Mending Mealtime: How to Get Kids to Eat Healthy
I have been working with families on their health for close to a decade but nourishing my little guy (who’s now 4) has taught me more about nutrition for children than any textbook I have read. He has helped me shape the way I support families and has become the foundation for the nutritional guidance I offer.
For many of us with selective/picky/tricky eaters at home, we spend far too much time worrying about whether or not our child is eating a certain food in a form we’d prefer. Here’s what I mean: My little love refuses to eat broccoli, kale, or cauliflower in their whole form, but will happily chug them all down when blended up in his daily smoothie. Even though he doesn’t like to eat those veggies in the traditional way, he’s still getting all the nutritional value from them in a smoothie. While I still put the vegetables on his plate and trust that he will expand his horizons when he is ready, dropping my own expectations of how he should be eating a certain food and replacing it with confidence that he’s getting the nutrients he needs lifted a huge weight from my shoulders.
If you find yourself struggling with the frustration or shame that your child won’t suffer anything green on their plate, or avoids sliced fruit or whole wheat bread, know you’re not alone. Allow yourself to change this script. As parents we have the incredibly difficult task (among all the other difficult tasks!) of expanding our child’s food horizons. If your child doesn’t like a certain food right now, that’s totally okay! It’s important to focus less on whether they’re eating a food at a particular time in a particular way (like broccoli on a dinner plate) and focus more on whether or not they’re getting their daily nutritional quotient. So let’s re-group, reframe, and make a plan that makes sense for your child and for your family (and let’s also pause to acknowledge that you’re doing an awesome job, because you are!).
As frustrating as it can be to have your little one constantly avoid certain foods, tastes, or textures, it’s important to consider the world from their perspective. Kids always have their reasons, even if they make little sense to us big people.
Me Do It!
This is not only a very natural part of development for children, but also a large source of struggle, both for them and for their caregivers. As parents, we want our children to be independent and do things for themselves, but sometimes it’s really that we want them to do what we want, when we want them to do it! (we can’t help it! We’re grownups!). The goal is allowing for independent growth and self-development while also making sure that children are well-nourished.
Worries can sometimes enter a child’s mind when presented with a new-to-them-food. To create a calm, curious environment around a new food, start by just letting your child tolerate having the new food on their plate. Once they can manage that, encourage them to freely explore the food, without the expectation that they’ll eat it. When they feel they’re ready, they can sniff, lick, or even nibble a few bites! New foods may require a few appearances at the dinner table to even get a sniff!
We all have our personal preferences! Even as adults we have flavours, textures, foods and food forms that we either love or hate. Children are the same. If there’s a particular texture they love, like a cold smoothie, capitalize on this and try to jam as much good stuff in there as you can get away with!
We live in an era where we are bombarded with information, opinions, and opportunities to compare ourselves and our families with others. When it comes to what our child eats (or more problematically, doesn’t eat!), it can be easy to blame ourselves and see their restrictive palate as a failing on our parts. As the parent of a selective eater and someone who has spent their entire adult life pursuing education and a subsequent career in clinical nutrition, I believe it’s time to go a little easier on ourselves!
As much as I am a proponent for nutrition first, and food as medicine, I am also an advocate for improving the mental and emotional wellbeing of parents, which in turn has a positive effect on families. When we overthink and overanalyze every single thing our child does or doesn’t put in their mouth, we put unnecessary pressure on ourselves.
Ultimately, we cannot force our children to eat. As parents we are responsible for what is served, the relationship with food we model, and the experience we cultivate. Our kids are in charge of what they eat, and how much of it. When we understand this, we can define our goals, prioritize them, and work toward them with trust and confidence while letting any extraneous pressure go.
