11 tips, strategies and ideas for raising healthy eaters and building a good foundation for healthy eating habits in kids.
Building a foundation of healthy eating habits for kids is no joke.
I’m a health and nutrition editor, so all day long I read about the latest research, the best strategies, the experts’ opinions and so I just knew I had this down when I had kids of my own.
And then, hello, real world!
It’s a bit different in practice, with willful children who will do anything but inhale the delicious vegetables you have lovingly prepared.
Raising healthy eaters
It's a big job. And it can be frustrating, maddening, disheartening, concerning and so many other emotions in between.
But it’s not hopeless. Despite the worst meal-time experiences, it’s not hopeless.
Today I wanted to share what has worked for us. (By which I mean what sometimes works for us, on occasion, here and there, from time to time.)
I’ve included some wisdom I’ve gathered from my more than a decade as a health and nutrition editor, combined with my own experience as a mom, and some tips and advice from some registered dietitians friends.
Because sometimes perspective helps. Sometimes hearing what has worked for others, or hearing a new idea or strategy, is just what you need to start again, to try anew.
And a caveat: For those of you who have serious struggles, more than just the occasional meal-time battle, more than the picky eater that wants to make you pull your hair out, more than the “I love it/I hate it" back-and-forth… If you are seriously concerned about your child’s nutrition, growth or health, I urge you to speak to your pediatrician/health care provider and to seek out a registered dietitian. They are qualified nutrition professionals who can assist you and your family in determining if there is a problem and how to fix it.
And now, on to the lessons learned (that I’m still learning) and some advice from the pros about raising healthy eaters and instilling a good foundation for healthy food habits.
1. My best tip: Only offer healthy foods.
Does that sound crazy? Stupid? Too easy?
I have found that having only healthy, real foods available for my kids means that I don’t care what parts they do and don’t eat. I know they’re only getting fruits and veggies, whole grains, healthy proteins and fats, and good-for-them meals and snacks.
When I control the ingredients, when I control the quality, it means I control what’s going into their little growing bodies.
And when that’s all good stuff, well, it’s OK if they pick and choose. It’s OK if they turn their nose up at one thing and chow down on another instead. Cause it’s all good for them.
Granted, I started early. From the day that I introduced them to purees and solids, I made their own baby food. All of it.
And I’ve been making all of their food ever since.
Earlier on it was because M had a milk allergy so I had to be careful. Now it’s just habit and my stubborn desire to give them only the good stuff.
For me, laying a groundwork for healthy eating habits and offering a wide variety of foods to increase their exposure is easier when I give them a bit of autonomy — because no matter what they choose, everything available to them is a healthy choice.
And if your children are older, or you’re trying to undo some less than stellar habits you slipped into over the years, don’t worry. You can back track a bit.
Start cleaning up your fridge and pantry a little at a time. Start making their plates 60% completely healthy choices, 40% familiar ones, then increase the healthy options until that’s all that’s left in your household. Pay attention to their cues and make it a gradual transition.
Every positive step is a good one, so don’t rush it or worry about roadblocks. Go a little bit at a time and feel good about the progress.
2. My second best tip: Decide mealtime won’t be a battle.
One of the mantras I see over and over and over again from nutrition professionals is this:
Adults choose what foods and when, kids choose whether and how much to eat.
In other words, you control what you offer to them at mealtime and when foods are offered during the day (meals, snacks, etc.). Kids get to choose what on their plate they would like to eat and how much. If they want to eat it all, that’s great - you picked it and it’s what you wanted them to have. If they want to eat nothing, that’s fine too - the next meal will be your choosing as well.
The way this plays out can vary.
For me, I have a “thank you bite” rule. My kids are required to take a small bite of the various foods on their plate. If they don’t want any more, they are excused.
No arguing, no bribing, no begging, no tears.
Just a constant approach of "try it and if you don’t want any more, you can be done."
I do this so they at least have experienced the taste of the food. Some experts say that just being exposed to a food on their plate can be good, too, whether they try it or not.
You could also suggest that your child smell it, lick it, describe it - engage in some way other than eating. Completely up to you.
Follow the Division of Responsibility whereby parents provide the what, when and where of feeding but give their children the autonomy to decide whether they want to eat and how much they want to eat." -- Nina Mills of What’s for Eats
Two notes I want to make on this:
- Perspective can help with patience. Remember that raising healthy eaters is the goal, not cramming in two, three, four bites of broccoli.
- Also, keep in mind that mealtime should be relaxing and fun, a time for conversation, for exploration, for togetherness. You want them to appreciate and enjoy food, and how it brings people together, and not associate eating or food with stress.
