Too often, parents find that convincing kids to eat their fruits and veggies involves bribery and begging. Even worse can be the fight in the middle of the grocery store with everyone watching. For the last decade, I’ve been on a mission to help parents with their picky eaters, and my hope is to put the fun back into (healthy) eating and mealtimes. I’ve distilled my advice down to five simple tips.
Tip #1: Don’t make any foods forbidden. Instead, teach kids that food is fuel and that there are “go foods” (healthy foods, including fruits and veggies) that provide the best fuel for their bodies. Then explain that there are also “slow down” foods (such as candy, sugary drinks, and junk foods) that might give a short jolt of energy but ultimately leave them feeling sleepy and hungry. Allow kids to make choices about how they want to fuel their own bodies. When you ask kids how a car will run if you put junkie fuel in the gas tank, they’ll likely say, “It won’t go” or “It will break down.” Help them understand that improper fuel for their body will do the same to them over the long run. Kids want to have energy to play and do well in sports and in school. Let them know that the best fuel for success includes protein, whole grains, calcium-rich foods and, of course, fruits and veggies. Educate, inspire, and give choices.
Tip #2: Display healthy foods where you can see them most easily. Set up your home (especially your pantry and fridge) using the exact same strategies that grocery stores use to get you to buy the higher margin items, such as processed foods. Higher margin foods are usually right at eye level where you are most likely to notice them. Go to your own pantry and fridge and see what is at the eye-level of your kids. Do you see graham crackers, goldfish, and higher sugar foods? Move them. Again, don’t banish them, just make them harder to see. Replace them with clear containers full of sliced carrots, peppers, and other delicious veggies in season. Add cheese sticks, nuts, and seeds within easy reach. Then don’t hover while the little ones reach for a healthy and satisfying snack.
Tip #3: Plan meals and shopping in a neutral, private place. The grocery store, with its tactics to entice with cartoon characters, colorful packaging, and strategic placement, is not the place to negotiate what’s for dinner tonight. Avoid power struggles around food by involving children and giving them choices by shopping and planning meals in a neutral and relaxing place like the kitchen table (when no one is overly hungry and, therefore, crabby). Ask your kids, “What do YOU think we should we include on our shopping list this week?” Use pictures of healthy foods (like food cards) and have kids sort out the things they’d like to buy. Maybe the fourth or fifth time looking at pistachios on a food card will be the time when your child decides to give them a try. Remain neutral yourself, and ask your child to follow a simple rule about sorting through foods: “Please do not call anything ‘yucky’, that is hurtful and not allowed.” Using neutral or interesting descriptions such as “that kale looks bumpy” or “that watermelon looks juicy” is perfectly fine and should be encouraged.
Tip #4: Turn your “problem” child into the “solution.” Like everyone else, kids love to feel valuable and needed. Make the problem your problem and ask your child to help you! “Mom really wants to eat more dark orange veggies because she heard that they are really good for her eyes and hair. Can you help Mom find some dark orange veggies that will be good for her?” Or, “Dad learned that Olympic athletes eat lots of blue and purple fruits and veggies for energy, and he wants to be able to finish that race he signed up for. What would you suggest?” When given a problem and some empowerment, you won’t believe how your child will run to find some butternut squash, blueberries, and eggplant and maybe just try them along with you!
Tip #5: Engage all of your child’s senses to expose him or her to healthy foods at the youngest of ages. It takes between 7 and 16 exposures for a child to become comfortable with a new food. In my new book, Give It a Go, Eat a Rainbow, I use photographs of real veggies mixed with whimsical illustrations (a format called “augmented reality”—think Pokemon Go for a healthy eating book) to create a story that kids are immediately drawn to. The illustrations are by my 13-year-old son—a huge advantage, given its peer-to-peer messaging—and they tell the story of Blake who “feels sleepy” (lacks energy) before finding strength and vibrancy through a magical journey of fruits and veggies. Fun and entertaining exposure to produce at a young age can also include art projects (such as sponge painting using veggies like broccoli florets), music (ever play the drums with carrots?), and games (such as going for scavenger hunts in grocery stores, using bingo to try new foods, and others).
The point is to have FUN with food; and before you know it, your picky eater is now an adventurous (and healthy) eater.