Looking for ways to encourage your children not only to eat healthy but WANT to? Check out how to raise kids who want to eat healthy.
True story: my six-year-old turned down candy. From the first day we allowed him to eat sweets and treats, we’ve allowed only one candy a day, for three days max. So, no matter how much loot he gets on Halloween or Valentine’s Day, he can pick three candies to eat. One on each day.
So on the day after Halloween, I offered all three kids their first candy. And my six-year-old, so honest of him, admitted he’d already eaten his candy for the day. He then went on to explain how candy isn’t healthy, nor is it good for you. Amen to that.
Still, I won’t lie. He and his two-year-old twin brothers have also turned their noses up at healthy meals. They don’t exactly gobble up quinoa salad with cashews and black beans all the time. Still, they’ve had a good track record of not only eating healthy food, but wanting to as well.
And I’m lucky. Kids can turn into picky eaters between two- and three-years-old, according to our pediatrician. So far so good.
That’s why I try not to sneak vegetables into food as a sustainable way of teaching the value of healthy food. It’s a practical strategy if your child needs variety and vitamins. Or if you’re done with food battles at the dinner table. I’ve even bought cookbooks all about this strategy (which turned out pretty good meals!).
How to raise kids who WANT to eat healthy
But this isn’t about vitamins or avoiding food battles. We’re talking about raising kids who want to eat healthy—no sneakiness needed.
1. Offer your child the same food you eat
Do you have a ‘kids’ menu in your home? You know what I’m talking about. While the adults eat salmon cakes and salad, the kids eat toast and pasta with no sauce.
Here’s the thing: cooking a separate meal for your kids enables picky eating. Given a choice, they’ll likely turn down the meal you’re eating. But with no options, then they have no choice.
Kids are more likely to model the behavior they see, particularly from their parents. By creating a regular habit of serving and eating healthy food that the whole family eats, toddlers seem more likely to follow suit rather than request their own special meal. Cook healthy recipes kids will enjoy and you will have painted a positive image of food for them.
2. Offer a variety of food
Instead of preparing a ‘kids menu,’ do this: cook a healthy meal, then serve it with something you know your kids will enjoy. For my kids, that’s fruit. They eat their main meal first—at least try a few bites—along with their fruit.
Not only should each meal have a variety, but your meals should be different too. Don’t just make soup and pasta every day. Include different types of meals, such as seafood, quiche and pizza in your weekly meal plans.
When every week consists of ground beef—in hamburgers, pasta, or casseroles—convincing your toddler to give salmon a chance may pose a challenge. Instead, look for a variety of meals to try, from meat to seafood as well as salads and grains.
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3. Don’t make dessert or junk food a reward
Have you told your kids, “Finish your plate before you get a cookie”?
Seems reasonable since they’ll be motivated to finish their main meal. The downside? They see dessert and junk food as the desirable food, and everything else the means to get there.
So yes, highlight the rarity of a slice of cake or the chips they’ll get to eat. These are, after all, the rare treats that they are (or should be!).
But at the same time, hype up the main meals too. For instance, say with gusto, “Guys, we’re having chicken and rice tonight!” and they’ll pick up on your excitement.
4. Include your child with the cooking
Cooking with kids isn’t always the easiest or cleanest activity. There’s the business of having to wash their hands. Reminding them not to sneeze into the bowl of salad dressing you just made. And vacuuming the grated cheese they didn’t get on the pizza.
But including them into cooking includes many benefits.
First, they’re more willing to eat the food they just invested time and effort into making. They’re proud of their work and want to eat the results.
And second, they’ll see how you prepare their meals. I want my kids to understand where fruits and vegetables come from. And I want them to know the effort and care that goes into preparing food.
Sometimes I pre-chop food and ask my kids to help scoop the bits into a bowl, or they pretend-cook alongside me. You can also ask your child to help put his utensils and napkins on the table.
By involving kids in the kitchen, they’re more likely to eat the healthy food that they invested their efforts into.
5. Grow your own food
Living in an apartment hasn’t stopped us from growing our own vegetables. Sure, they’re half the size as the ones you’d see at the farmers market.
But how fun is it to start a conversation about their garden and the importance of eating healthy meals? They get to plant seeds in the soil, watch it grow over time, and eat it at their dinner table.
Start simple with herbs. Then try vegetables that grow well in 12″ containers: spinach, turnips and carrots to name a few.
6. Offer food multiple times
Just because your toddler was ready to splat that spinach soup on the floor the first time you offered it to him, don’t get discouraged and cross spinach off your list just yet. Include the ingredient in another meal, or even serve the same soup a few weeks down the line.
I assumed my toddler would forever refuse rice, cheese and eggs because he didn’t like them at first try. Instead, every time I happened to have those food, I would offer him a bit until he eventually took to all three.
7. Remember, you control what your kids eat
I’ve met kids who will only eat mozzarella cheese and rice. Others who will turn their noses up at anything but chicken nuggets. And still others who will only eat plain pasta.
We all have our strange preferences. I don’t like sun dried tomatoes. One of my kids refuses to eat apple peels. And many kids have sensory sensitivities we need to accommodate.
Still, if your child is only eating a certain food, then it goes back to your choices. After all, he isn’t buying his own box of pasta and boiling it on the stove top.
To encourage a wider palette, offer your kids the food you want them to eat, and don’t offer the ones you’d rather they not.
We’re the adults who buy and make the food we offer. Kids not eating healthy food starts with looking at how we’re contributing to that.
My kids are far from perfect about eating. They will always prefer fruit over vegetables. One of my kids doesn’t like butternut squash even if we don’t tell him it’s butternut squash.
But they love eating, and healthy food at that. They’ve come to expect the whole family to eat the same meals. They enjoy cooking with me in the kitchen. And they get excited about trying new food, from strange cheese to new leafy vegetables.
And yes, they know candy isn’t healthy and won’t eat more than three.
Get more tips on kids and eating:
- How to Get Rid of Picky Eating Once and For All
- How to Improve Children’s Table Manners
- What to Do When Your Child Refuses to Eat
Your turn: What are your best tips on how to raise kids who want to eat healthy?