthier options throughout the weeks.

Practice Healthy Eating Habits Yourself

We all know that children learn by example. It's going to be pretty hard to get your child to eat carrot sticks while you are noshing on potato chips. If you want to serve carrot sticks for snack, you're going to have to have the same snack if you are hungry. Likewise, when you eat meals with your children, make sure everyone has a balanced plate. If you let daddy get away without vegetables, your child will take note and expect that concessions be made for him as well.

Expose Your Kids to Good Foods Often

Don't give up! As you clean up the plates and put yet the 30th untouched serving of green beans down the drain you may well be thinking that all of this effort is a waste of time, energy, and money. Believe me, I've been there, and I understand why some people give up and serve their children macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. It is easier, and when you're tired the last thing that you want is a dinner time battle on your hands.

Here's my tip: if you serve dinner to your children before your spouse returns from work, simply give them leftovers from the meal you had the night before. This way, all you need to do at dinner time is reheat a thoroughly healthy meal. If the kids don't eat it, it is no skin off your back. It took you no extra effort and you can remain calm and cool. "Okay, honey, I'm sorry you didn't like the salmon tonight," you can say. "Perhaps next time it will taste better to you." This will help you keep your own frustration in check. You can then clean up and carry on.

If you are lucky enough to eat dinner as a family, make sure you don't become a short order cook. Cook one meal and stick to it. No exceptions. I promise your children will not starve.

Limit Snacks

Typically, dinner is the time that kids have the most difficulty with their meals. If they are not eating, cut out the afternoon snack. Everything tastes better when you are hungry, and you will have much better success getting your child to try new things if he is, indeed, hungry. Be assured that you will get push-back at first. But stay firm. Tell your child that you've noticed he hasn't been eating his dinner and that it is important he has the proper nutrients. You are cutting out snacks to enable him to eat healthier meals. He won't understand exactly what you are saying, but it doesn't matter. He'll catch on eventually, and he'll be better for it.

Make the Snacks You Serve Healthy

Don't create a sugar addiction. Serve wholesome snacks. So your child doesn't eat vegetables. Mine don't either, but I've found some treats they like and I am comfortable with. Here is a sampling of our snack menu: hummus with pretzels, cashews, almonds, string cheese, dried mangoes, raisins, popcorn, grapes, apple slices, cheerios, frosted mini wheats, peanut butter puffins, and blueberries.

Be Stealthy if You Have to

Personally, I am not a fan of the cookbooks that teach you how to put zucchini in pancakes and sweet potatoes in chocolate cake. I understand the desperation that some parents feel when children refuse to eat vegetables, but how does this help them acquire a taste for wholesome food? Children need to see, smell, and taste the real thing.

That being said, sometimes it is useful to be sneaky. My kids love yogurt, which tends to be full of sugar. I mix their favorites with plain Greek yogurt to lessen the sugar high and increase their protein intake. I also switched peanut butter labels during our transition from traditional to natural peanut butter. Beware, though, kids are smart. This strategy may backfire if you are caught.

Teaching Good Eating Habits is a Process

Teaching good eating habits takes time. Remember that you are involved in a process, one that is achieved over years, not weeks. Keep on with it and you will be successful. I know that it can be frustrating. Remain neutral, calm, and in control. If you have a bad day, acknowledge it and move on. In the end, you will be rewarded for your hard work. I promise.

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