It’s become your least favorite time of the day: dinnertime. The kids have turned up their nose at the salad and casserole you made. Now they’re whining for chicken nuggets and macaroni. You know that nutrition is important for your growing, energetic kiddos. But lately, you just don’t have it in you to fight these ongoing mealtime battles.
As you reluctantly put the salad away and tear open a bag of frozen nuggets, you wonder how to get kids to eat healthy. What can you do to make nutritious meals appealing to your kids?
Whether you’re a preschool teacher, a childcare provider or a frazzled parent, you need a few tricks up your sleeve for getting kids to eat healthy. We talked to experts in childcare and nutrition to uncover the answer to the question we’re all asking: “How do you get kids to eat healthy?”
8 ways to get kids to eat healthier
Try these eight expert tricks to make mealtimes go a little smoother with your picky eaters. We can’t promise your two-year-old will never throw her carrot sticks on the floor again, but these ideas will help you take positive steps in the right direction.
1. Offer choices
You’ve probably noticed that your independent toddler doesn’t like being told what to do. Try offering him the choice between two or three different foods. The key is to not include junk food in the options, recommends Jacqui Blue, filmmaker and mother of five.
The choice between apple slices and celery with peanut butter might not seem like much, but it gives kids the autonomy they crave while still keeping you in control of nutrition. Your little ones might be excited to try a healthy snack if they feel like it was their idea.
2. Let them make their own plates
It’s tempting to pile healthy food on your child’s plate, but you may be doing more harm than good. “Let your child decide what and how much they would like to eat from the foods offered,” recommends Shaistha Zaheeruddin, registered dietician and founder of Modest Nutrition counseling services.
Letting your children take control of their own plate is another way to let them exercise their independence and get them interested in trying new foods. It may take a few tries, but most kids will be more willing to add healthy foods to their plates if it’s not being forced on them by a parent.
3. Introduce gateway foods
Children are naturally suspicious of new things, and that includes many healthy foods. So what’s the solution? Combine new foods with healthy options your child already likes.
“Once you find a healthy fruit or vegetable your child enjoys, you can use that as a gateway to introduce other fruits and vegetables,” recommends Dr. Meena Chintapalli, pediatrician at A thru Z Pediatrics. For example, you can turn your child’s love of raisins into “ants on a log,” a treat that has protein and a vegetable.
4. Don’t make snacking a habit
It’s easy to hand over a baggie of fish crackers to a whiny child, but it’s not the best strategy for developing healthy eating habits. While many kids do need snacks between meals, they should be scheduled, according to Zaheeruddin.
Unplanned snack times run the risk of falling too close to the next meal, meaning kids won’t be hungry for a healthy dinner. “When kids know they won’t get food until the next snack or mealtime, they will be more likely to fill up on foods at the table while they can,” says Zaheeruddin.
Foods offered at mealtimes are also often healthier than quick, on-the-go snack options, so make the most of your kids’ time at the table!
5. Give kids a behind-the-scenes look at food
Kids are more likely to give healthy food a fighting chance if they’re already interested in it. Try taking kids to a farm or farmers market where they can pick out their own vegetables and talk to the people who grew them, recommends health coach Vicky Darden.
If you really want to get kids intrigued, help them plant their own veggie garden! Simple options like herbs, carrots or potatoes are a great place to start. “Kids tend to want to at least taste the things they have grown and cared for,” Darden says.
6. Include your kids in the cooking
Once again, kids are more likely to give new food a try if they had a hand in making it. Ask them to help you measure ingredients, sprinkle cheese, toss a salad or roll out pizza dough.
“Get them involved and let them have fun with it,” Blue says. “While you're being hands on with them about cooking it gives the opportunity to talk about the nutritional value of a food item or meal.”
7. Don’t force it
Kids can tell when they’re being pressured into eating, and they don’t like it. It may surprise you to learn that most mealtime battles can be avoided simply by backing off and continuing to present healthy foods at the table. “It takes about 8 to 15 tries for a child to like a new food – so don’t give up,” Zaheeruddin says.
Try to strike a balance between forcing foods on your picky eater and giving in immediately to their demands. “Forcing will create life-long aversions
to those foods and can interfere with a child's awareness of his own internal cues to
hunger and satiety,” Zaheeruddin says.
8. Lead by example
Children pick up healthy (or unhealthy) eating habits from the adults they spend time with, according to Chintapalli. This is the time to try broadening your own healthy food horizons.
Your approach to healthy food can influence your child’s attitude. Be sure you’re setting a good example!
Take the battle out of healthy eating
Now that you have proven strategies on how to get kids to eat healthy, you’ll be able to take the struggle out of mealtimes so you can enjoy nutritious food alongside your kids.
If you love seeing your kids try new foods and learn new skills, you may have a future in teaching! Learn about 10 reasons parents make great teachers.