Easier said than done, right? Which brings me to...
3. Focus on the positive.
I know tons of parents who have a “picky eater.” I do not.
That’s not to say my kids don’t have their (sometimes strong and very verbal) preferences.
I just don’t want to label them as picky eaters. They eat a ton of different foods! They amaze me at the foods they love and gobble up. Okra couscous? Beet hummus? Triple veggie quinoa cakes? They love the stuff.
They also amaze me at the foods they refuse, but that’s exactly the point.
Instead of focusing on all the things I wish they would eat more of, all the foods I wish they loved, all the dishes I would make more if only they would go beyond the required “thank you” bite, I focus on what they DO eat.
No matter the kid, I bet yours eats something willingly that another parent out there would kill for their kid to chow down on.
Again, it’s all about perspective.
4. Make sure to put their favorites on the menu.
An entire plate of new foods can be super intimidating for a child. Make sure you introduce new foods with something they already like. That way, they know they have something on their plate they are wiling to eat, which can make them more likely to try the new food.
I put my kids’ favorites on rotation. They don’t need to worry that every meal, every breakfast/lunch/dinner is going to be a surprise, they know their favorites are going to show up again and again.
And I certainly mix things up. I don’t usually serve plain ground turkey tacos, I add peppers, or zucchini or squash, or peas, or spinach or kale, something to boost the nutrition while appealing to their taste buds.
Similarly, you can incorporate favorite flavors — cheese, peanut butter, ketchup or salsa, etc — to go with a new dish or vegetable.
Try to always pair a new food with a favorite. For example, if you are trying a new veggie serve it alongside an entree you know they love." -- Brynn McDowell RD of The Domestic Dietitian
5. Get the kids involved.
Whether at the grocery store, farmers market, library or in the kitchen, get your kids involved in meal planning, meal prep, cooking and even just talking about our food.
Real food is fascinating, especially to little ones. Where it comes from, how it grows, the textures and colors and flavors - it’s all ripe (haha, had to go there) for discussion and conversation.
Another way to get kids involved is to offer choices.
Which vegetable do you want with your dinner tonight? What should we buy in the produce section to have for lunch/dinner later in the week? Do you want your vegetable with this sauce or another one?
Let your kids choose a new fruit or vegetable out at the store and then prepare it together." -- Brynn McDowell again
Giving children control (between choices designated by you) helps them feel like they have some autonomy, which makes them more likely to try something new.
I like to get the kids involved in the planning process, asking them what they want to include on the week's menu or giving them two choices so they feel empowered and not "forced" to eat something,” -- Jessica Fishman Levinson MS, RDN, CDN of Nutritioulicious
Gardening, if it’s an option for you, is another great way to introduce kids to healthy foods and get them interested in food.
My favorite recommendation is to garden with your kids. Have them pick a vegetable or herb that is their responsibility to plant and water. It really helps them understand where food comes from and get excited about eating their veggies!" -- Kelly Jones MS RD CSSD of Eat Real Live Well
6. Make food fun.
I have to admit, this is my weak spot.
I’m more of the mind, “Eat it or starve, whatever,” by the time we get to dinner.
OK, maybe not that severe, but I’m tired after a long day at work and making their food and keeping up with everything else.
But the research shows that some simple swaps and games can make a difference.
Just calling foods by a different name: “supervision carrots,” “Popeye’s magic spinach,” “cute little trees” for broccoli, “bone building milk,” “superhero name-your-fruit/veggie,” etc. can encourage kids to give them a try.
Or have a crunch contest - who can crunch the loudest?!
Another popular idea I see a lot is the stop light signs approach or go-slow-no. Green foods are GO and good for us anytime. Yellow foods are SLOW for enjoying now and then. Red foods (i.e., junk food) are NO and should be eaten as a rare treat or for special occasions.
Here's another fun take:
I like to add a fun twist to trying new foods. Kids get to be "taste explorers." It can be anywhere from simply touching the new food, to smelling, to licking, to then tasting. I always give them the option to discard it with a spit cup. I think it's really important for kids to feel no pressure when trying new foods. I also always like to give them a ranking system like a stop light: green (love it), yellow (it was just okay), red (not for me right now) and then we try those foods in other applications, then they rank it again." -- Julie Harrington RD of RDelicious Kitchen
You can also use MyPlate for kids to learn about portion sizes and choosing a variety of foods from different food groups (and other resources on raising healthy eaters).
Two last tips here:
- Remember to offer small portions, particularly for small children. It’s less intimidating when you don’t pile it on, and they don’t need that much anyway.
