Getting children to like healthy food can be a struggle. It seems that no matter how hard you try, they turn their noses up at the scrumptious fruits and veggies you put on their plates.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to new research presented here at the International Society for Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity (ISBNPA) meeting. Instead of trying new foods full-force, try getting kids involved in selecting what they’ll eat by using these tips:
1. Don’t Force It
Forcing your child to eat healthy food may not only backfire but also lead to emotional eating throughout their lives, said Eleni Kouimtzidou, Ph.D. candidate at Curtin University in Australia.
“It’s important for parents firstly not to force kids to eat,” she told MedPage Today. “The more pressure or force there is, the more likely [kids] are going to enjoy it less.”
This pressure can come from the family environment in addition to parents. If your child eats with other people who love to eat junk food, they may feel peer pressure — or even begin to pick up bad habits themselves.
“When children see their siblings and friends eating fruit and vegetables, they’re more likely to do so,” she said. “But if they see them eating fast food every night, then you have a problem.”
As far as getting involved in what’s served in your home, Kouimtzidou suggests taking a trip to the grocery store with your child once a week so they can browse through the produce aisle together. At this age, children should be able to start making some of their own choices, even if it’s just picking out their favorite vegetable.
2. Make It Fun (and Yummy)
Kids love to get involved with cooking and baking, said Kouimtzidou, especially if they’re creative in the kitchen.
“When children can use different ingredients or make something fun like a face on a plate . . . this will increase their interest and willingness to try new food,” she said. “If you go out and buy them fruit roll-ups and little snacks that are brightly colored and designed to look like cartoon characters, kids won’t want those.”
Try picking recipes from books or websites geared toward children so that they can feel included in the process. Research shows that children prefer food they’ve grown themselves or prepared themselves.
3. Set Up a System
Don’t expect kids to eat all their fruits and vegetables at one meal, especially if they’re served together on the same plate (think: peas and carrots). Instead, divide the foods into appropriate portions and store them in containers so your child can grab them as needed throughout the day.
“If you put apples out at breakfast time and grapes out for lunchtime then it’s easier for the kid,” said Kouimtzidou. “Fruit isn’t just about dessert and snacks — it’s something that can be eaten whenever.”
Apples, bananas, oranges, peaches, pears — any fruit is great as long as it’s washed and cut into appropriate serving sizes. You can also store veggies in ziplock bags to keep them fresh.
If you want to set yourself up for success, Kouimtzidou said parents should prepare their kids’ lunches before bedtime so that they have no choice but to eat what’s inside. She also recommended letting your child choose his or her own snacks if they’re not likely to give themselves away.
4. Monitor Portion Sizes
No matter how much you love eating an entire bag of chips, the same rule doesn’t apply to your children’s snacking habits — at least not until they reach adulthood. Instead, focus on limiting their portions to the of their hands or fist, said Kouimtzidou.
“You have to limit them because that’s what kids are good at — eating only a little bit of something . . . It’s almost better for them not to eat it at all.”
And, as far as moderation goes, don’t worry about being the “no fun parent.” Kids want you to be involved in their lives and they’ll listen to you if you say no. The trick is finding ways around saying “no” all the time.
5. Keep Your Cool (Even When They Don’t)
Above all, don’t scold or punish your child for refusing food or throwing tantrums during mealtime. Instead, show them love and patience by keeping things positive throughout the day.
“Don’t give them the feeling that you don’t love them or that they are not good enough,” she said. “You can say, ‘That’s okay. You didn’t like it today but maybe tomorrow.’ It takes more time for children to change their minds about something, so just keep repeating this message.”
It also doesn’t hurt to have a little fun in the process. To get your child in the mood to try something new, Kouimtzidou suggested giving him or her a taste test by trying several different types of one item at dinner — whether it be pasta sauce, crackers, or salad dressings. This will help them realize there are variations out there and things might not be so scary after all.
Lastly, don’t let mealtime become yet another battle between parent and child. If you need time to de-stress (or de-fress), excuse yourself from the table and come back when you’ve calmed down. This will make everyone more relaxed and less anxious about eating new foods — which makes it easier for everyone involved.
But, the main thing to remember is that love means never having to say you’re sorry for serving broccoli.