Top Ten Tips for Getting Kids to Eat Nutritious Foods

Potty training aside, food could well be the most stressful parenting issue we face during the first 10 years of life, at least it seems to be a common complaint I hear around me. I regularly receive comments on this blog from people saying that they can’t believe my kids eat the stuff I make, so I figured it would make a good topic for a post.

When my oldest was a baby, I read a myriad of parenting manuals because I am slightly obsessive believe in being prepared.  One of the books I read is John Rosemond’s Parent Power, which I’ve recently reread.  His common sense approach to dealing with kids and food impressed me back then, and it’s the model I have followed for the past 10 years.  I can’t make any promises, but it’s worked well for us, and getting our kids to eat has never become a battle.

Top Ten Tips for Getting Kids to Eat Nutritious Foods

1. Lead by example. I have been intentionally trying new nutrient-dense foods, especially veggies that are in season.  I’m very vocal about how much I’m enjoying them and how surprised I am when I like them.  We talk a lot about the benefits of eating nutritious foods.  The kids really pick up on this, and my 4-year-old, in particular, is excited to try new things if she sees me enjoying them.

(As an aside, my youngest is my best eater of the three.  Even the bigger kids roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, we know, R, you like everything.”  It could be a coincidence, but I think she’s the better eater because her taste buds never quite got acclimated to processed foods as the other kids’ did, and she’s been exposed to a wider variety of nutritious foods at a younger age.  I guess we’ll never know for sure, but it sure can’t hurt.)

2. Make it yummy. My husband is always raving about my food, to the point that my 10-year-old son makes fun of him now and says, “Dad, you say that EVERY night.”  To which my husband always replies, “You just don’t realize how good you have it.”  If you cook nutritious foods in a tasty way, it will be easier to convince your kids (and your husbands, lol) to eat them.

For example, I’ve always served my vegetables with salt and lots of butter.  I just did it because they tasted better, but now I know that our bodies actually need fat in order to absorb the nutrients in many vegetables. I also do my best to cook vegetables the way they taste best.  I roast asparagus and brussels sprouts, steam broccoli and fresh green beans, blanche and saute broccoli rabe and swiss chard, etc.  If you’re careful not to overcook them and to buy the freshest produce you can find, they will taste so much better than the soggy canned varieties we grew up on.

3. Try, try, and try again. Don’t assume that just because they don’t like something the first time you serve it that they never will.  Especially if you are making a switch to more whole foods, you may have to make something several times before they acquire a taste for it.  And also, you’ll work out the kinks and learn the best way to prepare the food to appeal to your family if you try it a few times.

4. Be patient. Again, change is hard, and it usually takes time.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, good things come to those who wait, and all that jazz.  Give it time.  Your persistence will pay off.

5. Get rid of the crap. If you really and truly want your children to develop a taste for wholesome, nutritious foods that will nourish their growing bodies, you may have to get rid of the competition.  What kid is going to eat oatmeal when Fruit L00ps are an option?  Okay, maybe some would, but mine wouldn’t!  Plus, it’s been proven that high fructose corn syrup and refined sugars trick your body into thinking you are still hungry and make you want more.  They are actually addictive.  If the only choices in your cabinet are good ones, you eliminate half the battle right there.  They WILL get used to it.  I promise.

6. Allow them to not eat. Really, I never understood the food battles I’ve watched some people engage in — hours at the table, coaxing, nagging, persuading, negotiating.  Put the food down in front of them, give them adequate time to consume it, and then let them get down and go play.  If they’re hungry later, there’s always fruit, and the next meal will be whenever it’s scheduled.

Let them listen to their bodies and learn to eat intuitively.  Perhaps they really aren’t hungry.  Or of course they may not like what is offered.  No problem.  There will be another meal in a few hours.  Nuff said.  Free yourself from the battle of the foods.  It’s so not worth it.

7. Don’t get hung up on variety. Yes, a variety of foods is good, but if they like a few nutritious things, make sure you keep your house stocked with them.  My kids take the same thing for lunch every single day – PBJ.  Occasionally I’ll buy lunch meat or tuna, but otherwise, it’s PBJ, an apple, a carrot, and then a filler such as a homemade granola bar or perhaps a baggie of Annie’s cheddar bunnies or a banana.  And water.  I eat granola for breakfast 5 days a week.  Even our dinners often feel like a rotation of the same five meals.  My point is, if you find something they like, and they’ll eat it, and it’s good for them, go with it.  Keep trying new things, but have the dependable items as backup.

8. Be creative. Okay, I know this seems to contradict #7, but if you feel like you’re in a rut, try some new things, or try old things different ways.  Surf the web and find some new ideas with ingredients you know they like.  Make it fun. If you have older kids, include them on the hunt for new recipes and let them help cook.  That should really be a point of its own, but I just can’t have 11 points in a top 10 list, now can I?

9. Give their favorite foods a healthy makeover. My kids love sweet & sour chicken for Chinese takeout, but I shudder to think about the quality of that meat or the oil it’s cooked in.  So one night I set out to make a healthier version, and it passed with flying colors the first time.  Now, mind you, that was beginner’s luck.  Often you have to kiss a few frogs before you find your prince, so if you don’t like the first recipe you try, try another.  Experiment a few times till you get it right.  But it makes the transition easier if you can make some imitation recipes of their favorite foods.

10. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and try not to compare yourself to others. We don’t all have the same time and resources to dedicate to feeding our families, so do the best you can, but don’t stress. 

Let’s not let food become another source of mommy guilt, and let’s certainly not let it become the next big issue in the mommy wars.

I’d love to hear your best tips.  How have you managed to get your kids eating healthier foods?  Let’s pool our ideas and help each other out.