Before you become a parent, it's easy to pass judgment on other families, and how you would do things differently. As a lifelong member of the health community, I thought my kids would naturally love munching on raw kale and abhor anything boxed. Then I had kids and I ate my words.
What do you do when you find yourself with a toddler who only loves two different foods, and both of them are different forms of bread? As a functional medicine practitioner, I see on a daily basis the power of the foods we eat. The foods our children are eating today are the building blocks for the rest of their lives.
Here are 23 tips to help turn your picky eater into a kid who eats healthy!
1. Decide what's in the kitchen.
This might be a surprise to some of us parents, but we are the ones who buy what's in the kitchen. If there's no junk food in the house, our kids can't have it. Fill your fridge and cupboards with real food. After the initial shock has worn off, your kids will begin to accept that they can only eat the food that's available.
2. Minimize snacking between meals.
If your child is grazing a little too much on snack foods, they won't be hungry enough to eat the meal you've made them. In the West, "I'm hungry" often means "I'm bored and I am used to food entertaining me." You should avoid or minimize fruit juices, because kids' little stomachs can easily fill up on this glorified sugar water, leaving little room for actual food. If they're hungry in between meals, they may just need to eat more during mealtime.
3. Have them at least try it.
As regularly as possible, my wife and I try to introduce foods our kids haven't tried before. We tell them they need to have at least one bite to experience a new food. They might hate it, but sometimes, with consistency, that one bite turns into 10.
4. Give unloved foods a positive spin.
If your child doesn't like what they have tried, don't make a big deal out of it. Avoid making it something negative. Say something like, " It's OK, maybe your taste buds aren't ready for that just yet." I have patients who are in their 50s who still tell themselves they don't like a food they tried 40 years ago.
5. Let them get involved in the making process.
Involving your kids with simple little tasks, like mixing or measuring ingredients, can give them a sense of accomplishment and a desire to try their creation. It also educates them about preparing healthy foods.
6. Let them decide between a few choices.
Giving your child a choice between two or three food ideas allows them to assert their independence while not overwhelming them with too many options.
7. Focus on what they CAN have.
Shift their perspective (and yours!) from what they can't eat to all they can.
8. Don't overvalue dessert.
Healthy desserts should be enjoyable, but making your meal as a means to an end, or as a reward, can build bad habits. When a piece of cake or cookies are needed after every meal, it's a problem.
9. Don't be too restrictive.
Have standards for the foods your kids eat, but don't be so rigid that they never can have an occasional unhealthy dessert. Studies have shown that children who are excessively restricted with foods are more likely to overeat when they're alone.
10. Visit a farmer or farmers market.
Taking your little one to a local, sustainable farm or farmers market lets them see the place their food comes from. We're often so removed from the source of the food we eat that providing a memorable experience will educate and enlighten their inquisitive minds.
11. Explain food benefits in terms they will understand.
Having conversations about what their food is doing for them, like, "Avocados make your brain nice and strong," is a great way for them to start making good food choices. Conversely, having an age-appropriate but honest conversations about what junk food does to the body is important.
12. Make whole food smoothies.
Smoothies are a great way to get a lot of nutrient-dense foods in your growing kids. Blending foods like coconut milk and oil, avocados, probiotics and leafy greens with some berries and cacao in a yummy drink is a treat most kids will enjoy!
13. Use grain-free alternatives.
Try using gluten- and grain-free alternatives like almond and coconut flours for anything you would bread (like nuggets), or bake (like muffins or cookies).
14. Mask nutritious foods in recipes:
To get a wider variety of vegetables in your children's diet, try mashing cauliflower instead of potatoes. Most kids like spaghetti. Try baking spaghetti squash and using it in place of noodles. If you eat meat, try hiding nutrient-dense, grass-fed liver in the sauce or in meatloaf.
15. Be creative.
Make food fun! Arranging vegetables in the shape of a silly face can be a simple way to engage your child in healthy foods.
16. Be consistent and patient.
These tips are not miracle cures for a picky eater. As with anything in parenting, consistency and patience are two crucial qualities for you to have.
17. Be smart when eating out.
Eating out healthily can be challenging for adults, let alone with kids. Children's menus are typically some of the worst choices when it comes to health. Check out my tips for eating out here.
18. Create a trade system.
Sadly, school can be a place where your child eats a lot of junk food. My wife and I set up a trade system for this problem. When they are given an unhealthy treat at school or on the bus they can wait and trade it in at home for a healthy treat they love even more at home.
19. Make them aware of how precious and valuable they are.
Teach your kids to love themselves enough to nourish their bodies with good things. If we fully realized our unique gifts and potential, would we fill ourselves with junk?
20. Don't pass your dislike for healthy food onto your kids.
Children are like sponges, absorbing the attitudes of the people around them. I've had many conversations with patients about their picky children. In the same conversation I see a look of disgust on the mom's face when talking about a certain healthy food — the same food their child doesn't want to eat!
21. Be conscious of your relationship with food.
This goes hand in hand with the last tip. As parents, it's our responsibility to sort out our own baggage when it comes to food. Break the generational cycle of unhealthy eating patterns so that your kids can be free to enjoy good food.
22. Eat together when possible.
Studies have shown children who eat together with their family tend to eat healthier foods than children who don't. This is not always possible for everyone; I'm usually home after sundown every weekday. But whenever you can, make a point to eat with your family. Turn off your cellphone and television, and use that time to talk and connect with your kids.
23. Educate yourself on what is healthy.
A lot of parents are well intentioned but overwhelmed with where to start. Check out my real food challenge here so you and your family can make the jump into healthy together as a team!