Holistic health begins with nutrition, from our earliest days through development. Here, experts dish on how to get picky eaters to connect with—and love—what’s on their plate.
One of Hilary Stiebel’s most memorable moments happened when a young girl became very excited about nutritious food.
Stiebel is the programs manager at Philabundance, the Delaware Valley’s largest hunger relief organization, so her passion is providing food to people in need and making food accessible. But when that food also happens to be heathy and nutritious—well, that’s the low-sugar icing on the applesauce cake.
“This little girl was running up for second and third helpings of a spinach pesto dip, using raw parsnip chips for dipping. She couldn’t get enough of it,” says Stiebel, a mother of two small children. “It’s so much fun to watch kids get excited about food. And it’s possible.”
It’s possible for your family, too.
Some say healthy eating is simply a matter of feeding your children the same thing the rest of the family is eating. But what happens when your child just … won’t? (I know this firsthand. My son was stuck in the dreaded quesadilla phase for about a year.) How do you encourage children to get excited about what’s on their plate?
Here are tips and tricks for getting kids to eat healthier fare, straight from the experts who know how to build deep and meaningful relationships with food.
Positive experiences with food in childhood develops into healthy eating habits as an adult. Foster this relationship by educating your child about food—not just where it comes from, but how it becomes lunch or dinner in your home. Ask your child for meal suggestions. Get their help shopping for ingredients. Bring your child to the store or to the market. Teach them what it means when produce is in season, and how that changes the taste.
To help you get started, try just one new thing.
Positive experiences with food in childhood develops into healthy eating habits as an adult.
“I always tell my clients to take their children to the market and buy one thing they’ve never tried before,” says Liz Abel, licensed nutritionist at the First State Health & Wellness Integrative Health Center in Wilmington. “That’s one reason I love farmers markets. You can ask the seller directly, ‘What is this and what can I do with it?’ You do that, and you’re not scared anymore. You know that you can make Swiss chard with garlic, and you can sauté it with sauce, and you can combine with other greens. You start to realize a lot of things you can link to one product or one recipe.”
You’re busy and trying to get food on the table. Having an extra pair of (tiny) hands in the kitchen isn’t always helpful, and it will almost certainly create a bigger mess to clean up. However, children are far more likely to eat the food they’ve had a hand in preparing. Even small tasks like pulling carrots from the refrigerator or putting dressing on the salad give them a sense of ownership in the meal.
“Offering them a job from a young age, or whatever age they are, is important, whether it’s slicing or dicing or peeling,” Stiebel says. “It doesn’t have to be a big job. It can be mixing. Someone can help hold the recipe book. There are always ways to get kids involved.”
It’s also helpful to serve meals family-style, letting your child decide how much of each dish they’d like to eat.
“Kids can figure out what they want to eat and how much they’re eating, and it reinforces very positive habits,” Abel says. “Babies are born with great intuition about how much food they need. Let kids develop that.”
It can be a challenge to eat together as a family when everyone has busy schedules, but the research on this is plentiful and profound.
“Eating together is better for everyone in every possible way, from forming relationships to how the body uses food,” Abel says. “So turn off the TV, put the phones away and mindfully eat together. Really so much of that mineral absorption happens when we slow down and spend time with what we eat.”
Turn off the TV, put the phones away and mindfully eat together.
Stiebel makes this a priority in her programs too, cultivating the idea that meals are a significant way to bring people together.
“It’s important that kids realize that a meal is a community experience,” she says. “Eventually they see that food is something everybody needs, and enjoying it is something we can experience together.”
Nobody wants boring broccoli, and that includes your 5-year-old child.
Sprinkle steamed veggies with sesame seeds, chopped herbs or cheese shreds. Make chocolate hummus (blend chickpeas, cocoa powder, maple syrup and peanut butter) as a dip for apple slices, banana or strawberries. Put out a side of ranch dressing.
“A little cheese goes a long way,” says Stiebel, who also likes to build on the familiar to get her kids to try new things.
In Stiebel’s household, her kids love noodles—so a dish of “zoodles” (zucchini noodles) topped with cheese isn’t a far stretch. Or if your kids are peanut butter fans, as many kids are, it’s not a far leap to a Thai peanut sauce topping for noodles.
“Any time you can incorporate something kids are already familiar with into the food they’re eating,” she says, “the more success you’ll have.”
Jessica Seinfeld built an empire with the New York Times bestselling cookbook Deceptively Delicious, which coaches parents on how to creatively (and stealthily) insert veggies into traditional recipes that kids love. That means stirring mashed squash into the macaroni and cheese, making oatmeal with sweet potato, and fortifying chili with puréed carrots.
This is probably the most controversial tip of all. On one hand, if you hide a vegetable in a way that obscures its flavor, taste and texture, how can a child ever learn to love it? On the other hand, the technique still means getting more nutrition into your child’s meals.
But why not both? Sure, teach your children about produce and how it tastes. But also grate zucchini into a batch of muffins, add finely chopped peppers to your spaghetti sauce, mash steamed cauliflower in the mashed potatoes.
Make the food you’re eating accessible, and your children will likely eat it eventually.
“Variety is the most important thing,” Abel says. “Just make sure your family is eating a wide variety of produce. How it gets there is secondary.”
You don’t have to serve your child a portion of vegetables that will end up going to waste, but do give them the opportunity to try some of yours. Make the food you’re eating accessible, and your children will likely eat it eventually.
“The more you expose a kid to something they’ve never seen before, the more they are likely to eat it,” Stiebel says. “Just becoming familiar with the food is encouragement for kids who might be more apprehensive.”
Branding is not just for businesses or products. Think about how you are presenting new foods or flavors to children.
“If I’m making a green spinach smoothie, I call it a Hulk smoothie and suddenly the kids want to eat it,” Stiebel says. “Anything that can be a rainbow is also very popular.”
Also trying to convince children to eat healthy food because “it’s good for your bones” or “it’ll make you grow big and strong,” can be a hard sell. Something that’s pitched as “healthy” is often thought of as less tasty or desirable, even when it comes to adults. Instead, try describing food as “yummy” or “delicious.”
Stiebel also suggests an “eat your way through the alphabet” game, finding nutritious foods for each letter of the alphabet.
Try a theme-tasting day, like sampling different varieties of apples to discover how the same food can have different tastes.
Present food on skewers or in a fun style. I have a friend who makes every salad plate look like an owl, and her toddler digs into it like a king who has been presented with the finest steak.
So you’ve encouraged your child to try new foods, but what happens when they don’t like it?
“Don’t yuck somebody else’s yum,” Stiebel says.
That is, don’t taint someone else’s experience with negativity. Don’t wrinkle your nose, make gagging sounds or use negative words. This goes beyond good table manners; it’s about letting others enjoy their own experiences with food.
For the child who doesn’t like the dish, help expand their food vocabulary to keep them engaged with the meal. Encourage them to say what precisely they dislike: Is the food too spicy? Do they prefer a firmer texture? Maybe they’d like that dish warmed up?
Don’t taint someone else’s experience with negativity
Remember, not everything works all the time. Some of these tips won’t fit into your household or lifestyle, and that’s OK. “What works for one person doesn’t work for another,” Abel says. “When it comes to food, everything is very custom, and some kids will be picky eaters for a while.
“The key is making small changes over time and discovering what will work for your family.”
Words by Maggie Downs. Published as “Teach (and Feed) Your Children Well” in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of 302Health magazine.