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.

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41 Responses

  1. Hmm. I read your post hoping I’d find out the reason why I have two (out of four) kids who are such picky eaters! But I’ve pretty much done all the things you mention (although I’d never heard of Rosemon’s book all those years ago. I did read his column when it was in the paper!) I’m not a spoiling mommy, we didn’t have $$ for junk, I refused to cook separate kid food, we always sit down and eat together, I saved plates for later eating, I started them on people food early, I made them try a bite of everything. Sigh. And, raising all four kids exactly the same, #1 and #4 turned out to be insanely picky, and #2 and #3 are great eaters. (We tease #1 that he only eats brown/beige/white things: meat, bread, potatoes, etc. #4 can’t stand meat of any kind.)

    So, I think eating habits also must have something to do with the temperament of the individual kid. I mean, we all have individual tastes in everything, so I don’t think our kids will all come out identical in their eating habits, if we follow a particular regimen. IF I COULD GO BACK 19 YEARS AND START OVER, I’d have less sugar in our diet, although I don’t know how much that would help. For some kids, the craving for sugar is triggered with even just a little candy or dessert that they’re bound to encounter along the way. And it never relents on its call on their palates.

    Any advice? Perhaps it’s not too late to turn the tastebuds of my 10 year old?

    1. For all my long-windedness, I think it really just comes down to having good healthy choices around the house, and then not making a battle out of it. Sure, some kids are going to like fewer foods than others, but as long as there is something in the house that they like and will eat, then they’ll be fine.

      I’ve seen my kids’ pickiness ebb and flow, and at this point, I wouldn’t call any of them picky, but at times thru the years it felt as if they were.

      This post isn’t for people who feel they are doing fine. It’s for those who say to me, “My kids would NEVER eat the stuff you talk about.” And my point is, just offer it to them, and don’t make a big deal out of it, and don’t cater, and it will work itself out.

  2. “Potty training aside, food could well be the most stressful and difficult parenting issue we face during the first 10 years of life.”

    Eh, I disagree. It’s such a nonissue here. I don’t talk about it a lot. We have tons of fruits and veggies here. I cook dinner every night using fresh ingredients (although I still need to find a butcher!). She’s allowed a brownie, a cookie or a treat every day………there’s never any begging for treats outside the home because it’s just no big deal.

    I grew up with a mom who was chilled on food. We had the occasional Fruit Loops for breakfast, ice cream, etc. and she mostly tried to cook dinner every night. She just never really talked about it. I feel quite certain had it been a big deal that I would have rebelled as soon as I was on my own. For the first two weeks of college I was thrilled that the cafeteria had a humongous bin of all the cereals I LOVED and I ate that until I just didn’t want it anymore.

    My brother and I are all grown up. Neither one of us is obese, we are well-educated, independent citizens with no major health problems (me = thyroid and a postpartum heart problem that had nothing to do with my diet). So I say all that to say is that we just don’t talk it about it too much. We talk about portion control and not gorging and eating out fifty million times a week.

    1. That’s awesome that it was a non-issue for you. It’s always been a non-issue for us too, but I’ve seen some friends majorly engage in food battles, trying to convince their kids to eat, and it all seems so unnecessary. And sometimes, they were trying to convince their kids to finish their hot dogs. Even before I went more into whole foods, I could not understand making a battle over a hot dog, lol.

  3. Great post.

    My daughter, 4.5 years, is currently in an “I will only eat plain foods” phase. It’s frustrating as a parent, yet I understand the developmental reason behind it: kids her age are figuring out how to exert control and how to differentiate. They often reject highly flavored food at this age.

    So we rely on fresh fruits and vegetables a lot here too. We serve raw milk to her at breakfast and dinner to ensure her belly is full enough to keep her from being cranky between meals.

    We also engage her in meal planning. When she chooses the meal to be cooked, she’s more invested in eating it.

    1. The raw milk is great for her — so nutritious. People have been known to live on raw milk alone for years (but not pasteurized, unfortunately.) Clean, raw, whole milk from grass fed cows is a great substitute for a picky diet.

  4. First of all, I would like to come over for dinner. 😉 Secondly, great post. We’re kind of middle-of-the-road as far as my toddler’s pickiness. She tries everything, but will spit out nearly every vegetable that passes through her lips (side note: my dog has been eating a LOT of veggies lately!). Because of our work schedules, we aren’t able to all sit down for dinner as a family, but we try to on weekends – so right now, there sort of is a “kids food” and “adult food” mentality at our house. We’re a work in progress… your tips are very helpful. Thanks!

