SAN DIEGO– Ask any parent about the top challenges of raising kids, and getting them to eat healthy would probably be high on the list. Countless parents have kids who just want to eat chicken nuggets, or pasta, or macaroni and cheese, or all of the above, and definitely without any vegetables.
It’s a problem throughout the year, but at back-to-school time, it gets maybe a tad more stressful, as parents are looking to start over or at least give their kids lunches that pack a healthy punch and won’t get traded away for Oreos or some other sugary snack.
So what’s a parent to do? First, don’t stress — we reached out to parents across the country, including a few experts on healthy eating for kids, and they had a ton of great advice. We’ve boiled down their insights into 11 great tips that are sure to make healthy eating in your household a little less complicated, beginning with what not to do:
1. Do nots? There are many
Don’t let your kids get hooked on sugar, says Agatha Achindu, a mother of three who founded Yummy Spoonfuls Organic Baby Food in 2006. “Sugar is in just about all packaged food these days, in one form or another,” said Achindu, who grew up on a farm in Cameroon, West Africa. Banish soda and other sugary drinks from the household, read the labels and don’t buy anything with added sugar, she says.
You might not be able to control everything your child eats, especially when your kids are not at home, but you can give them a good healthy foundation. She suggests not bringing junk food into the house: “If it’s not there, they won’t eat it.” Don’t plead or threaten or bribe your child to eat healthy food, she says, because those tactics are not effective. And don’t judge your child’s tastes by your own. “You may not like broccoli, but your child is not you. He/she may love foods that you don’t care for,” Achindu said.
2. Make food interesting
Lori Day, an educational psychologist and consultant, says her mom always told her that she was a terrible eater and that it would be karma if her daughter also didn’t like to eat well. But that’s not what happened. When her now-grown daughter was young, Day thought that if she found food interesting, she’d be more likely to try it. So Day let her daughter shell peas, count them, sort them by size and play with them before putting them in the pot. She loved eating them raw or cooked, Day said.
Same with mussels marinara, which became one of her daughter’s favorite foods. She enjoyed inspecting the mussels and looking for the potentially dead ones to throw away, learning about their biology and pulling the cooked shells all the way apart and picking out the meat.
“My main tip is to make food interesting if your child is naturally curious, enjoys science/nature and is willing to engage,” Day said.
3. Get the kids involved
Several parents talked about how bringing their children with them to the farmers market or the grocery store and having them help with the cooking can get them more excited and invested in what they are eating. “Kids can be inspired to eat healthy when they are part of the meal and snack planning process,” said Margaret McSweeney, host of the podcast Kitchen Chat, on which she has interviewed about 200 chefs, cookbook authors and food industry experts. “A trip to the local farmers market or produce aisle can be an adventure and connect them with the source of food.”
Monica Sakala, a mother of two who runs the social media consulting business SOMA Strategies, said she continues to be amazed by the power that growing their own vegetables has had on encouraging healthy eating in her kids. This is their third summer with a vegetable garden.
“They delight in going out back, getting dirty and picking the veggies. I watch them eat them raw,” she said. “They seem to delight in what they’ve grown, and there’s never a battle.”
4. Give kids choices
Ava Parnass, an infant-child psychotherapist and author of “Hungry Feelings Not Hungry Tummy,” said that from a young age, parents should let their kids choose foods, fruits, vegetables and snacks they like, within reason.
“Give them more room to choose as they get older,” she added. And never get into a power struggle with your kids about eating, food or even healthy food, she said. “Make sure you are not overcontrolling, overeducating or over-lecturing them, or they will rebel in the food arena.”
5. Get creative
Rachel Matos, a social media marketing strategist, says her teenage son would live on chicken wings and Pop-Tarts if she let him. He has always been picky about eating his greens but loves his juices, she said. “Instead of arguing every night at dinner, I got a juicer … and started making him natural fruit juices and smoothies but gradually started adding in kale, spinach and other greens.”
