If you’re a parent you already know (or you will soon know) that the dynamic between kids and food can get interesting…if not completely complicated. For instance, my son Justus will eat his carrots if they are chopped a certain way – get it wrong and he won’t touch them. He’s 1 ½ so we’re willing to put up with this…for now.
You may have a kid that hardly eats at all or they only eat certain foods.
I have a friend whose son is only interested in string cheese, fruit and carbs. He’s almost 3 and I’ve seen first hand how hard it can be to get him to eat anything else.
So, it begs the question: How do you establish healthy eating habits for kids?
We’re going to talk about that in this article. We don’t have perfect kids and they don’t always eat well. But I will say that they are really good eaters 90% of the time. We’re going to share some of our strategies as a family in hopes that they might help you, too.
If you’re already frustrated with your child about what they eat (or don’t eat), the good news is that there are many ways to establish healthy eating habits for kids.
You just have to be patient, practice consistency and sometimes you have to be a bit clever. Even though it can be exhausting (we’ve had those days!) it’s worth it to invest in your child.
We have strong anchors tied to food that start from childhood, so the decisions that you make to create healthy eating habits for your kids will go a long way in the future.
Here are some of our suggestions.
How to Establish Healthy Eating Habits for Kids
1- Start Them Early
When babies get their first tastes of food (not sooner than 6 months), it’s important to make wise decisions here. While it may be fun to feed them bananas and fruit (what kid doesn’t gobble those down?), we knew we were better off starting with an avocado or a vegetable like pureed carrots or zucchini.
We’re literally training their palette when we start introducing them to food.
We wanted to give our kids the chance to fall in love with vegetables by focusing on veggies and protein first at mealtime and then moving on to the fruits later on.
And we have stayed away from juice. We don’t even serve 100% juice – never have. It’s high in sugar and it only trains the palette to desire sweet foods. For instance, have you ever tried to eat a banana or piece of fruit after having a cookie or sweet treat? It’s odd that it doesn’t taste very sweet at all, right? It’s because your palette just got overloaded with a bunch of refined sugar. The same thing happens to kids when they are conditioned to prefer very sweet foods.
We have found that our kids can appreciate the sweet taste of carrots and especially fruits like bananas and grapes because they are not exposed to ultra sweet and processed foods. I think this is a huge reason why we have very little issue with getting them to eat a wide variety of veggies and fruits.
2- Lead by Example
My dad has always been a fast driver. He has a need for speed and that’s just how I’ve always remembered him driving growing up. Right around when I turned 15 and I was asking to get my learner’s permit I remember him changing his tune. All of a sudden he was driving with his hands at 10 and 2, he wasn’t driving as fast and he was coming to a complete stop at the stop signs.
At 15 I was old enough to know that he was trying to “model” good behavior since I was going to be driving soon. But it was too late. I had watched him drive super fast for many years. So, what do you think I did when I got behind the wheel on my own at 16? Yeah, exactly. I drove fast just like he did…but I lacked the experience that my dad had of decades of driving and traveling for a living.
So, there’s no surprise that I ran my car off the road one morning as I was driving my sister to school. Thankfully, the car was just scratched up and nobody was hurt.
The point is, if you want to know how to raise healthy eaters, you’ve got to eat healthy yourself. You can’t have a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. It may work while they’re young, but as soon as they have freedom to make their own choices they’ll do exactly what they’ve watched you do over the years.
I will also say that as a parent, my kids are more willing to try new foods if they see me and their dad eating it. So much so that we call them our little “food poachers.” It doesn’t matter how long ago they ate, they’re always interested in trying what’s on mommy and daddy’s plate. They look up to us so that’s why we have to lead by example.
3- Leverage What They Love
One of the best ways to establish healthy eating habits for kids is to reward them for their good behavior. Even when you’re trying to feed a picky toddler, leveraging what they love can go a long way.
We don’t believe in “desserts” or treats after every meal. We want to teach our kids that you have to eat your dinner because it’s healthy and good for you – not just because you want a treat. But a few times a week we will let them have a treat for eating all of their food.
Since we don’t keep sugary foods in our house, when my kids ask for a “treat” after dinner they’re usually talking about applesauce, a 100% fruit snack or a fruit and nut health bar that they really like.
Once in awhile we’ll bake grain free chocolate chip cookies and our oldest, Isaac, can enjoy one after dinner. But it doesn’t just have to be food – our kids love being pulled in the bike trailer when we go out for family bike rides. Our oldest loves story time before bed.
“Do you want two stories tonight instead of one?”
“Okay, then. Eat your spinach.”
These are just more leverage points.
The key for us is that we don’t always offer a treat after dinner (or another leveraged activity). If we always offer it, then they come to expect it. So, we offer a treat a few nights a week and it’s not always the same thing – there’s variety and a sense of surprise so that our kids aren’t expecting something every night – and so that they continue to eat their vegetables even if they aren’t getting a treat.
