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As a nutritionist, I am often asked how to get children to eat healthier foods amongst a "kid-food" world of high-carb and high-sugar items such as chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, goldfish crackers, and juice packs. I won't sugar coat it (no pun intended)--it may be difficult to get your kids to choose healthier options, but by sticking to some of the tips below, you may find some gradual success that will eventually turn in to life-long habits.
1. Start them young.
Start whole foods when they are young, and I mean really young. If you are still in the baby stages, introduce foods like cooked peas, mashed banana, roasted sweet potato, egg yolk (not the white until at least age one for allergy reasons), and avocado. The baby's taste buds will get used to these regular whole foods found in nature so it is best to avoid the jarred foods as those have a different texture, taste, and fillers such as wheat and other additives. If your kids are older, I have more tips below.
2. Impose the "try it" rule.
You can't really force a child to eat something he or she hates but you can urge them to just give it one little try and if the second bite is refused (and yes, that will happen a lot), at least the taste buds were given a chance to get used to the new fare. Taste buds can be trained to like a variety of foods but they need a few times of actual tasting for it to be possible.
3. Don't say anything at all.
I don't know about you, but I feel like if I urge my son to do something, there are times when he says no just to go the opposite direction of what mom wants. Sometimes saying nothing at all and just serving a plate of food (of course the largest majority being something your kid loves) with a few bites of healthy options, you may be surprised. For example, you can have a pile of macaroni and cheese next to just a few bites of fish and broccoli. He or she just may get around to trying a little bite since a smaller portion of the healthy stuff is much less daunting.
4. Hide the healthy stuff.
Getting back to macaroni and cheese since that seems to be a kid-favorite, simply chop up and some broccoli and chicken and mix it in with the pasta. That boxed cheesy sauce sure overpowers anything in its reach so the broccoli and chicken will be coated in orange cheesy flavor. You can easily hide healthier ingredients in other things like smoothies, soups, and mashed potatoes.
5. Choose the most kid-friendly health foods.
There are some healthy foods that the majority of kids will absolutely loathe so let's not even go there--my son is a fan of veggies but you put something like kale in front of him then it's game over. Kids like more mild flavors so the greens that tend to be most palatable are things like green beans, peas, and carrots. Start with these easier options and then work your way into the ones with stronger taste.
6. Preparation is key.
I grew up hating Brussels sprouts because my parents boiled them--yuck! That smell still gets me to this day, but ironically, Brussels sprouts are my number one favorite veggie if prepared properly. Pan-cooked in extra-virgin olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper, and then topped with fresh lemon is a game changer. Trying adding different flavors and seasonings to the less kid-friendly foods as those simple additions may make the difference.
Getting kids to eat healthy foods can be one of the biggest challenges of parenthood. Employing the six above-mentioned tactics has worked for so many of my clients and their children, but you need to stick to it as the progress can be slow moving. Eventually, you may be surprised that your kids are not only eating healthier foods, but actually enjoying them as well.