Let’s start at the beginning. Growing up, I would absolutely classify myself as a picky eater. I was uninterested in most vegetables and largely consumed grains, starches and carbs (but not the healthy kind). I would even go as far as to say that I wore the badge of picky eater proudly.
Fast forward to adulthood, and little had changed. Perhaps I was more open-minded about trying new things but my diet was far from balanced. Eventually I became pregnant with my first daughter and like anyone experiencing pregnancy for the first time, you want to make all the right choices for both you and baby. I focused on eating well and to be honest, eating what I could stomach.
After becoming a parent, my commitment to nutrition changed as, like most parents, I wanted the best for my children. That ultimately meant more vegetables and less sugar. After having my second daughter, we bought a restaurant, a wine bar in the heart of our city. This is where my mind was opened to new and interesting foods that I otherwise would never have tried because I had to be willing to try the things we serve. Of course, there are still foods I like better than others and foods that I will never change my mind about (hello mushrooms), but overall, I understand the importance of trying new things, especially with four daughters whom I want to grow up to be strong and healthy.
As a parent of four, meal time can be a challenge. From varying dinner requests to busy evenings with activities, ensuring my children are getting well-balanced meals requires intention, preparation and a lot of negotiation. Feeding a baby makes every child seem like the best eater because by and large, they eat whatever you offer, which is largely fruits and vegetables. But as they grow, they develop opinions of their own and become far more susceptible to the opinions and words of others. My personal favorite is when my children tell me they aren’t hungry for dinner, they are hungry for a snack (because kids have two stomachs). Clearly, there is room for improvement and that starts with setting a good example for them to emulate.
Today, I’m regularly trying to navigate the world of feeding:
- A 7-year-old who is a pleaser, rule follower and generally willing to try what is offered at least once.
- A 5-year-old whose preferred food groups are PB&J, mac and cheese, spaghetti and pizza (did I mention that she’s stubborn as all heck and expects everything to be her way with little room for negotiation).
- A 2-year-old who is easily distracted and wants all the snacks.
- A newborn whose diet is still simple and she doesn’t yet have an opinion.
As I navigate the challenges of feeding my growing family, here are five tips for getting kids to eat healthy (most of the time). This doesn’t always mean they eat everything put in front of them, but we keep the focus on trying new foods and even foods you may not like in order to set them up for success in the long run. My tips are:
- Include children in the process and preparation.
My girls love to help in the kitchen. They want to help plan the menu, measure and add ingredients, stir and taste along the way. Lucy received a kid’s cookbook for Christmas and it has really inspired her interest in trying new things and meal preparation.
In my experience, any time we try something new and they are able to help prepare, they are also far more interested in trying the final product.
- Set a positive example, while also being cautious with your words.
Our children are incredibly aware of their surroundings and no matter how distracted they may seem; they are always listening. As a result, I’m incredibly conscious of the example I set, especially when it comes to nutrition. If there is something I don’t like, I am intentional about how I talk about that food in front of my children. Just because I don’t like something, doesn’t mean they can’t like it.
It’s also important to set a positive example. From eating balanced meals to trying foods I’m less familiar with or might not like, I’m in a better position to encourage my children to try something if they see me doing the same.
- Try and try again.
When I think back to foods that I didn’t like growing up or wouldn’t have even been open to trying, I now understand why it’s so important to try and try again. Our taste buds are constantly changing and sometimes it takes five or 10 or even 15 times before you like something. And maybe you never will like it, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
At meal time, I tell my girls that you have to try each item. And ideally that means more than one bite, but I also know it’s important to let children try foods on their own terms. A bite is a bite no matter how small.
Before the world shut down, we were at our wine bar and the staff were testing a new flatbread pizza. I knew I loved it because it had sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes and more. My daughter asked to try it and proceeded to eat the whole piece. I was impressed with her willingness to try something that would be outside the wheelhouse of many kids and wasn’t going to point out all the glorious vegetables she had eaten.
- Sneak vegetables in where you can.
We recently had dinner at a friend’s house and she is the master of sneaking vegetables into everything and making it taste great. That evening, we enjoyed the most amazing turkey burgers full of zucchini. She also shared a muffin recipe packed with spinach. We can’t wait to try these and since mentioning the recipe, my daughters have been asking to make monster muffins. Clearly, I need to buy some spinach.
In this day and age, there are no shortage of opportunities to sneak healthy foods into something we know our children love and will eat well. From smoothies to muffins, and everything in between, creating healthy habits means showing kids that healthy foods taste great too.
- Don’t buy it if you don’t want them to eat it.
So often, we run to the grocery store while hungry or with a focus on convenience which means we are buying foods that are quick and easy, instead of those that will truly sustain us throughout the day. When grocery shopping with children, it’s even more challenging as they constantly ask for snacks that they’ve seen others eating or products that feature fun characters.
As parents, we are in complete control of what we buy and offer to our children. The same is true for ourselves. If it’s not in the house, it’s much harder to give into temptation. It’s about more than instant gratification. You have to ask yourself what you want now vs. what you want most. Our kids will often pick instant gratification so it is up to us to present them with healthy options and ensure that special treats stay special.
As my kids grow, I’m optimistic that healthy eating will become less of a battle and more of a choice. For now, I know it is my responsibility to show them the path to a healthy lifestyle. And often, that starts with my relationship with food and exercise. The example I set shapes their actions and expectations. I hope that by making smart choices now and leading by example, I will set them up for a long and healthy life.