I recently asked newsletter readers what issue they would most like me to address. Perhaps not surprisingly, this concern rose to the top: How to get kids interested in healthy food.
I know, it would great if there were a simple, one-step plan. If there were, all kids would be stellar eaters, because who doesn’t want their kids to eat and enjoy healthy foods? But the truth is, how kids eat reflects the family eating system. One part personality. One part parenting. One part food.
Make healthy food taste great.
I have always marveled at the advice that parents serve their kids steamed vegetables. Yuk. Double-yuk if you compare steamed vegetables to the foods kids prefer (like pizza).
It’s a myth that children prefer bland and boring food. Sure they like plain pasta. But most “child-friendly foods” are intensely flavored. High levels of sugar, salt and fat make eating “child-friendly” foods a flavor extravaganza, and one explanation for why kids reject healthy food is that they’re looking for a flavor “hit.”I suspect parents steam veggies because we compromise in so many other ways. Think flavor. Garlic. Cumin. Lemon.
And, don’t overuse “child-friendly” foods because these tastes and textures point your kids’ taste buds in the wrong direction.
Skip the healthy-food-is-good-for-you talk.Talking about food in terms of health benefits is what I call the Medicalization of the Meal. Who wants to eat medicine? Compare, “This is spinach. It is loaded with iron so you grow up big and strong.” with “Yum, those brownies look creamy and delicious.”
Stop sugar-coating it.
A few years ago I wrote a piece in response to a nutritionist who suggested you go “kid-friendly” to get the good stuff into your kids.
- Your kid doesn’t like fruit? Mix it up in a “milkshake.”
- Your kid won’t eat beans? Mash them up into a yummy dip and serve them with chips.
- Your kid shuns broccoli (and other good-for-you veggies)? Drizzle on the cheese sauce.
- Your kid won’t drink milk? Stir in some chocolate.
I wrote that this should be the starting point, not the end point. I got pushback from readers, some of whom said this was the only way to get their kids to eat any fruits or vegetables.
It is true, sometimes the less nutritious choices is right. This is a position I have advocated many times.Less nutritious food is great for introducing new foods. Think of it as a gateway. Yes, as in gateway drug. It’s the right habits.
But…I wish parents would read pieces like this as ideas for introducing new foods, but they don’t.
In my experience, when parents see a suggestion (or a food item) that works, they use it repeatedly, not just as a stepping stone to other foods.
The repetition is a trap.
So is sugaring up food to “sell” it. Chocolate milk isn’t a win if makes your kids avoid foods that aren’t so sweet.
When introducing new foods, think science experiment, not meal.
Ask kids to taste—but never asking them to eat—new foods. Read Why Some Kids Should Spit. I can’t stress this enough.The pressure to eat new foods makes some kids refuse to even try them. Many kids who do try the new foods, don’t really taste them in the rush to swallow the “offender.” The science experiment technique is about sensory exploration and education.
There are other things that will help…
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~