Parenting has its challenges, one of which is getting a picky eater to eat some darn vegetables once in a while. Chances are you either have that kid or were that kid— you know, the one who will willingly eat only pizza or nachos.
A narrow palate is usually “just a phase,” as the old saying goes, but how long it will last is anybody’s guess. And sometimes it’s not temporary; allergies and sensitivities can make for lifelong challenges. There are some strategies, however, that you can employ to get a little variety into their diets, starting with your approach.
Keep a positive attitude
When discussing food with your kids, avoid making negative comments. “I always try and keep everything positive— we never talk negatively about our bodies,” says Sarah Besocke, a mother of three and a health coach in Pasadena, Calif. She says that by keeping negativity out of the conversation, kids will be more open to learning about healthy choices.
She has one picky eater, but she also has two kids with allergies and sensitivities to dairy and gluten. “It doesn’t matter what your challenges are, there are ways to work around them,” says Besocke, who helps people with all kinds of dietary restrictions. “The key is small steps and keeping it simple.”
Simple starts with a good outlook, and emphasizing what’s good for the body, Besocke says. Although you should be honest with your kids about what foods are unhealthy, the more important priority is emphasizing what they should eat and why. Avoiding judgment and criticism of others’ food choices is also part of the positivity equation, Besocke adds.
Know your kids’ nutritional needs
You should know that your kids’ nutritional needs differ slightly from your own. “In some ways children are miniature adults when it comes to nutrition, but in other ways they are not,” says Dr. Tracy Siegfried, medical director at the Nutrition, Exercise, Wellness (N.E.W.) Program in Los Angeles, a clinic that provides weight counseling.
“Like adults, children should avoid foods high in saturated fats, high in sodium and high in sugar,” Siegfried says. “However, children are growing, and need more fat and carbohydrates to balance out their diet.” That includes good fats like olive or canola oil and whole grain carbohydrates such as wheat and oats.
Snacking is not an exception to those nutritional guidelines but should only complement regular meals. “You want your kids to come to dinner hungry so they eat your healthy meal,” says Besocke, who leaves out berries and vegetable trays after school as the only snacking option. “The only exception is that if they don’t eat their vegetables at dinner because they fill up on them before, that’s OK with me,” she says.
Prepare healthy, portable snacks
It’s easier to know what your kids are eating when they’re home with you, and certainly it’s OK for them to have junk food such as cookies and chips once in a while. Still, if your kids are running around all summer, you probably want them fueling up with nutritious food as much as possible.
“We like to make our own granola bars and trail mix at home together,” says Besocke, who adds involving the kids in the cooking and preparation process makes them more likely to eat the healthy food they make.
Her kids are also fans of fresh fruit and baggies of oven-roasted vegetables. “Let them pick out the produce themselves” so they are more likely to eat it, she says. “You can make a game out of it— try and get them to find all the colors in the rainbow.”
Of course, many kids will need more than fruits or vegetables to stay full during an active day. “Foods rich in protein and fiber keep children feeling fuller for longer,” Siegfried says. Good protein options are hard-boiled eggs, fresh turkey slices and containers of Greek yogurt. For fiber, whole wheat pitas and hummus are a great option, or a simple three-bean salad tossed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Peruse the Web for meal ideas
If you’re in need of recipes and methods to prep the food with your kids, there are several websites you can peruse. The Food Network website and Allrecipes.com both have healthy meal sections. If you’ve got a kid with allergies or sensitivities, Besocke recommends elenaspantry.com, which has options for all sorts of dietary needs.
When browsing recipes, keep one last thing in mind. “Simple and real is best,” Besocke says. “The fewer the processed foods, the fewer the ingredients— the better.” Those recipes are usually the easiest and quickest to make, to boot.