We all want our kids to love fruit, veggies, and other healthy foods. Each child is predisposed to liking different foods, and most kids go through picky phases where they assert their independence through rejecting the food you give them. So what can you do to help encourage healthy eating habits in the long run?
A study done with schoolchildren in Australia indicated that no amount of “education” or telling kids that something is good for them really has any impact on what foods they eat. What did have an impact, however, was when they allowed children to try a variety of foods and talk about how they tasted, what they liked, and what they didn’t like.
Presentation matters, too. A Cornell study found that while adults preferred three groups of food and three colors on their plates, children preferred six colors and seven groups.
Another important factor is what the parents eat. Every mom can tell you that almost without fail, every child’s favorite food is whatever you are eating right now. If you’re not eating fruits and veggies, they won’t either.
Here are a few things you can do to help encourage healthy eating:
- Take your toddler grocery shopping with you. Talk to them about the different food and let them pick out something that is “their” special snack. Try a new fruit or veggie each time you go and let them try it as soon as you get home.
- Let your toddler help you cook. I know, toddlers, cooking? Disaster! There are ways to do this that won’t make you want to pull out your hair. You can premeasure or precut the portion that your toddler is helping with, and let them dump or throw the item in the pot or dish. Allow them to sample safe ingredients, like veggies, if possible. At dinnertime, gush over how your child “made dinner.” They will be so proud, and also more likely to eat what they helped make.
- Bring home new things to try. Bring home a new fruit or veggie from the grocery store each week for your child to try. If your toddler is older, talk to them about how the new food tastes, feels, and what they like or don’t like about it. Talk about the different things you can make with it. One time my oldest saw a whole coconut at the store and asked if we could buy it. Of course, I almost automatically said no. But we bought it, looked up how to get it open, tasted the coconut milk, and found a recipe to use it in. It was a fun learning experience for us both. Put the emphasis on trying new foods and not just liking or eating it all.
- Have healthy foods available for snacking. It really kills me when my 4-year-old grabs an apple out the bowl, takes five bites, and leaves it. But at least she’s eating apples. Keep healthy food visible when your kids ask for snacks. It will help curb snacking and also help them learn about seasonal foods as the snacks change from season to season.
One thing I discovered worked in our house was when I put a new veggie only on the adult plates and not on my daughter’s when we ate dinner together. I initially did this because of the pediatrician’s recommendation that we introduce new foods slowly to watch for reactions. My daughter immediately noticed the new food and wanted a bite. I marveled at this happy accident that had led my tiny child to beg for bites of broccoli, spinach, zucchini, squash, green beans, and every other veggie I could make. She wanted anything that I had on my plate that she didn’t. It worked with all three kids, although my middle child has become pickier now, and I can’t really explain why.
No one strategy—eating healthy while pregnant, making your own baby food—will guarantee any kid is a healthy eater. But all these little things together can help encourage a lifetime of healthy eating by getting your child off to a strong start.
Erin Burt is a freelance writer and mother of three girls. She lives and writes in Oregon.