- Be sure to try raw and cooked versions of vegetables and to offer them in a number of different ways — on their own, mixed into a dish, with different sauces, spices, etc. You may be surprised by what they prefer.
7. Sneak in those veggies, but don’t be too sneaky.
I have a thousand tricks up my sleeve for adding veggies into my kids’ foods. I add spinach or kale to their smoothies or squeezies or fruit mixes for yogurt, I stir in shredded carrots or zucchini to muffins, add vegetable purees to their pasta sauces and saute diced veggies with their taco mix or to go with mac and cheese. I put broccoli on their black bean tostadas and melt cheese over it so they can't pick it out. ✋
But I always tell them what veggies they are enjoying. If they don’t see (and help) me make the food, I am sure to point it out.
Sometimes I wait until after they’ve chowed down, because, you know, you gotta get them going on it. 😉
But if my goal is raising healthy eaters, I want to be sure to point out that they just ate and loved a particular veggie, so they know they’ve had and enjoyed that vegetable in some form.
8. Experiment with how you offer foods.
Some kids need more seasonings to enjoy their vegetables and whole grains and lean protein. Other kids would prefer them plain, thank you very much. Try both ways and just keep experimenting with flavor profiles.
Offer dipping dinners. Most kids love to dip things in their favorite sauces, dressings and condiments. Go with it! If they will try a new food by way of dipping, let them dip away.
I'm a big fan of having kids 'dip their veggies.' Whether it's hummus, guacamole or a family favorite dressing, the independent act of dipping allows the child to feel immediately involved as well as incorporate flavors they may already love into the meal." -- Rebecca Fisher Miller RDN of Twisted Nutrition
Salad bars are having huge success in schools these days and here's a great way you can make this work at home:
I love to serve meals 'taco bar' or 'salad bar' style and let my kids put on whatever toppings they want. This works really well for all types of meals, and no one is forced to eat anything they don't like. As my kids, now 13 and 14, have gotten older, they've expanded their ‘toppings' and even eat lettuce and other 'leafy greens' now — foods they wouldn't have eaten when they were younger!" - E.A. Stewart RDN of Spicy RD Nutrition
9. Just keep offering.
Research shows it can take kids a LOT of exposure to try and enjoy a new food. Sometimes a dozen tries, sometimes closer to 20.
And some kids go back and forth on loving a food or a dish and calling it “icky.”
Hang in there. Be patient. Think about the foods you hated as a kid that you love and adore now.
Just keep offering, just keep exposing them to different healthy foods and know that you’re doing all you can. (And remember #2 and #3 above.)
10. Respect their hunger cues.
I am continually impressed by my kids’ ability to stop eating something delicious. They will literally set aside a cookie, a helping of fruit, a remnant of a cookie ball because they are full.
I have no such self-control. I want to eat it all until it’s gone.
But kids are naturally more in tune with their bodies and levels of fullness than adults are. They know when they’ve had enough.
And in raising healthy eaters, I want to encourage my kids to continue to listen to those signals, to be mindful of their bodies’ cues, so they can have a healthy relationship with food.
So I never force them to clean their plate or finish a serving or otherwise go beyond what they may be capable of eating.
11. Be a good role model.
Let your kids see YOU eat healthy foods, try a variety of fruits and vegetables, experiment with new flavors and enjoy the process.
The best way to raise healthy eaters is by example, having healthy food available, cooking healthy food, making it interesting, tasty and asking them to ’try it,’” -- Madeline Basler MS, RDN, CDN of Real You Nutrition
I swear the best way to get my kids to try a new healthy food is for me to snack on it during an “off” time. In other words, it’s not their meal or snack time and they aren’t supposed to be eating. But if I pull out a snack for me, or I'm making something for later, they will come running and beg for a taste. I think it’s because there’s no alternative - they can have a taste of what I’m eating or what I’m fixing or they can wait until the next meal/snack.
And they will always have at least a bite or two. Sometimes more. Sometimes my snack suddenly disappears. (Am I the only one who holes up in the pantry to actually get to eat my food from time to time?!)
It also helps I think, when they’re stalling on eating their dinner, for me to ask for a bite of their food. They see how I enjoy it and are more likely to want to try it. They don’t always start to gobble it down, but it sets a good example and they see that I love a wide variety of healthy foods.
So there you have it! I hope this encourages you to work on building healthy habits for your family.
A day at a time, a meal at a time, what you’re doing now is laying a solid foundation. Keep at it! You’re doing great and even if it seems like you’re not making progress, I bet it will pay off down the road.
I’d love to hear your tips and tricks for raising healthy eaters - leave me a comment below!