Eating healthy should be a family affair, but sometimes the youngest members of the family need more coaxing to learn how to make healthy choices. Kids are often suspicious of new foods and may want to stick with something more familiar. Some kids would rather have chicken nuggets or a slice of cake for dinner, while others are fickle, gulping brussels sprouts with relish one night and eschewing them the next.
You may not be able to completely avert food-related tantrums, but you have plenty of time to mold your picky children into adventurous adults. Even if your little darlings don’t grow up to become foodies, you can still give them a good foundation on which to build a healthy relationship with food. Try these tips to encourage your kids to enjoy more nutritious foods.
1) Set a Good Example
Kids want to do what their parents do — and they’re deeply influenced by their environment and culture, including the culture of the family. Eating nutritious foods in front of your child models what it looks like to make good food choices, but it’s more than that. Your attitudes and behaviors around food will rub off on your children.
So be sure to expose them to a wide variety of foods and cuisines. Even if your kids don’t ultimately like sushi or Mexican, eating it together as a family will teach them to value new food experiences. Talk with your children about why you make the food choices you like — but in terms of nutrition, fueling a strong body, and experiencing new flavors and cultures. Don’t bring weight, appearance, body image, or shame into conversation. You want to teach your kids to enjoy a nutritious and varied diet without teaching them disordered eating habits.
2) Let Kids Choose for Themselves
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should let kids make all their own dietary choices. Instead, prepare a few healthy dishes at each meal and let kids choose which dishes, and how much of each, to add to their plate. Encourage your kids to take just a small amount of something they’re not sure about, with the option to add a bigger helping later. You shouldn’t force your kids to eat foods they don’t like, but you should still offer them a different variety of foods at each meal and encourage them to leave their comfort zones.
3) Focus on Overall Diet
The truth about healthy eating is that there’s little room for sugar, fat, salt, and all other manners of deliciousness in every diet. You want to teach your kids to eat unhealthy foods sparingly, not convince them that all unhealthy foods are bad. Placing too much emphasis on specific foods could cause your kids to develop body image issues or disordered eating habit.
Nor is withholding entire categories of food, like sugary treats. Withholding all unhealthy foods isn’t realistic, may be unfair to your children, and doesn’t teach them to eat these foods sparingly. Once kids do grow up and get access to “forbidden” foods — and they eventually will — their eating habits could spiral out of control. Let kids have high-calorie snacks sometimes, but teach them that unhealthy foods are for special occasions — and for daily snacking, offer healthy options like protein crisps or apples and peanut butter.
4) Pair New Foods with Foods They Already Like
Kids form their eating habits and attitudes about food during the first five years of life, based on what their parents and family teach them about food and eating in the home. That said, it’s normal for kids to be suspicious of new foods. To help them break that habit, introduce them to a wide variety of foods during the crucial first five years of life. Make new foods that they don’t want to try or don’t like much seem more appealing by pairing them with foods they already like. For example, mix some broccoli into their mac and cheese or offer celery with peanut butter and raisins.
5) Get Kids Involved in Shopping and Cooking
Most kids love to help Mom and Dad, and since you already have to take them to the grocery store with you anyway, get them involved in shopping for ingredients and preparing meals. Someday your kids will need to know how to meal plan, buy ingredients, and prepare meals for themselves and their families, so get them started learning these life skills early. Get the family together to discuss favorite recipes, plan meals for the week, and compose a grocery list. As you go through the store, talk to your kids about why you’re choosing certain products over others, how to compare similar items, and how to find the cheapest items. Teach kids how to pick out produce. As kids pick up these life skills, you can give them more complex tasks, ranging from selecting items unaided, all the way to picking up groceries unsupervised one day.
At home, teach kids how to interpret recipes and how to cook efficiently. Give them age-appropriate cooking chores, and start teaching them to make simple dishes as soon as they seem able. Kids can start cooking a lot younger than you think, and they’ll make a lot of friends in college when their dorm mates realize they can prepare real meals.
Unless you’re blessed with an adventurous eater, convincing your kids to eat food can take years off your life. But hang in there. It’s worth it to raise kids who value eating healthy and pass those values on to their own children.