  5. My guys have gone through phases of not wanting to eat certain things, but really all in all they are pretty good eaters. I feel lucky that they love their fruits & veggies! I have been guilty of giving in a little when they were on a food jag, but soon discovered those don’t last long, and now I try not to stress about it.
    You have some great tips!
    One rule we have is even if you think you won’t like something you must have one “No thank you” bite of that item…try it and if you don’t like it you cannot say Ewwww, yuck, or gross, you have to say “No thank you I don’t care for that”. (just trying to add a little manners in there, too 😉 )

  6. Really really REALLY appreciate this post Jo-Lynne. Every bit of it, including and maybe especially the last bit about mommy guilt and mommy wars…which you know I’ve been feeling lately.

    I do wish we could get together again soon. I’m wondering if perhaps we might plan some kind of blogger meetup for the week I’m back home this summer (July).

  7. I totally agree with everything you said. That being said, My kids are extremely picky eaters (ages 2, 4, and 6). They refuse to eat any new foods presented to them. They once went a whole month without eating dinner – and would not even eat the fruit that was offered. One of them (who is already 25 percentile to begin with) lost weight due to my insistence on not being a short-order cook. Ultimately, I decided that their growth was more important than what was convenient for me.

  8. I totally agreed with this post. It is funny to me the timing because I just had someone comment on what a good eater my daughter (13 months) is this weekend. There is a little family owned diner that we go to on Saturdays for lunch that just serves plain, good “farmer” fare. I will usually order whatever their vegetable for the day is and either mac and cheese or mashed potatoes and give her bites of my meat. This last weekend she ate all her green beans and most of mine and left most of her mac and cheese! The waitress/owner commented on how good she eats saying that most of the kids who come in are corn dog and fries or chicken nuggets and fries and that they don’t eat any veggies. She complimented my DH and I saying that we were doing such a good job. It felt really good to have someone notice!

    1. Just be prepared that a second child might come along and be the exact opposite! 😉 Kids have a way of shaking things up right about the time you think you think you’ve got it figured out. (Unfortunately I learned that lesson the hard way, lol.)

        1. Oh wow! Congratulations! 🙂

          I don’t remember food ever being too much of an issue, but I thought I had tantrums taken care of until #3 came along. Whooowheeee, was I in for it. 🙂

          They do all seem to come with their own set of challenges. Keeps life interesting, I guess.

  9. Apparently, we are food twins, Jo-Lynne.

    I do most of what you do — and like you, I’ve found my kids to be reasonably adaptive. My kids are younger than yours, and thus still prone to food stages. My six-year-old son is at a “I don’t like meat” stage at the moment. OK. Whatever. He still needs to try a bite of whatever we’re having at dinner. And I just try to make sure he gets protein from other sources for the moment.

    The only additional rule we have is: no treat unless you eat all your dinner. So the treat-option is completely in their hands. It takes away some of the whining. “But I want a brownie!” Then eat your food. It’s up to you.

  10. This is me raising my hand discreetly to say that we’re parents that have food show up for breakfast. Generally it only happens after a repeat offense ~ there are times when we know the kids might be having an off day, but when it comes down to blatant defiance there’s a whole other issue on hand. 🙂

    Food only has to show up for breakfast a few times around here and the kids generally get the idea and are willing to cooperate. 🙂 I wrote a post about it too awhile ago ~ https://www.noordinarymomentsblog.com/2009/10/making-kids-eat-their-food.html

    We don’t force them to eat, but they are asked to try everything and take a few bites of everything. We don’t serve huge portions, so it really isn’t a big deal generally. All said, it isn’t generally the food that is the issue at the table for us ~ but the attitude that is where the battle lines are drawn. 🙂

    1. Interesting! I’m glad you spoke up. I’d agree, if it’s a defiance issue, that’s a whole nother issue. I haven’t ever been in a situation where I felt it was warranted, but I expect, like most matters of parenting, it largely depends on the child and the situation.

  11. My issue with food is I have no problem telling my almost 3 year old that he needs to eat what we eat…BUT he still doesn’t sleep through the night all the time & when he hasn’t slept through the night for days straight, refusing a nap & is all around cranky…you better believe I’m a short order cook for him so that I know his tummy is full & he’ll sleep through the night. It’s the only thing that saves my sanity. Food is a struggle & sleep is a struggle (about to be more so since I’m due in 3 weeks with baby #2) but I know it wont always be & at least 99% of what is in my house is organic & good for you food. 🙂

  12. Nice post. Kids can be trained from a very early age to be picky. But the same is also true! So glad that you lead by example and do not allow the kids to eat “nutritionally void” food. Keep cooking those healthy meals for your family…they will be grateful for a lifetime!

  13. Great post. I have personally experienced the variances in children like the first commenter. My first is a fantastic eater and my second, well, he’d live on junk given the chance. He’s not given that chance, but it has taught me that you can expose two kids to the same things and get two different outcomes. It also knocked me off my prideful high horse, since I thought I had it all figured out (when it comes to feeding kids) since my first eats so well. Funny how we get humbled….

