How do you get the kids to eat healthy foods? The answer isn't rewarding them with unhealthy ones.
The United States Department of Agriculture recommended a daily vegetable intake of one to two cups for younger children, while teenagers should be eating closer to three cups. With picky young eaters, it can be hard to ensure they're getting their full recommended serving of vegetables, much less trying an array of other healthy foods. Sometimes the bigger challenge can be getting them to enjoy healthy foods once they're at least open to trying them.
Follow these tips to start encouraging your kids to eat healthy foods:
Be a good influence
Children's eating habits are nearly always connected to their parents. If you tend to eat a weird times or keep junk food in the house, your kids will grow up thinking those eating habits are normal. However, if you serve vegetables with every dinner, they'll expect to eat them every day. Have conversations with them about the importance of healthy foods in terms they'll understand, such as how they help them grow up with strong muscles. They're going to follow your example, so be the role model they need to understand healthy eating behaviors.
Let them be little chefs
Kids are more likely to eat foods they help prepare. Take them to the farmers market or grocery store and let them help you pick out fruits, vegetables and healthy snacks to eat during the week. When it's time to cook, give them jobs - appropriate to their age of course. The younger ones can wash the vegetables and set the table, while older kids can help chop the ingredients. You can even start a family herb or vegetable garden or plant fruit trees so the kids can get excited about growing the ingredients you'll use in cooking. Once they're involved in all of these steps, they'll be more enthusiastic when it's time to eat. Plus, they won't be thrown off by any new flavors if they saw the ingredients at the store or while helping you cook.
Don't force them to finish
Ask them to try a bite before rejecting healthy foods, but don't force them to finish the whole plate. Doing so will give them a negative perception of the food, and they'll associate those particular items with the bad experience. If they don't like it the first time, don't give up entirely. It often takes kids a few times to start enjoying a food, so try serving it to them again a few weeks later. According to registered dietitian Julie Burns from Parents magazine, "a little hero worship can work wonders too." She told her son that Michael Jordan eats peas and he is now eager to finish a whole serving.
Make it colorful
If you're serving a bland, dreary-looking meal, you can't exactly expect the kids to be excited about eating it. Instead, load their plates with lots of fun, vibrant foods. Consider strips of red, yellow and orange peppers, broccoli florets and carrots dipped in hummus for a snack or green beans and salmon for dinner. Keep in mind that kids usually prefer their food separate, especially when they're getting to know new flavors. Try to serve separate vegetable dishes rather than mixed casseroles, and have fun arranging the food into patterns on the plate. Fun faces will always bring a smile to theirs!
Get creative with the veggies
If you have notoriously picky eaters on your hands, you may be struggling for additional tactics to increase their vegetable intake. Cooking Light put together a list of foods to secretly introduce veggies into their diet, including ketchup, chips and pasta made with real vegetables, as well as riced options for a new texture. Plus, these tips from EatingWell magazine will give you inspiration for adding veggies to your favorite family meals, such as peas in mac and cheese or veggies on pizza. You can even appeal to their sweet tooth with baked goods made with vegetables. These dessert recipes from Greatist all call for veggies, but you wouldn't know it by tasting them.
Good luck! Your little ones will be happily devouring healthy meals in no time.