For kids, eating healthy can feel like a chore.
Jessica Seinfeld, wife of comedian Jerry Seinfield, wrote the best-selling "Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids to Eat Good Food" a decade ago to aid in the often difficult task of presenting healthy food as tasty, too.
Seinfield's aim was to overcome the "inconvenient truth" of kids despising vegetables and avoiding healthy eating. She advised stealthily packing traditional recipes with hidden vegetables.
But a savvy parent's approach to getting kids pumped about eating healthy foods can go far beyond strategic oatmeal and kale placement.
Medical experts and moms in the trenches recommend these five tactics. Keeping your sense of humor will always help, too.
Build on your successes. Another way to say this is "commit to the long haul." You've no doubt heard that it can take 10 or even 15 tries before a child will accept a new food, so keep presenting (but not pushing) the options, pediatrician Laura Jana told Parenting. The co-author of Food Fights and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Jana also advised parents to prepare foods in ways that may be "easier" to eat. "Roasting vegetables, for example, brings out their natural sweetness," she said.
Respect your child's appetite (or lack thereof). If your child isn't hungry, don't force a meal or snack, the Mayo Clinic advised. "Likewise, don't bribe or force your child to eat certain foods or clean his or her plate," it added. "This might only ignite, or reinforce, a power struggle over food. In addition, your child might come to associate mealtime with anxiety and frustration or become less sensitive to his or her own hunger and fullness cues." To avoid overwhelming your child, serve small portions and let her be the one to independently ask if she wants more.
At the same time, don't go to the trouble of making a separate meal for your child should he reject the original, or you could create a picky (or pickier) eater. But do encourage your child to stay at the table for the designated mealtime, even if he or she doesn't eat.
Offer lots of healthy options. Kids like to feel they're in control, Nicci Micco, M.S. noted in Eating Well, so put out lots of healthy options and let them pick what they like best. She particularly recommended this approach with healthy pizza, taco or rice bowl toppings, offering a mix that includes olives, tofu, avocado, shredded carrots, yogurt, pineapple and the like.
Focus on overall diet rather than specific foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, while you do want to encourage kids to eat more whole, minimally processed food and less packaged and processed food, you don't want to tussle over any one food. If he hates sprouts, for example, so be it.
Switch up food prep until you hit on the healthy foods that appeal. Get out of the comfort zone! Kids may have a problem with the texture or even the temperature of foods that you're used to serving, registered dietitian Melissa Halas-Liang told Parenting. "A lot of kids who don't like cooked peas will eat them frozen, right out of the bag."
And don't indulge the urge to monitor (or negotiate) every bite that goes into your child's mouth, advised the Mayo Clinic. "Most kids get plenty of variety and nutrition in their diets over the course of a week," it concluded.
Involve kids early on. At the grocery store, ask your child to help you select fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, Mayo advised. And it's tough, but simply do not buy anything you don't want your child to eat. At home, encourage your child to help you rinse veggies, stir batter or set the table. Other good kitchen chores for little hands: washing and breaking up greens, stirring up things that aren't hot, pressing the "go" button on the food processor, cutting soft foods—like strawberries—with a butter knife (supervised, of course).
Make it look good. Parenting Journals reminded parents to notice the way a child gravitates to foods that look fun in the grocery store, and use the idea of bright colors, fun shapes and interesting packaging to your advantage. The blog suggested using a bento box or snack tray to get kids pumped about healthy school lunches, giving them dips and cookie-cutter shaped fruit slices and investing a few dollars in a spiralizer. "The appeal of a vegetable to a child increases the second you make it squiggly or curly!" they noted.
Set a good example. How's that for advice that sounds like it came from the 1920s? But on a more serious note, you really will do better at getting kids to enthusiastically consume healthy foods if you're eating clean and fresh, too, according to the 21st-century mom blog iMom. "Kids can spot hypocrisy a mile away," it warned. "If you promote healthy choices for them but choose differently for yourself it will confirm their suspicions that the junk foods are more desirable."
Relax. Sure, it's easier said than done with the threat of childhood obesity or a kid being underweight constantly looming. But if you seem desperate, it could work against you, according to iMom. "Just be faithful day in and day out to shop healthy and cook healthy, and don't panic at the first hint of a kid rebellion," the blog advised. "In the absence of a lot of junk food options, they'll eventually get with the program. No one ever died from skipping a single meal, so if they completely reject a particular meal, so be it."
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