    I also think you have to honor their tastes a bit. My daughter doesn’t like spice/heat. And I don’t see any reason to teach her/force her to eat foods that are spicy. What would I accomplish in that? There are certain foods that all of us don’t like (for me it is olives and cooked carrots) and I think we have to honor that in our kids. Not meaning we give them free reign to not like any vegetables or fruit or only like chicken nuggets, but that they know we won’t force them to eat things they honestly can’t stomach.

    My final thing to add is that I do not believe in forcing a child to clean their plate. Young kids are so good at regulating their intake and I don’t want to teach them to eat when full just to empty a plate.

    1. Michelle, absolutely, about cleaning their plate. My mom never made us clean our plates. My brother had a weight problem, and she felt like it wasn’t fair to force him to eat more than he wanted to.

      I like what you say about honoring their tastes. That’s why I don’t force them to finish things they don’t like. I remember being forced to eat things I hated – like brussels sprouts and liver are the ones that stand out in my mind. I’m sure I was only forced to eat a couple bites, and I’m sure it wasn’t very often, but I remember it well. Funny how things like that stick with you.

  14. I do pretty much the same things as you, but just not as naturally. 🙂 I’m lucky that I have two really good eaters (and no third baby will be coming our way). I do the same thing about tasting the food before just dismissing it out of hand. My one issue I have is that my daughter gets hungry at night and wants to snack. She doesn’t snack on bad foods, usually fruit or yogurt or both, but it is every single night. Sometimes I wonder if it is habit or if she really is hungry. But the reverse is that she doesn’t eat a lot in the mornings or for lunch. I think she may just be a night time eater.

  15. I totally agree with your post. Unfortunately, I’ve got picky eaters. Both of my kids were adventurous eaters until they were about 3, at which time they decided to take control and say “no!” The problem in our house used to be that my husband, who grew up in near poverty, cannot bear the thought of them wasting food. He would cajole, nag, eliminate dessert, bribe with dessert, threaten to send them straight to bed. It is about the only issue we have ever utterly, totally disagreed on, because I believe that you cook the food, serve the food, and the kids decide whether or not to eat the food. I do, however, explain nicely that if they are not hungry enough for dinner, then they are not hungry enough for dessert. I believe that dinner is about more than just food. Anyway, my husband finally agreed to stop nagging. I agreed to put smaller portions on their plates so as not to appear to be wasting food. I also always make sure that at least one item on their plates is something they know and like. It’s gotten much better. Our daughter is 7, and she now must take at least a taste of everything on her plate: a “thank you bite.” She has rediscovered lots of her old favorites. Our son is 3, and eventually he will have to do the same.

  16. I have a HUGE picky eater who is 3 1/2. He eats no meat (unless you count Tyson chicken nuggets which I know aren’t great for him). He eats everything plain; plain ABC noodles, plain baked potato, plain oatmeal, etc. We have been sucessful getting him to try some grilled chicken and meatball, but it takes some convincing. He does love milk, but we haven’t switched to Raw milk yet. I live in PA and did find a farm in Telford that sells it, but have no idea what questions to ask them to make sure their milk is safe to drink.

  17. After seeing our friends make separate meals for their 3 year old, I thought, That’s crazy!” We swore we wouldn’t do that, and we didn’t. Seriously, best advice ever. You know what stinks, though? Eating out with toddlers. The kid’s menus at pretty much every restaurant are the same: chicken nuggets, mac & cheese, PB&J, hot dog, hamburger. All come with fries. Easy to eat, but not very healthy and not much variety. How about a plain chicken breast and some veggies? It can still be small, they don’t eat much, people! [That is for any restaurant chains reading this.]

  18. I just want to thank you for all the hard work you put into the Raising Responsible Kids posts. They are extremely informative. I have a 17 month old and we haven’t yet crossed some of the issues you have, but at least I feel prepared. Also, this made me laugh: “I decided early on that I refused to be one of those parents. I know we all say that about a lot of things, and I have broken my fair share of promises that I made to myself before I had kids, but this is one that I actually kept.” It reminds me of a book I read called “I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids.”

  19. I have the same rules for the most part. I am not a maid, so get what you get. Boo learned in Kindergarten “You get what you get and you don’t have a fit”. I make one meal, that’s it. I have never allowed picky eaters in my house, ask my friends. My house my rules, you eat what you get or you don’t eat at all. I have no patience for the people that let their kids eat what they want when everyone else eats something else.

    We also tell the kids they have to take 3 bites of everything new, and if after that they don’t like it fine, but they have to try it all. I don’t make many things that I know they won’t like (okay once in a while just to be funny…) so I know they will eat what I make. Sometimes it just takes time to show them that new stuff is good too.