And if you’re wondering if this is bribery – technically, it is. But we have absolutely no problem with it. Here’s why:
Little Bodies Need Nutrients
Everyone needs the right amount of vitamins and nutrients, but this is especially true for children who are growing rapidly. If I have to leverage treats to get my kids to eat a plateful of veggies then so be it. Ensuring that they have proper nutrition is one of the best things I can do for them as a parent.
We Educate Them
We talk about the importance of eating healthy (and healthy life habits in general) outside of meal time. We just got a playset for them that has a bunch of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Things like that can act as teaching tools to peak their interest in fruits and vegetables and expose them to new foods.
Any time we’re grocery shopping or at the Farmer’s Market – these are other opportunities to share where our food comes from and why we need to make healthy choices. My niece, who is 6, has such a clear understanding of sugar and why it’s harmful that it’s remarkable. She will even ask before being served something, “Does this have sugar in it?” Because she was taught that too much sugar is bad for her.
We Praise Them
Some people have a problem with praising kids for eating their food because they believe it can create inappropriate relationships with food later on. Our perspective is that in those cases there are often many other factors at play other than just giving an “atta girl” for eating their carrots.
We praise our children for eating their vegetables because they are very young and our praise goes a long way with them. When they see our joy over their good choices (and we emphasize that they have made a good choice) it spurs them on to keep it up.
Research Says Bribing Works
One of the hesitations with bribing kids is that you steal away their own internal motivation to make the right decisions. This article actually shows evidence to the contrary. But to be clear, we believe it’s really important for our kids to learn to make great choices for themselves.
But at the ages of 1 ½ and 3, they just don’t even know what’s best for them and they lack the emotional maturity to always make the right choices. That’s why we bribe sometimes. Until they are a little bit older, we will continue to leverage the things that they love to get them to eat well.
4- Learn When to Put Your Foot Down
Your kids are smarter than you think. They know what buttons to press and what to do to get their own way with you. My kids do the same thing to me. And some days it‘s really draining.
When you’ve gotten to the point where your child will not eat anything that isn’t white or you know that they have pretty poor nutrition (just be honest with yourself here), it’s time to put your foot down.
Before you start feeling like you’re going to be the “mean” parent and you don’t want to be “too hard” on your kid, you have to see this from the right perspective. Here’s just a few side effects of poor nutrition in children:
- Increased risk of osteoporosis later in life
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Increased risk of type 2 diabetes
- Increased risk of obesity and breathing problems, such as asthma, related to being overweight
- Compromised brain and behavioral development
- Trouble focusing and paying attention
- Increased risk of psychological disorders such as anxiety
- Increased risk of learning disabilities
- Poor immune system function
And I know you don’t want that for your child. What good parent does? So if you have a little dictator in the house that won’t eat anything healthy, it’s time for a change. And depending on the age of your child this may not look very pretty.
Our youngest has been going through a period of testing mommy and daddy at dinner time. He’s at that age where he’s discovered that he actually has a choice in the matter and he will sometimes throw a tantrum if he’s not getting his way (not just with food, with anything).
At dinner time, we eat the exact same thing as our kids.
They are offered dinner and we make kid friendly adjustments where needed (for instance, my oldest doesn’t like olives so we’ll leave those on the side for the adults). They are given the opportunity to eat what’s in front of them or not. If they do, they are praised and they may be offered a treat (see above). If not, they go to bed hungry (see below).
Here’s some tips for navigating through this process:
Don’t Make It a War
What we won’t do is fight with our kids at dinner time. We don’t force our kids to eat or punish them for not eating. We also don’t sit there and constantly coax them to eat their food. Our boys are strong willed and they have very rarely ever done anything because we’re begging them to. In fact, the constant coaxing and begging typically has the opposite effect on them. Not to mention that it’s exhausting for mom and dad and then the kids end up getting frustrated, too.
For us, it’s just a very matter of fact thing: “Boys, it’s time for dinner. You need to eat your food to grow healthy and strong.” If they do things like throw food or throw a tantrum (it’s happened before) we take the food away until they are ready to behave. What typically happens is they are so upset that the food was taken that when it’s presented again, they are ready to eat with no behavior issues.
Don’t Make Two Separate Meals
We aren’t making two separate meals every night or changing up what’s offered because one of our kids doesn’t want their dinner. Ain’t nobody got time for that. We have very full lives and I learned quickly with the first child that starting the habit of making different meals every night is a no-go.
We may have an old fashioned approach, but our perspective is that you either eat or you don’t – it’s your choice. Sometimes there’s a treat for eating your food, sometimes not.
And there have been a few times where big brother got the treat for eating his meal and little brother didn’t or vice versa. And we explain the reason why. If you’re wondering about the 1 ½ year old, he completely understands when we communicate about treats after dinner and he knows exactly what to do to get one. They are much smarter than we think.
