Though we want our kids to have a balanced diet, getting them to eat less junk food can be a battle. Here’s advice from experts to help kids develop a taste for healthier foods.
Babies are born with a natural taste for sweetness. Once they get their first swig of juice or bite of dessert, those tiny taste buds develop a preference. Before you know it, they want sugar-coated cereal for breakfast and French fries for dinner and they look at vegetables as if they are strange creatures from another planet. However, play your cards right and you won’t have to move to a commune to keep junk food out of their diets as they grow.
In the real world, it’s tough to avoid fast food, fried stuff, and sugar at every turn, but experts say we can help our kids learn to make healthier choices. “Parents get a lot of bad advice about feeding kids,” says Drew Ramsey, M.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and the author of Eat Complete: The 21 Nutrients That Fuel Brainpower, Boost Weight Loss, and Transform Your Health. “We are told it is too hard, or it takes too much time, or that kids are so picky and fussy. What baloney! I’ve seen a giant cafeteria of kids chowing on kale chips.”
The trick is to make healthy food delicious, nutritious, and fun, he says. “I’ve learned so much as a parent. Kids are totally inconsistent with food, they love something, then they hate it. What has helped me is getting them involved with prep and cooking, letting them help plan meals, and telling them why certain foods are important.”
We asked experts in the field of children’s nutrition and eating behavior to offer their best tips on getting kids to make healthier food choices.
Healthy Eating Starts With You
Adults have to model how it’s done. When it comes to getting kids to eat healthier, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “Parents need to have a basic sense of healthy eating for themselves if they are going to be able to effectively influence their children in positive ways,” says Nutritional Therapist Lisa D. Ellis, M.S., RDN, CDN, LMSW, CEDRD. “If you eat just cookies for dinner but expect them to eat chicken and veggies, good luck!” She says parents have to get on the same page as their kids when it comes to food if they want to help change the family eating culture.
Good eating doesn’t have to be expensive. It is a myth that eating healthy costs a lot, Dr. Ramsey says. “You can eat the healthiest foods on the planet on a tight budget—foods like red beans, kale, lentils, sweet potatoes, yogurt, small fish like anchovies, and bivalves like mussels,” he says. “We roast veggies in the oven nearly every night and eat a lot of rice and beans and lentils. Get a crock pot and a rice cooker.” Batch cooking on a weekend helps because you can freeze food for weekday use.
Associating sweets with love creates problems. “Unfortunately we often inadvertently give kids the message that unhealthy foods are ‘treats,’” says Tamar Z. Kahane, Psy.D., a New York-based child psychologist and developer of a program to teach healthier habits to selective eaters. “We tell them they can have dessert only after one more bite of chicken. We buy cupcakes and goodie bags of candy for birthday parties, and we give them lollipops to help them feel better when they are upset. All of this communicates this specialness around junk food and teaches our children to associate these foods with love, reward, and comfort.”
Parental behaviors need some work. Avoid begging, bribing, or forcing children to eat. “These types of power plays create an adversarial relationship between parent and child and turn the entire process of eating into even more of a negative experience for your child,” Dr. Kahane says. She also notes that parents sometimes give up as fast as kids on certain foods. “Parents typically offer a food a couple of times and if their child doesn’t taste it, they stop serving it,” Dr. Kahane says. “But it often takes 10 to 15 tastes before a child will accept a new food.” If you lighten up the power struggle and keep serving the nutritious food, things will change.
Make Healthy Eating Fun
Make it colorful and accessible. Parents can steer their kids to eat healthy by having healthy foods readily available on the table and in the fridge, Ellis, the registered dietitian, says. “A good practice might be to make sure a veggie plate is out on the table, ready and waiting when a hungry child walks through the door from school or play,” she says. “One trick to make a veggie tray look appealing to a child—of any age, really—would be to place fruits and/or veggies of different colors and different textures on the platter next to a variety of healthful dips: hummus, guacamole, or peanut or other nut butters.”
Get them in the kitchen and around food. Helping with the process and seeing where food comes from helps kids be excited for the food you’re serving. “I’m always amazed when my kids are annoyingly in my way in the kitchen and then I make them my sous chefs and we have a blast,” Dr. Ramsey says. “Kids love to cook and start this at a young age. Take kids to the farmers’ market and a real farm. And have them plant some seeds. We have a little window box with mint, herbs, and kale plants and often have a little nibble of something to start the day.”
Turn it into an adventure. Kids will also be more invested if they help hunt for the food. “Have a treasure hunt in the supermarket,” says Lisa Sasson, M.S., R.D., clinical associate professor of nutrition at the New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, who teaches a course on pediatric nutrition. “Let kids come up with a recipe they want to help make and have kids help prepare the meals.”
Use cool shapes and utensils. Tempt them to the healthy side with kitchen props. “Use cookie cutters, special character toothpicks (depending on age of child), like Dora or Elmo, to use for individual bites, and special shape waffle makers,” says Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, M.S., R.D., CDN, CDE, a New Jersey-based registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. “Kids also enjoy dipping into tasty sauces. Use very small ‘dipping’ bowls for kids to try out different flavors like hummus, mustard, barbecue sauce, tartar sauce, etc.”
Let them choose grown-up food when dining out. Don’t box children into the kids’ menu choices. “As much as possible, allow the child choices from the regular menu as well, beyond the French fries, hot dogs, grilled cheese, plain pasta,” says Julie Kaminski, a New Jersey-based certified wellness coach, counselor, and trainer. “Adult-size appetizers can be great options for expanding the palate, healthier choices, and empowering the child beyond the paper coloring menu.”
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Ways to Change Kids’ Taste Preferences
Start them young. Delay introduction to sweet foods, flavors, and juices, because once children have tasted the sweetened version they don’t want to go back. “New research shows healthy eating begins early on in the womb, but foods and flavors introduced early in infancy can help mold a child’s palate and future food preferences,” Malkoff-Cohen says. “It is important to provide a wide array of flavors when starting purées. Start with savory flavors and vegetables before fruits to help increase their acceptance.”
Make eating a game. Slow kids down and help them to appreciate food, Ellis says. “Kids can slow their eating and become more present [when you ask] them: ‘What did that taste like? Was it sweet? Was it tart?’” she says. “Encouraging kids to focus their attention on taste and enjoying the different flavors and textures is better for digestion and portion control and also encourages a sense of gratitude for the food and whoever prepared it. This, as opposed to inhaling the meal and asking for more.” This can also help them expand their food horizons.
Break the habit slowly. Don’t try to change their diet overnight or enforce new rules about eating in an exasperated way. “Parents need to be mindful of adjusting their children’s eating habits in an ‘organic’ way without inadvertently causing power struggles and increased resistance to eating more healthfully,” Dr. Kahane says. “Often in our attempt to create change we feed our children’s rigidity.”
Fake it ‘til you make it. Advertisements of junky food with favorite characters lures kids in and will always be challenge. If your kids are hard to win over, try healthy tricks (it’s for their own good). Make snacks with healthy ingredients and put them in a familiar container. “Save the box with Elmo on it,” Malkoff-Cohen says. “Make a homemade version and pretend the homemade version came from there!”
Remember, change doesn’t happen overnight, but with some planning and a dose of creativity, your kids will be well on their way to healthier eating habits!
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