He noticed the change in color but continued to enjoy the taste, so as time went on, she added more and more greens. Now, he can drink a kale or spinach drink with no issue. “The juices helped him develop taste for veggies. He also notices how much better he feels when he drinks them consistently,” she said.
McSweeney, the podcast host, has another idea, this one for younger kids: Present healthy food in a creative way, such as hosting a purple night. “Everyone dresses in purple for a purple meal. Menu items could include purple peppers, purple cauliflower, purple potatoes, grapes and/or eggplant,” she said. “Savor the day!”
6. Model healthy eating
Our kids watch everything we do, so it should be no surprise that they can be influenced to make better choices if they watch us doing the same. Pam Moore says her kids, ages 3 and 5, always see her and husband eating healthy. “Both my husband and I typically add greens to our eggs (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, whatever is around) at breakfast. I always add greens to my smoothies. I often keep sliced veggies (bell peppers, carrots, cucumbers) washed, sliced and ready to eat for snacks,” said Moore, founder of the blog Whatevs.
Added Parnass, the author and psychotherapist, “Our children will ask for bites as time goes on, as they like to copy what we do, not what we say.”
7. Forget about making your kids clear their plates
Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a lawyer, strategist and mother of two, says that as a child who was the last person sitting at her table many nights, she is not a fan of making kids stay at the table until they are finished with their meal. “If they do not want to finish their vegetables or meal, they are welcome to leave the table, but there is nothing else to eat,” she said.
Moore, of the Whatevs blog, said she and her husband never force their kids to eat anything and are not in a habit of fixing them a separate dinner. “If they refuse to eat the meal, we tell them that’s OK, but that’s all there is, and they can eat again at breakfast,” she said. “If they want a second helping of, say, steak, and they have not finished whatever veggies are on their plate, we tell them they have to finish what’s there before they can have more of something else.”
8. Words matter
John Furjanic, a single father of one, said his daughter is the second-smallest child in her elementary school class — she’s about to begin fifth grade — and is acutely aware of the size difference between her and her classmates. Recently, she surprised Furjanic by repeating one of his mantras, which is “Protein builds muscles.”
“I flex my muscles when I say it, and she rolls her eyes, but apparently she has been listening,” said Furjanic, who works as a financial adviser. “I’m ecstatic that she is asking me to make chicken, steak and eggs.”
9. Get colorful
Kathy Beymer, founder of the craft site Merriment Design, said that her mom taught her when she was growing up that she should eat a bunch of colors on her plate, so she has passed that on to her kids. “We talk about food colors and how it’s healthiest to make meals that have a variety of colors, a little red, a little green, some orange, a bit of yellow,” said Beymer, a mom of two. “If everything on the plate is beige, then they know that’s not a healthy meal and that they need to add some brighter colors.”
10. Consider “litterless lunches”
Julie Cole, a mother of six and co-founder of the personalized labeling company Mabel’s Labels, says that packing “litterless lunches” will mean you are not sending in “pre-packaged snacks that are often loaded with salt or sugar.” It will encourage you to pack more fresh fruit and fresh veggies, she said. “Healthy snacks and good for the environment? Sign me up.”
Jennifer Bosse, a mother of two boys ages 4 and 6, analyzed the family diet a few years ago and realized there were some “obvious tweaks” they could make to ensure healthier eating. She realized they were consuming a lot of bread at each meal, and pasta was on the weekly lunch and dinner rotation. So, she did some research and started trying new things.
Instead of pasta noodles for spaghetti, she switched to spaghetti squash. When she makes baked goods like muffins, she uses alternative flours like coconut and almond. Instead of oil, she uses unsweetened applesauce.
“I’ve made some dishes that my boys absolutely loved and others that weren’t as successful,” said Bosse, who has contributed to the Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Mamalode. “It’s an ongoing process. … Some days, I hit a home run. Other days, I have to pull out the chicken nuggets. As with everything else in life, moderation is key.”