As a mom and a registered dietitian, I’m often asked how to get kids to eat healthier. Now, that’s a trick question, because there’s no magic bullet to help kids eat better. People sort of want me to answer by saying, "Just eat this one perfect food and voila – you created your own perfect eater." But it isn’t that simple. Yes, even as a nutrition expert, I struggle to get my kids to eat all foods. My 6-year-old son loves meat, but is not interested in vegetables. My 2-year-old daughter rarely eats anything unless it is a chip, bread or fruit. I’m lucky, though, that they both always drink their milk at mealtime.
I imagine my kids aren’t much different than others when it comes to food. My goal as a mom is always just to raise kids who have a healthy relationship with food. What in the world does that mean? I have a quick tip and some real-life strategies to help make sure my kids grow into healthy eaters, and I think they can help you, too.
The Quick Tip: Fire the Food Police
We were driving home from a weekend ski trip. My son’s favorite thing to do when we stop for gas is pick out candy. He picked sour gummies this time. I thought about reminding him to not eat the whole bag, but instead I let him handle it. Before we got home he had – you guessed it – eaten the whole bag. When we sat down to a healthy dinner, his tongue was raw and he was rather cranky. It was a rather unfortunate lesson to learn, but one most kids need to experience – and one we likely experienced as kids. I could have lectured him about the misguided indulgence, but instead I helped him work through the sting with the hopes that the next road trip he chooses a bit more moderation in his candy eating.
When we deny or restrict food for being “bad,” or encourage or reward for “good” food, we unwittingly distort our kids' ideas about food. If you were to tell me I couldn’t eat something, all I would want to do is eat it up! In the absence of disease or allergies, kids have an uncanny ability to manage and control their own food intake. And as parents, we should provide healthy environments in which they can succeed. So what does that mean in my house?
3 Real-Life Strategies for Kids’ Nutrition
- I provide healthy food options we all enjoy and eat together as often as possible. There are plenty of dairy, whole-grain, fruit and vegetable options at meal and snack time. These are foods most people don’t get enough of in a healthy diet, yet they are convenient and easy any time of day.
- We talk about food in a healthy way. My kids help choose foods at the store, which helps them eat it at home. They also help in the kitchen with meal prep in an age-appropriate manner. As we cook, we talk about ways nutrients in the foods help our bodies, simple cooking techniques and foods we like to eat. Keep it positive!
- We do have a candy drawer. I mean, I am not crazy. Food should always be enjoyed, and your family favorites should be included to help your kids understand that some foods give you nutrition and some foods just taste good. It’s the balance between the two that your kids have to figure out.
So fire the food police and instead focus on creating a balance and a healthy relationship with food. Offer plenty of nutritious and yummy foods like milk, cheese and yogurt; try new fruits and veggies; and experiment with whole grain foods. And top it all off with a side of fun.