  20. I agree with your post, but I wish it was fool-proof. I have done very similar things with my kids. My first son has always been extremely easy to feed, eating practically everything put before him. My second son, however, was picky from the get-go. Despite breastfeeding, exposure to a various foods, different textures, etc., his weight became an issue at 9 months because he refused to eat anything but pears and breast milk. The pedi said, “well then feed him lots of pears”. Like you, I always figured a child will eat if he’s hungry, and he’ll certainly never starve himself. He proved me wrong. By the time he was a year, his weight was so low he was off the growth charts (he was 9 lbs at birth, 18 lbs at a year).

    Since then he’s learned to eat, but it has been uphill all the way. Texture is a huge issue. He started refusing to drink milk in any form around 18 months. He’s been tested for every allergy and food/digestive-related disease under the sun to no avail. In our house, if you don’t eat your dinner you can have plain bread. At least then they don’t wake up at 3 am begging for food. (And tell me that you wouldn’t give your underweight child food at 3 am when you know he didn’t have any dinner.)

    Then came my 3rd, who has never had a weight problem but is very picky none-the-less. I deal with all my children very differently when it comes to food, because they each deal with food differently.

    So I had to comment and say that, under normal circumstances, I think your advice is stellar. I follow it for the most part. But even if you do all that, there are no guarantees. I have had to make adjustments for my 2nd child, who is a brand of picky that, pre-parenthood, I thought was only created by ill-informed parents who catered to their child’s whim. You are certainly blessed if you have children who are not “terribly picky eaters.”

  21. This was great. I think there are lots of parents who need to read this.

    I told my one friend that if my daughter doesn’t eat what is put in front of her, she doesn’t eat and she said “oh my husband would never starve let my child”. If she’s starving, she’ll eat.

    And #7 is good to know because my daughter eats PB&J every day. But so does my hubby!

  22. I have two kids. We did the exact same thing with each of them. One eats absolutely anything I give her, though she may not love everything. The other one doesn’t like 80 percent of what I give him. He goes hungry a lot because I won’t cater to his palate. We do almost everything you mentioned in the article with the exception of letting him eat a piece of fruit if he didn’t like what was served. He either eats what I serve or he goes hungry. He chooses to go hungry…a lot.

    I think our attitude about food and how we present it to our children does make a big impact, but it’s not the only factor. Some kids (and adults) have different temperaments and taste buds in which they simply don’t like a lot of things.

  23. This is great! My little ones are 2 and 3 and we have been doing basically what you suggest. I will incorporate the veggies as snack before dinner–they are always hungry 15 BEFORE dinner!
    Also, my little ones like their frozen peas frozen!

  24. I’ve got a 3yo carb lover. She’ll eat brown rice, cooked whole-grain cereals, rice cakes, just fine! But amongst fruit and veggies, the only things she eats consistently are carrots and watermelon. Occasionally apples, grapes, cucumber, and broccoli – though sometimes she won’t touch those, either. It’s driving me crazy – I like variety, and I love berries, oranges, bananas, and other fruits, not to mention all the veggies!

    Here’s my concern – I’ve pretty much not made a fuss over food, but in the last year, she’s only gained 1.5 lbs. She went from being above 97th percentile to somewhere between 25-50th. Because of this, I DO cater to her desires somewhat. And we “reward” her for eating things – fruit sorbet after 10 bites of something, etc. She eats fruit in smoothie form, so we do that a lot.

    Reading some of the comments here – I feel like a failure of sorts. I’m the parent being judged when we’re out in public! I watch other kids compliantly eating, and I wonder what their parents did differently. I appreciated Kim’s comment – with only one kid, I often second guess myself as to whether the issue is ME!

    1. It’s hard to know. I realize that my kids tend to be compliant. It’s just their nature. The last one eats better than the other two, and it seems to me that it may be because her taste buds weren’t influenced so much by processed foods, but I don’t really know that.

      I’m surprised she’d lose weight if she likes carbs so much. If she was always in the lower weight range, I wouldn’t think there would be cause for concern. But to lose that much in the percentile is definitely something to ask the doctor about. Is the doctor concerned?

      One thing I’m sure of is that YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. This post was just my experience and suggestions based on parenting books I’ve read and what works for me. But every child is different and some are definitely pickier than others. Hang in there! 🙂

  25. I realize this is an older post but I still love it. I have taken to only buying my kids fresh fruit & popcorn for snacks. They didn’t like it at first but either two things now happen, if they are really hungry they eat those options, or if they wait they eat a better amount at dinner. I will probably eventually start adding other healthy snacks back in but for now it cut out on a LOT of the processed snacks they had been eating.

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