For example, my son refuses to eat salad. While this is certainly not unheard of for a 4-year-old, I do know a few 4-year-olds who love greens. So naturally part of my brain may worry that something is wrong, or that by not enjoying salad now he’ll grow up with a terrible diet and never eat salad! Likely this won’t be the case, but let’s follow that worry for a moment. What if he becomes an adult that never chooses to eat a salad (gasp!)? Whether he eats salad or not, he will nevertheless grow up knowing the importance knowing the importance of having daily greens and will probably be more likely to toss them into a smoothie or incorporate them in another way that he likes. I could become entrenched in “the shoulds”, try to force him, or stress myself out over the fact that he doesn’t eat salads, or I could let that all go. I can involve him in making a smoothie (see recipe below) each day with spinach or kale (nutrient box checked!) and keep putting the salad on his plate so he can choose to eat it or not. What if he never eats a salad? Or what if he does? Both are possible, and need not be a reason parents feel stress.
On the Menu
Every child is different. Some are super-selective about what they’ll eat, while others are only “picky” sometimes. Some will avoid certain textures or will shy from certain flavours. The important thing is not to judge what your child will or will not eat and compare it to other kids you know. It’s important to think about children as individualized beings, with their own unique tastes and preferences. Find their favourite tastes, textures, temperatures, and methods, and use those to your advantage. The following is what my selective eater chooses to eat in a typical day (but this may change as his tastes expand and grow!)
Breakfast: Scrambled eggs, whole grain bread with almond butter, and berries
Snack: Apple slices and homemade muffin
Lunch: Chickpea pasta with vegetable marinara sauce and drizzle of olive oil
Snack: Smoothie and seed crackers with hummus or avocado
Dinner: Brown rice, red lentils, sweet potato, peanut butter, and oat milk mixed together (He won’t eat rice or lentils on their own but loves them mixed together, so we start there!)
Sneak Superfood Smoothie
- ½ c unsweetened vanilla oat milk
- ½ banana
- 1 piece of frozen raw broccoli
- 2 pieces of frozen raw cauliflower
- handful of kale
- 1 tsp hemp seeds
- 1 Tbsp pumpkinseed butter
- fish oil (amount based on brand)
Blend ingredients in high-powered blender until smooth and creamy. Makes 1 serving.
As you begin thinking about what your child’s daily diet should look like, consider the following recommendations:
Include a serving of dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, swiss chard, etc.) either in whole form, or hidden in a smoothie or blender juice, pancakes and muffin batters, soups, or even salads.
Enjoy orange vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, pumpkin. These can be eaten raw, roasted, or baked, or mixed in smoothies, soups, and added to baking.
Include healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, full fat coconut milk, or wild fish with each meal.
Protein requirements vary based on age and body size, but aim for approximately 9-11 g per day for children under the age of one; around 13 g for those 1-3 years old; 19 g for kids aged 4-9 years old; 34 g for 9-13-year-olds; and 45-55 g in adolescents. There are a wide variety of sources of higher protein foods including lean meat, fish, eggs, red lentils, quinoa, bone broth, oat milk, nut or seed butters, beans, and legumes. You can also choose higher protein noodles such as lentil and chickpea, sprouted grain breads, and cereals.
While many parents are concerned that too much fruit isn’t good for their children due to the sugar content, it’s important to recognize that although fruit does contain natural sugars they also are high in vitamins, antioxidants, fibre, and water. When considering a child’s diet as a whole, if the concern is too much sugar, natural sugars from fruit are not often the culprit, making including a few servings of fruit a day a tasty way to get more nutrients!
time and mental energy feeling frustrated that my little one won’t eat many foods in the forms I’d prefer, but ultimately my goal for him is not that he chooses to eat broccoli or carrot sticks. My goal is that he understands nutrition and how it impacts his health and the way he feels, that he listens to his body, and that he enjoys his food. I want this for you and your kids too, so let go of those expectations and embrace the now of what your child will eat. Keep offering safe tasting opportunities and be confident that as they grow, so will their food repertoire!
You may also enjoy: 5 Smoothie Moves for Smart Parents, 9 Strategies to Get Kids off Junk Food and on to Healthy Eating, and Nurturing Mindful Eating in Kids.