How to Get Your Child to Eat Healthy

If you’ve come here to find the magic formula to get children to eat healthy, your search stops here. Not because I have it, and not because I can tell you endless ways to build your child’s healthy eating habits. I really want to tell you that your child will readily accept the eating changes if you try those ways, but I won’t. You and I know better – each child is unique in the ease and challenges that come with his or her development. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so roll up your sleeves, carry on with hope when the road gets bumpy, and enjoy the journey ahead! 

I hear a lot of venting from mothers of young children about their picky eaters. Their wish is crystal clear – to get their children to eat healthy. There is one complaint that seems to overshadow the rest …

“My child thinks some vegetables taste gross – that, I sympathize with. But I can’t wrap my mind around why she doesn’t like the delicious foods I cook!”  

You can’t help but wonder why. For starters, here’s a fact to keep in mind: Children have a heightened sense of taste compared to adults. Adults have about 10,000 taste buds, but we were born with a whole lot more than that. As we age, we lose taste buds naturally and don’t regenerate them as quickly as before. Your child’s picky eating may simply be a reflection of their reaction to the intense tastes they are sensing. That might explain why some toddlers and young children insist on eating plain pasta (no sauce) and white bread sandwiches with the crust removed. Rest assured, your child’s heightened sense of taste isn’t all bad. Just search for YouTube videos of babies tasting lemons. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen those. 

Healthy Eating in Full Swing – Ideas & Tips

A little bit of light-heartedness, understanding, and strategy goes a long way. With the following approaches in mind, you can confidently get your child to eat healthy – and have fun while you’re at it!

Let your child pick produce

Try saying this the next time you’re in a produce section or farmers market with your child: “Look at all the colorful food here! You get to pick one food from here – anything – for you and me to make together and eat at home today.” Then watch the sparks of curiosity in her eyes as she looks around. Imagine the look on her face as she explores the area, looking for what fits her imagination best. There’s a lot more to children’s picky eating habits than their supposed likes and dislikes. Oftentimes, picky eating is simply a way to feel independent. Picking produce empowers and inspires them so they will be more excited to taste the food at home. Naturally, if they choose it, they will probably like it!

Prepare meals & snacks together

Don’t let the excitement end at the grocery store or farmers market! Under your supervision, let your child help you prepare meals and snacks. Children can wash produce and chop, tear, or break apart foods like lettuce, broccoli, and grapes by hand. They can also dip foods for family snacks in peanut butter, yogurt, or bean dips. Children have loads of fun adding and mixing ingredients and spices, especially at the stove, so let them! When children help prepare food, they feel accomplished and like that they made a worthy contribution. And they certainly did. So, there you have it – another way to get your child to feel excited and invested in healthy food!

Talk about healthy foods outside of mealtime.

It’s simple, really. Build your child’s comfort and familiarity with healthy foods when they are not around, and she’ll feel more open to eating them when they are. There are endless ways to talk to children and get them excited about healthy eating. Play car ride games to see who can name the most fruits and vegetables of a particular color. Encourage them to ask questions about why certain foods are good for them. Casually teach them what body parts and bodily functions are benefited by which foods. Share enthusiastic moments of curiosity followed by discovery. “Hmm, I know carrots make your eyes see really good – even at night when it’s dark. I wonder if blueberries are good for something in our bodies. I really want to find out!” Then find a fun answer that they will understand and return excitedly to share it with them! Follow that up with a focused trip to get that healthy food to keep them happily accepting and excited about eating it regularly. 

Have tasting parties

If you want to introduce new foods to your child, have a themed party for her and her friends to try them. The theme can be tasting fruits and vegetables of a certain color, or healthy foods that grow on trees or near the ground. Have someone the children like teach an informal, fun, and brief lesson before the tasting begins. Prepare a variety of sweet and savory, bite-size samples so they can taste the many ways they can eat one food. Sadly, many of our food dislikes come from one particular way of preparing that food. I’ve always hated raw tomatoes ever since I was a toddler, but I absolutely love the taste of cooked tomatoes! Had I not tasted a different way of preparing tomatoes for meals, I would have thought all tomatoes taste like the raw ones and avoided them.

Sneak it in!

The possibilities are endless! Vegetable purees can be mixed into meatballs, meatloaf, sauces, and soups. Try adding fruit purees to pancakes, waffles, yogurt, pudding, and milk shakes. Mixing in chopped fruits or vegetables works, too, but keep in mind that your child might see them. Using purees is helpful if your child wouldn’t eat a food if she found fruit or vegetable chunks in it. Last year, my friend made the best homemade burgers I’ve ever eaten in my life for a potluck. I wasn’t going anywhere until she gave me her recipe. To my surprise, she said she mixed spinach into the ground beef mixture because that is the only way she can get her 4-year-old daughter to eat spinach. I couldn’t taste or see the spinach at all. It was all finely chopped. Genius! 

Lead by example

Children are natural imitators when it comes to speech, actions, and reactions. You can be sure that they’re watching and learning from you all the time, so use that to your advantage! Verbalize cravings for specific fruits and vegetables, and show how delicious they taste while eating them. Talk to children excitedly about the healthy foods you’re planning to buy, or just bought, from the grocery store. Tone down your love for foods and drinks you’d rather them not get attached to – namely soft drinks and processed or fast food. Be careful to not show children that you don’t like a healthy food that you want them to eat regularly. Yes, that means I will prepare raw tomatoes and possibly eat some in front of my future children. Oh, what a mother will do for their sake!  

If your child’s picky eating behaviors are challenging, try following these tips when introducing new foods.

Don’t give up! – Toddlers and young children oftentimes need multiple exposures before accepting a new food. Some need a new food to be offered up to 10-15 times! Don’t decide that a child dislikes a new food after seeing her reject it a few times. Wait until you’ve offered it to her many more times (aim for 10-15) before you truly determine that she actually dislikes it.

Let Willy do the talking! – If you feel that your child stops listening to you after a while or tries to be a little bit rebellious then bring “Willy” into the conversation. Kids usually listen to a character or a new friend and respect them, because they see somewhat of an equal. Tell them bees are very strong and healthy and Willy wants them to eat their veggies so they can play better. 

Introduce one food at a time. – This helps your child not be confused or overwhelmed.

Be consistent. – Offer the food at least once a day so your child gets the chance to build familiarity with it.

Connect the dots. – Once your child has accepted one food, try choosing the next new food that is similar in appearance to the first one. For example, following your child’s acceptance of diced red bell peppers with an introduction of diced tomatoes might strike the chord of familiarity needed to accept the tomatoes.  

Remember these tips the next time you feel like you hit a wall with a picky eater. You just might be surprised by the extra patience and less frustration you’re feeling! Persistence is the habit of victory.

Now, let’s make a healthy difference!  

Written by Samar Hadrous for WILLY’S KITCHEN

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