It’s Okay If They Go to Bed Hungry
If your child has been calling the shots at meal time there will be a calibration period as they’re getting used to the new rules. They may boycott food altogether. But it won’t last long as long as you stay consistent and don’t give in.
I’ve never worried about our kids going to bed starving. Because let’s be real. Our kids live in first world nations. They are far from starved. And if they are truly hungry then they will eat. It’s not like I’m serving up turnip greens (gross!) every night – or even at all. This is good, family friendly food that our kids love 90% of the time.
So, if you have to send your kids to bed hungry a few times, it’s okay. The more consistent you are the sooner they’ll get it over it and adjust to the new way of doing things.
My friend – the one who’s son wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t white – decided when we were visiting one weekend to start instilling some new rules. She was amazed at how well our kids ate and she asked me what to do. I simply told her that she’d have to offer him healthy food and not budge on it. No snacks or carby treats that he was used to. He would be hungry for a bit, but he’d eat soon enough.
She was very hesitant to try it out and I think if I wasn’t there that weekend to encourage her she would’ve aborted the plan. The first part of the day started rough with a lot of tears and tantrums, but by that afternoon he was eating vegetables for lunch. No lie – the boy was making progress quickly. And it’s because mom and dad held their ground. It’s only gotten better from there.
Keep Outside Factors in Mind
When we’re having challenges with our kids, one thing that we keep in mind is how they’re doing physically. If they are tired, teething (this is more rare with toddlers but molars can be tough), are in transition (starting school, moving, etc.). we cut them some slack.
They are very young after all and by nature they are immature and have immature ways of dealing with their emotions. For instance, the other day my 1 ½ year old was completely belligerent at dinner. My husband and I looked at each other like, “What is going on with this kid?” He was screaming throwing food on the floor and completely frustrated that we didn’t understand what he wanted.
Then I remembered that he had napped poorly earlier in the day and he was probably exhausted. We cut them some slack in those moments and take into consideration that they are still small and things like bad naps can really take a toll.
5- Create the Right Environment
This is a tip that even most adults could do better with. When it’s time to eat, getting the environment right is super important. If you have a kid that won’t stay in their chair while they’re eating, give them consequences (like taking something they love away) or invest in a type of chair that you can strap them into.
Even though my 3-year old can sit in a “big boy” chair and eat on his own, the temptation of being able to get up and down out of his seat proves to be too much. This is why when we’re at home he’s always buckled into a seat so he can focus on his dinner.
The other thing is we keep the TV off and toys off the table when we’re at home eating dinner.
We’re not really a TV family anyway, but during the odd time where we’ve had the TV on during a meal, the kids are always distracted and it takes them twice as long to eat. They also don’t eat as well. So, we keep the TV off and toys off the table when we’re at home eating a meal.
Plus, it’s a way to build our relationship as a family. While they’re not exactly old enough to talk on and on about their day, we still make a point of sitting down together, focusing on our meal and focusing on each other. As they get older, that tradition will become even more meaningful.
One Other Thing
One more thing that I want to note is that we “sneak” vegetables into meals all the time. I guess it’s not really sneaking since we’re not trying to hide anything from them. There’s ways to add healthful components to meals to increase their nutrition without them being super noticeable to picky eaters. For instance, when I’m making spaghetti, I’ll use spaghetti squash as the “noodles” and add beef broth to the sauce to add flavor and support our kids’ gut health.
I add raw spinach to their smoothies so they get a good dose of healthy greens. When they were little and still eating purees it was hard to get them to each spinach all on its own so I’d steam it with a little bit of apple and they’d gobble it down.
I once read a magazine that said sneaking in healthy food “breaks trust” with kids. First of all, I think there’s a lot of overthinking when it comes to good parenting. If you’re really worried about breaking trust with your kids then you can show them when you’re putting spinach in their smoothies. That’s what we do. And then we use the opportunity to educate them on why it’s healthy to eat green vegetables.
We know raising healthy kids is not easy. It’s even more challenging than it ever has been, but it’s doable. Teaching your children how to establish healthy eating habits is one of the best things you could ever do for them as a parent. Encourage them, reward them for good behavior and most of all, be the example.
A few years ago I went to a baby shower for a friend and got into an interesting conversation with one of the other women there. She was a mom of two kids, ages 6 and 8 and she was sharing with me how frustrated she’s been about losing weight. In the midst of the conversation she started talking about how she feeds her kids differently than what she eats. She said, “If I could just eat what I feed them then I know I’d be able to lose the excess weight in no time.” I looked at her and I said, “Well, you can. What’s stopping you?” “True,” she replied. And that pretty much ended that conversation.
The point is that our kids will do what we do, so in the case with everything – even with food – we have to lead by example by eating the healthy foods that we’re encouraging them to eat. When kids are really young and they don’t have a choice except to eat what you put in front of them it’s not as easy to see the effects. But when they’re older and able to make their own decisions this really becomes evident.
So, do you have any tips for picky eaters? What strategies have you used on how to get kids to eat healthy? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Sound off in the comments below.