Getting kids to eat their vegetables and eat right can be an exhausting uphill battle. Here are 9 tips to help get your children on the right track when it comes to their eating habits.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Tip #1 – Keep it short (for young kids)
Let’s face it, younger children have a hard time sitting still for longer than a few minutes. If you force them to sit for an excessive amount of time they simply won’t enjoy the meal time and will get bored. At a young age the main objective should be feeding them child, but also making it an enjoyable experience.
Tip #2 – Remember that as parents, you set the example
“Do as I say, not as I do” – This is not a good strategy.
Telling your children to eat steamed carrots, while you, as parents, tuck into an unhealthy plate of chips, isn’t going to work! Until our children become teenagers, the parents are usually the primary role-models. Children emulate their adult role-models for better or for worse. For example, children of parents who smoke are many times more likely to start smoking that for non-smoking parents. This is despite what the parents may tell their children. It’s what you do that counts.
As a family unit, you cannot separate your children’s dietary habits from your own. It is all intertwined on many different levels; from the examples we set, to our weekly shopping basket, effort in meal preparation, even down to the micro-organisms that share your bodies as co-inhabitants of the same household. What you eat as parents and what your children eat are all linked.
Getting kids to eat healthily is not easy, so the first thing to get right is your own dietary habits. This is going to be a team effort after all if you want it to be successful. You’ll also win the benefits of a healthy diet for yourselves which will help you stay healthy, active (and alive) for your your children for as many years as possible. It’s a win-win!
Tip #3 – No snacking before meal times
Kids should be hungry before a meal is served. You’ll be surprised how much more adventurous and willing to eat children become if they’re actually a bit hungry in time for dinner. Often children are allowed to snack too close to meal times, which means they’re less likely to actually eat that wonderful meal you just prepared. A child who sits at the dinner table and is not hungry is going to get bored. A bored child will spoil the meal experience as they will want to go and do something else.
Clearly letting your child be a bit hungry might sound monstrous to some. We’re not talking about starving your child, but rather having a child that is in a state where they want to eat. Do you feel good if you sit down for a meal and you’re not really hungry? It’s not enjoyable.
Tip #4 – “You don’t have to eat it, but you have to try it”
It’s unrealistic to expect kids to eat everything that we expect them to. We’re all different and it also takes time to develop a mature palette and appreciation of healthy foods. It can take decades to learn to enjoy the taste of olives, for example, if you’re not frequently exposed to them.
Kids need repeated exposure to new foods to develop a taste for it, potentially up to 15 times! So giving up at the first “yuck” isn’t going to be a good strategy. It’s a case of try-try-again.
Trying something, therefore doesn’t mean always something completely new. Rather returning every now and again to foods that previously was spat out or left to one side.
Give your kids a “taster” portion too, if you know it’s not a popular food. You don’t need to serve up a whole plateful (indeed, this is probably counterproductive). It can be a tiny portion, a few mashed up peas, or a small spoonful of broccoli. Getting a taste and getting them to swallow it is enough for a high-five and for a mission accomplished.
Tip #5 – Use desert as a reward
Foods, especially sweet food, is quickly habit forming. Often it’s useful to reflect on our habits and to ask if they serve us well or not.
It is easy to let kids eat desert out of habit (for both parent and child). It’s just something they do after a meal. While we should certainly steer our kids towards healthier desert options, we can also use desert as a tool to serve our goals of healthy eating.
Making desert contingent on having eaten all their healthy food can be a powerful motivator for kids. Fussy kids who refuse to eat their dinner, should not be rewarded with desert. While you don’t need to force your children to eat a mountain of food they hate, you can use your judgement to decide if they’ve eaten well-enough to win a treat.
Tip #6 – Explain why eating well matters
Children may not be able to understand the intricacies of micro-nutrients, or the the gut microbiota and so on. Indeed, few adults understand these topics well either!
It doesn’t matter though as we can simplify things considerably and provide kids with a simplified model for thinking about food.
Explaining to your kids that certain foods are full of vitamins, or healthy particles, that when your body digests them go around your body helping different parts work is perfectly sufficient to help motivate kids.
Eating healthy foods will make you get “stronger”, or help your brain be “smarter”, or make you able to to play sports with your friends “better”. Yes, it is overly simplistic, but easy enough for a child to understand. I explain to my kids that vegetables make you better, and junk food makes you “weaker” over time.
Tip #7 – Give your children models for making food decisions
Remember that kids don’t initially know what foods are healthy or not. We know this as adults (hopefully) and we often forget that our children haven’t learnt this yet.
In a previous post we’ve discussed helping your children develop a model for figuring out if foods are healthy or not. In this post we explain why a simple “it’s healthy” vs “it’s unhealthy” model isn’t practical for children to make their own decisions and that by introducing an “in the middle” category can be helpful.
There are many simplified models of food health but ultimately we’re looking for simple heuristics (rules of thumb) to make decision making easier for kids. Others heuristics may include:
- If it comes from a factory, it’s probably unhealthy.
- If it a plant or something that grows (and it’s from the supermarket) it’s probably good.
- Does it have a long list of ingredients, it’s probably bad.
- If there’s a cartoon character on the package, it’s probably bad.
- Is it very sweet, it’s probably bad.
Rules always have their exceptions, of course, but we’re looking to keep things simple at this age. We can always learn the exceptions later on.
Tip #8 – Pairing different foods
Some boiled or roasted potatoes could look appetising or completely boring to a child depending on the other things you serve it with.
Potatoes together on a plate with fish fingers look quite different from those same potatoes paired with steamed broccoli or roasted vegetables. In the first case, the potatoes will likely go uneaten, but served against the backdrop of broccoli or other very healthy foods the potatoes will likely seem much more appealing.
By pairing foods together in different ways at different meal times, we can perhaps get our kids to try more things and develop the taste for a wider variety of foods.
Tip #9 – Be persistent
Developing good eating habits and learning to enjoy healthy food is important for children’s long term health (and into adulthood). It’s also true, however, that we’re faced with many more unhealthy food options than at any other time in human history.
As parents, we’re facing down the processed food industrial complex which is hugely profit driven and doesn’t have your children’s best health interests at heart at all. Coupled with this we have rising obesity rates and rising rates of auto-immune disease which many studies link to diet. Clearly something is wrong.
This isn’t easy! Getting kids to eat well is hard and it will always be easier to give in and let things slide. However, this is a battle worth fighting!
Kids have constant pressure from society and the food industry to eat badly. We as parents have the responsibility to apply a strong counterbalancing constant pressure to push back and to protect our little ones.
Keep up the effort, don’t give up, it will get easier and your children’s long term health (and probably your children themselves) will thank you.